INTERVIEW: Fashion's Set Designer Alexandre De Betak on How His Daydreams Become Reality
Notice the Neroli, plum-blossom redolence of our cultural oxygen, the soft launches and after parties, the showcases and galas — to mistake this air of seduction for mere “event design” would be to snuff the creative breath Alexandre de Betak pursues as an art de vivre. Since opening Bureau Betak in Paris in 1990, the 48-year-old has developed a chameleon, multi-dimensional practice that embraces, yet never exactly equates to, architecture, choreography, branding, logistics, production, and product and lighting design. De Betak is perhaps best known for staging staggering runway presentations for unmistakable brands. There was, for example, the spectral rip-curl of iridescent fake snow through which John Galliano sent the models of his eponymous fall/winter 2009 collection, or Dior’s spring/summer 2016 ready-to-wear défilé, which unrolled below a three-story mountain of live moss and blue delphiniums rising from the venerable paving of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre. With offices in New York, Paris, and Shanghai, de Betak reaches magically and whimsically across the monster markets of luxury lifestyle, which, he observes, are increasingly capturing the world through a window no larger than the palm of our hand. De Betak’s first window to the world was his camera, which he used to snap portraits of Paris nightlife. Bored with the lack of opportunity in the French capital, he hedged the recession of the early 1990s by immersing himself in New York’s downtown scene. While connecting with a cohort of new, local designers like John Bartlett, Marc Jacobs, and Andre Walker, de Betak recognized an opportunity to show fashion differently. “The big established names were still twirling down the runways like they do on Dynasty,” he recalls. More than two decades later, the variety of his clientele continues to prove the fluency of his wild imagination, from conceptually rigorous stagings for fashion mavericks like Hussein Chalayan and Viktor and Rolf to the lip-smacking sass of Victoria’s Secret’s annual Christmas Spectacular. As PIN–UP found out, de Betak’s personal recipe for designing global seduction includes a dash of impatience, “vivid dreaming,” and an eclectic love of accumulation.
Pierre Alexandre de Looz: Today’s an anniversary of sorts for you: on this day in 1989, Paris witnessed a spectacular fanfare for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, designed by Jean-Paul Goude. You’ve said it prompted you to rethink what you wanted to do in life. How did it make you see the future?
Alexandre de Betak: Incredible! Twenty-seven years later I still believe, in terms of event design, that no one has paralleled what Jean-Paul Goude, together with President Mitterrand and culture minister Jack Lang, achieved that day. For me, it demonstrated a creative form I hadn’t suspected could be so complete. When I was seven years old, my grandfather gave me a Kodak Instamatic 126 millimeter camera — a square format, decades before Instagram. I began framing my vision through pictures and realized that the bicentennial celebrations, in their ability to express a message, went well beyond three dimensions. Unlike with pictures, you can address great audiences live, on their terms, like in theater but more so. You can play with multiple layers: your knowledge of the audience, your knowledge of the audience’s knowledge, with music, lights, styling, choreography, special effects, and even temperature. Unconsciously, perhaps, Jean-Paul’s parade influenced my path.
Today live events are also broadcast, that it is multiplied across all our screens, including phone screens.
AdB: I saw the bicentennial event on television. When I told Jean-Paul, he said, “Blasphemy!” It was so poorly broadcast, he thought. (Laughs.) The truth is, a totally moving, great live event does not play well on TV. But I loved it because that’s what I could get. Today, technology and social media translate live events into many more interesting on-screen experiences. There was TV and then there was live broadcast, then there were live multicasts, then there were Instagram and Snapchat, which means you don’t see what is controlled by just one camera, but you see what everyone else sees. We’re starting to use 3D, live-filming multi-cams with zooming capabilities and so on. And augmented reality. Eventually, you’ll experience what’s happening in the room better than those who are actually in the room.
Do you find that this massive multiplication of channels is a problem or a potential for your work?
AdB: It’s a revolution! What I do now is to address, as a final medium, the phone. I still do live events for a live audience — I still try to transmit an emotion, to help an audience understand and remember the messages I have to transmit for a brand. But I do it more for the audience’s transmitting it instantly across the world via social media. Ironically, technology in recent years has led to our experiencing things in the worst conditions, on stupid little screens. So we’ve adapted by making framed images that are impressive in a 3-inch space that allows for close-ups, and that the entire audience can shoot successfully from their vantage point.
Paradoxically, screen size is getting smaller, but the size of events — and now I’m speaking of your work in fashion — are ballooning. The shows you conceived with Raf Simons while he was at Dior had guest-lists running into the thousands. Why has the scale of the fashion show reached this point?
AdB: Fashion shows and fashion weeks are just reflections of our times, of a commercial luxury world that, thanks to globalization, now addresses many more people than in the past. Twenty years ago, the biggest brands made a few million and now they make many billion. As a result, live and media attendance at events also increases. So everything increases and the shows themselves add more pressures on brands and designers. So we’re in a race to deliver better and bigger because there’s more competition. The market is larger and the business is now gigantic. And everyone needs more airspace, more media-space, and now social-media space. But you don’t buy social media space like you did media space, and you seduce it differently.
How did you catch fashion fever?
AdB: When I started working, fashion shows were strictly for professionals. I instantly tried to make it more global, not just through newspapers and magazines, but also through TV, which had just discovered fashion. Before, in my teen years, I was taking pictures. I was shooting, with a Rolleiflex, for small independent magazines, and I was working with the romantic Spanish designer Sybilla, who, like Pedro Almodóvar, was part of la movida madrileña. I worked on her first shows and her debut party in Paris. I came in fresh and I was never into what other people were into. My interest, love, and passion for fashion lie in recognizing it as a means of creation and expression for our times. What I do could have been, and could still be design, architecture, or performance. In France and Europe, you need to be put in a drawer to be taken seriously. Doesn’t matter what drawer it is, but they need one. Fashion shows used to be directed and produced in-house. My job didn’t exist.
Transplanted to early 1990s New York, you quickly established a unique place among a cohort of emerging designers. Can you name any particularly memorable experiences?
AdB: I worked with John Bartlett, who was brilliant and way ahead of his times. I did his first show and was there until the last. John gave me huge freedom. It’s with him that I discovered the complementarities of relationships. John was very daring, open-minded, and cultured. He studied at Harvard. We played and learned together, and since we had limited means we worked resourcefully. Male models were going waif. The women were too, of course. It was the mid-90s: clean, correct minimalism like Calvin Klein and architect John Pawson, or Tom Ford’s glamour at Gucci. John and I went in the opposite direction. We cast the majority of models from the streets, from nightclubs, and from gay bars. They were beefy, older, butch guys — we even added facial hair! We did topless men and covered rooms in fake fur. We played with 70s homo-erotica. It was too far and too early.
What was it like working with Hussein Chalayan?
AdB: Hussein is very conceptual. Our discussions were immediately very abstract. I invented a new language for him, a genre you might say. He would say, “I do the clothes, you do the show. I trust you, you trust me.” There was little time and money. I would often do a different choreography for every model and would brief them one by one because it was rare to get them all together. I based the choreographies on outlines of the dress patterns. I’d say, “You’re going to do this and that because the detail on the collar you’re wearing reminds me of a square.” The shows looked highly choreographed and conceptual. They worked with the precision of a clock, yet they were never fully rehearsed. No one ever knew what it would look like all together. It created a lot of adrenaline.
What did you learn from working with opinionated people, with very strong conceptual approaches?
AdB: They’re creative geniuses. But the truth is, I learn from everything. In addition to showing the collection, entertaining guests, and generating social-media content, each event has to explain the DNA of a brand, to continue making a luxury brand just slightly accessible, so that it remains a dream. There are so many strategic layers in what we do.
Are there any changes you see happening in the fashion world that you find worrying?
AdB: I’m more worried about the world itself than by the fashion industry. Nevertheless, fashion today has a very loud voice, which gives it a social responsibility. The leveling of the fashion world worries me. I’m for creation. I’m for creating and for building. I’m for the evolution and open-mindedness creativity offers. I think, historically, forwardness, evolution, and the arts have together have helped mentalities to evolve. But the easy, worldwide populism and obsession with instant celebrity and success is the opposite of that.
Populism seems to be on everyone’s mind. Is it shorthand for a lack of information?
AdB: Lack of information, lack of culture, lack of forward thinking. If you’re one of the most famous people on the planet then that comes with a responsibility, and you should use your power and success to help others open their minds. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s simply thinking, and thinking forwards. The fashion world does often use its voice, but it could do it even more. And it really should participate in forwardness. I don’t buy the argument that fashion is commercial so therefore it can’t speak. The contemporary art world is probably more commercial than the fashion world today. Once you accept the system, you have to keep creating for the sake of questioning.
Of all the tools you use as a designer, time is a medium that’s very hard for an architect. Having a model pass two seconds faster can make a huge difference to a runway show. What do you like about playing with time?
AdB: It’s the exact thing that makes the biggest difference: that it doesn’t last. That’s the price to pay. By definition, it does not last.
Does working with the ephemeral worry you?
AdB: It often frustrates me, but no, it doesn’t worry me. I dream of creating long-lasting things. Like the house, I designed for myself and my family in Mallorca, for example.
Is it an old house or did you build anew?
AdB: I was originally looking for an old finca, but there’s no such thing anymore. The house is in a village that I’d been going to for more than 15 years, so I knew the area really well and all the most beautiful old houses, of which there are few left. I found a beautiful piece of land with an ugly house from the 70s on it, facing the water. It’s not legal to build in the village, so instead, I started “remodeling” — to such an extent that I moved the house and started over from scratch! In a sense, I designed the house backwards, just like everything else I do. Before I did any work on it, I spent a year buying salvaged building materials from all over the island — doors, windows, beams, and tiles.
Were you looking at the work of any architects in particular when you designed the home?
AdB: Naturally I was looking at earlier Balearic architecture as well at 1970s organic architecture. But I was also thinking of cotton candy, and Star Wars, and children’s moon-dreams. It was all mashed together. (Laughs.)
Do you have vivid dreams?
AdB: It’s rare that I remember my dreams, so I pay more attention to my daydreams.
And do they serve your work?
AdB: I do a lot of research, though it can be unconscious. I might research a material for a place I’m renovating and from there I lose myself in a dozen open windows, following an unplanned path towards things I’m both consciously and unconsciously in search of. Conceiving an idea in response to a brief might have taken several steps and several months the way we once worked. Now I sometimes react to a brief live, and by the end of an hour — of talking, looking, showing — suggest an idea. So in a funny way, you might call it vivid dreaming.
Do you collect anything?
AdB: Not really. Well, if you asked my wife, she’d say, “You’re crazy, you collect everything!” (Laughs.) But I don’t like the word “collect.” I love learning more about what I like, and accumulating more of what I like, and digging deeper into what I like. But in no order, with no hierarchy. If I love something, I’ll love it, and that’s it. In a sense, I have many collections because I’ve never stopped loving what I love. I started collecting robots when I was maybe five, and I never stopped. I started collecting cameras when I was seven and I never stopped. I love Vespas, and I had my first when I was 15, and now I have one in New York, one in Mallorca, one in Paris, and I used to have one in Tokyo. So I add on to the same love. I love kinetic art. I have quite a lot of it. I like late-60s Italian minimalist art. Weirdly, I don’t like contemporary design. People think I do, but I don’t like designed places, designed restaurants, for example, which can feel contrived and fake. What I consider well-designed spaces are usually the least designed or the oldest. And I love history, so in a way, I love a traditionally designed room of the 18th century. And in the 20th century, there’s no era I dislike, but there are only a few things I like in each. I buy a few valuable things and I also buy pieces in little auctions in Sweden or Ireland or the Czech Republic, because they inspire me.
Do you feel like a lot of times you’re giving your clients an aesthetic education?
AdB: I don’t know. I usually deal with big corporations that are very successful. They’ve studied and realized the reasons for their success. They’ve used marketing for decades to grow their successes. But the element of magic that may have made them into a luxury brand doesn’t come from studying sales and marketing. It comes from the creative freedom that I think I can bring. I often feel like a freedom broker. I’m the guy who hopefully will always be free. I have my own company and that, of course, depends upon its clients. I respect them all very highly and I make sure I keep them. There’s none of them I could live without. That’s the rule of having a company, I guess. But I also strongly believe that my respect for them is about really impressing on them what I believe. I think they work with me for that and for nothing else. If they wanted to hear “Yes, yes, yes,” they’d go somewhere else.
Does the fight make the product better?
AdB: Yes, of course, it does. One of the rare benefits of age is experience. It gives you more examples, arguments, and facts to counter someone’s opinion when you’re sure you’re right. And usually, it’s because one wants to go forward more than one’s opponent. That’s what life is, right? I argued with the head of an American brand who contended that using a popular, low-class reference for a luxury brand is the wrong route — as a rule. I don’t care about rules and I actually completely disagree. I think in order to transform people’s vision, you need to start with something they know and then you twist it and twist them. Mass, popular references that are the easiest to understand — even if you despise them — are best to start from, and from there you bring it up. I’m not inventing anything. I’m going to make it with your means, your culture, and mine, and turn it into the most artistically respectable, crazy, Instagrammable piece of work, and people will understand it … And fall in love.
Is there a medium out there that you still want to try?
AdB: I’m looking at cars. Not that I would love to design a car, but something very precise, complex, and technological is the sort of thing I love. I’m looking to expand into areas of work between the mono-speed of fashion and long-term projects where I can spend a year developing a technology, for example. I like the mix of speeds. I started doing fashion because I loved the fast pace of it, but now I would love to be able to do it all.
And how about another building?
AdB: I think I would get quite impatient if I worked on a building. Although we’re in New York, where buildings sometimes go up faster than you can do a fashion show. (Laughs.)
Text by Pierre Alexandre de Looz.
Portraits by Jeremy Liebman.
Taken from PIN–UP 21 FALL WINTER 2016/17.