Alexandre de Betak is the show director and producer behind John Galliano's wintry, other-worldly snow tunnel (autumn/winter 09), the super-sexy Victoria's Secret Fashion Shows and Dior's magical tropical greenhouse (spring/summer 14).
As Fashion Week kicks off in New York, we catch up with one of the industry's most well-known behind-the-scenesters, Alexandre de Betak. He makes dreams come true! Alexandre decided at the age of 17 that he would spend his life creating other worlds to stimulate our minds and make all our childish fantasy's of faraway lands or celestial spaceships or steamy, dreamy tropical greenhouses a reality, and fashion was the best output for his plans. The French set designer is founder of creative studio, Bureau Betak, has designed, produced and choreographed shows for clients including Dior, Hussein Chalayan, Miu Miu, Rodarte and Viktor & Rolf and is the man behind the fall of the Victoria's Secret live stream in 2000 when the website crashed due to popular demand. When we talk to him he's hailing a taxi in London, on his way to be the first person to spend the night in Chiltern Street's converted Old Fire Station...
Where are you right now?
I’m just walking towards the taxi in London. I just got in and am here for a couple of days.
What are you up to in London?
I’m prepping for the shows, and I’m also doing a dinner for Peter Pilotto x Target and Net-a-Porter.
What was your first encounter with the fashion industry?
I wonder if it was from i-D… i-D and The Face were the two magazines that started attracting me to that industry when I was a kid. When I was really young I started taking pictures, when I was 15 or even before that I started working as a photographer. I would go out and take pictures at night and I started working for a magazine called Primera Linea in Madrid, which was an underground magazine in Spain, not dissimilar to what i-D was doing at the time. Then I met a young Spanish designer named Sybilla (this was still in the late Eighties, a long time ago) with whom I started working on many things that didn’t really have a name back then. I guess it was a mix of art direction, working on the shows and images. I was 17. I don’t know why I fell into it so young.
When you were calling round to try and get published, was it mainly fashion magazines you were contacting?
The magazines I was looking at were not Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, they were more The Face or i-D or Actuel or Prima Linea. I think fashion itself, to be very frank, is not what attracted me. It was photographic images and they quickly became 3D and 4D. They’re still images to me. I think what attracted me to fashion is that it was one of the visual and creative fields that offered me the most freedom creatively as well as had the most need for creative freedom. There are many fields where you can design images but fashion is the one that needs to feed itself the most.
Which do you think is the most spectacular show you’ve designed so far?
It’s very hard to say one, as I speak to you today I think I have reached over 650 shows, which is scary! It’s hard to name one, I’m very proud of all of them.
What about out of your most recent shows?
The last Christian Dior couture show I am very fond of, it was very personal. That one was very close to my taste and aesthetic. And to answer your question, the best show I have done – I haven’t done yet. The day I wake up thinking I’ve done the best show I’ll ever do, I’ll stop doing shows because there would be no point.
I absolutely loved the tropical greenhouse you made for Dior spring/summer 14.
That’s nice, thank you. Raf was very involved. Raf has his own way, he’s extremely precise in his wishes but also open to any propositions to reinterpret them. Having said that, once you start with Raf, he gets involved in every square inch of what you’re doing. The inspiration behind it is hard to describe… We called it the atomic jungle between ourselves. The one we made last week for couture was like a cave, an off-white sculpture made out of one piece from floor to ceiling to walls, with very delicate curves. It was the first time we did something with the entire room. I loved it, I think it’s one of my favourite ever. It was more subtle than the previous one.
Do you think the same way when designing your home/office?
Yeah, I mean I think life is all one. I bring a lot of home to the shows and a lot of the shows back home. The offices are all in Paris, New York and Shanghai. The one in Paris is all metal and white, all the walls are covered in aluminum so it’s quite crazy and the furniture is very simple, art trestles and wood tables. The ones in China and New York are also all metal and white but in different variations. I’m quite crazy actually!
I was reading about when PETA jumped onto the runway in the Victoria’s Secret show in 2002 and at the John Galliano snow-tunnel show, the laser wasn’t working the night before. What else has gone wrong during shows?
Well I mean the more and more you do, you have to get very professional and I have an incredible team that works with me. Things don’t really go wrong technically speaking but what can go wrong is in the expectation you have and how it turns out in the end.
Do you ever get to experience the show from the audience?
I wish! I am backstage and I send the cues – the lights, the music, the models – I give them the last word before they go on the runway.
Is it stressful or is it like an adrenaline rush?
I’m very lucky that I don’t really have stress at the times most people would consider stressful. If I stress, I stress way before that - I stress when I have to come up with an idea for a brief and if I have to present an idea, so I don’t actually stress in the moment at all.
Yeah, I guess I’m lucky, that’s probably one of the reasons I do what I do! Stress can be a good engine in certain things but certainly not during live shows. I have stress months before but I feel lucky to have none when it comes to the moment.
Where is the most beautiful place you’ve been too?
There are places in New York and Paris and Shanghai and in addition to that the world of fashion and luxury specifically has evolved to much wider places now. We also do things in Russia, China, South America. Often ideas come when you don’t expect them, they can come from anyplace, anywhere. Everything I do 24/7 is in a way inspiring, even if it’s the most mundane thing. In addition to that of course, I look online, like everybody else now. When I’m jetlagged and in bed trying to fight the sleep I can lose myself in the internet like many people do and I find things there. Or when I’m home, which is not so often, I’m in my books, there’s always more and more books, one day I’m going to lose myself there’s so many, piles and piles and piles!
What was the last book you read?
I’m always reading 20 books at the same time. I’ve been looking at a lot of science and astronomy books lately.
How long does it normally take to prepare a big show like Dior?
It really depends on the designer. Shows can take anything from a month to a year. Houses like Dior do Resort and Couture and menswear, there’s always a rush and you start the minute you’ve finished the previous one. For out of the ordinary events or shows we often start a year before but for scheduled shows at fashion week we often start only a month before.
When it takes a year to produce it how do you feel when it’s all over in 15 minutes?
Or sometimes even 5 minutes! It’s very quick. The truth is, fashion is one of the fastest fields, you never really have the time to look back. The second the show ends you think of the next one or the 20 others you’re working on at the same time. There are things that I’ve worked on for more than a year but when they’re over you’ve still got everything else you’re working on so there’s no blues like if you were working on a movie for years and then it’s done.
With instant streaming and social media etc. do you think the runway will always have a place in the fashion world?
Yes and no. The catwalk shows have gone from a certain amount that wasn’t that huge to many, many more shows over many more days in many more cities. There are too many shows for people to watch, but some are more relevant than others. It’s still an amazingly efficient tool to promote a brand and hopefully the best will survive but there will be more shows online only. You could be in the studio with one or two models and can edit it down so it’s only a few minutes. I think it will evolve naturally and there will be more variety in the way designers show.
What are you up to for the rest of today?
As we speak I am standing in front of the old fire station on Chiltern Street where Andre Balazs is finishing his first hotel in London. I’m actually going to visit the construction site and tonight I’m going to sleep in this building, I’m very excited by that! I love Andre’s hotels and I said I’d be happy to test it! It’s opening in 3 weeks. It’s beautiful.