The ‘Fellini of fashion’ Alexandre de Betak on the future of the runway

Paris CNN  — 

Alexandre de Betak is not scared of the future. On the contrary, the events producer – credited with revolutionizing the modern fashion show – is in constant pursuit of newness, always ready to shed traditions he himself first created in order to stay ahead.

From the helm of his international production company Bureau Betak, which he founded 25 years ago in Paris, de Betak has orchestrated over 1,000 fashion shows, the minute details of each he remembers with remarkable precision. Not only does de Betak dream up beguiling parallel universes, he also has a knack for talking some of the world’s most emblematic landmarks into hosting his productions.

He persuaded the Musée Rodin to let him create Narnia-inspired crystal ice caves, he built a giant mirrored box around Moscow’s Red Square for a Christian Dior show, and he recently took designer Raf Simons’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection to the streets of Chinatown, in New York.

This past week he talked the Musée Picasso into hosting its first-ever fashion show – a takeover by Paris’ young design darling Jacquemus, who was not only granted access to the legendary Marais museum but also allowed to open Paris Fashion Week a day earlier than usual.

Alexandre de Betak

His new book “Betak: Fashion Show Revolution” is a splendidly photographed retrospective, with unpublished behind-the-scenes images of shows from Christian Dior and John Galliano to Victoria’s Secret. Between images, de Betak and his designer collaborators discuss memories of each production, what inspired them, and how the spectacles came to be from both creative and technical points of view.

“Before I met Alex twenty years ago,” said Vogue critic and Creative Digital Director Sally Singer in an interview during this Paris Fashion Week, “no one had ever written about him, nor had there been any press around what was happening behind the scenes in fashion to make it relevant. But I just knew all the most efficient and most interesting fashion shows were being produced by this person buzzing around with a headset on. His shows were astonishing in their brevity. How quickly he could tell a story, which is the soul of digital, of what I do.”

But while de Betak flips fondly through the photos of his past triumphs, his focus is on the future. To those who ask if he’s worried that the end of the cinematic, big-budget fashion show is nigh, his answer is straightforward: “If the fashion show is going to change, I’m happy to be the orchestrator of that change; to be the main actor in it. There’s not one ounce of nostalgia in me. I’m only interested in the future and I want to help it come faster.”

Christian Dior Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2017

In fact, de Betak is quick to point out that the very concept of today’s fashion show operates within an outdated economic model – ill-fitted to the modern democratized consumption of fashion through social media. “Most of the people in the room at an important show are sent by traditional media outlets, and they’ve traveled from all over the world to be there at the expense of their publications – a big expense – in order to thank their advertisers.” A chicken-and-egg scenario, he suggested. “These brands are advertising in printed media publications that slowly fewer and fewer people are reading. But they still feel they have to put on a big production to thank them. So both parties think they’re there to do the other one a favor.”

If de Betak is capable of creating fashion revolutions, it’s thanks – in part – to his ability to recognize the trends bubbling below the surface. Case in point: the accommodation of Instagram personalities at his shows. “Today Instagram is the new channel, the new role. It’s the biggest media outlet in the fashion world,” he says. “So, when 15-second Instagram videos first launched, we adapted to them, and tried to create filmable moments that lasted 15 seconds at a time.” Not only that but upon noticing front-row attendees scrambling to fish their phones out of their handbags in time to film the big finale, he adapted further. “I began to factor in the time it would take you to get ready to film, were you to consider a moment ‘instagrammable,’” he recalled.

While constantly updating his approach to production, de Betak has also forged close, longstanding relationships with his designer collaborators. Among them are sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy, the designers behind acclaimed art-focused American label Rodarte, whose shows de Betak has produced for eight years. Laura Mulleavy cited de Betak’s creative guidance as a formative factor in creating Rodarte’s status today. “Alex will always push everyone to go one step further,” sais Mulleavy. “You can see shifts happening in the industry as a development of ideas, but the process only takes place when a leader in the sector like [de Betak] takes charge and says here’s what we have to do to make it relevant for now.”

Rodarte Autumn-Winter 2015

To Mulleavy, de Betak’s new book is a memento of this energy. “He’s a revolutionary because he makes ideas happen in terms of both necessity and creativity. It’s the combination of the two.” When Rodarte found their usual New York show space was unavailable for their most recent show, de Betak proposed they move the production to Paris, an idea Mulleavy believed he’d been hatching for some time. The buzz alone surrounding Rodarte’s relocation to show in Paris during Haute Couture week this summer might have been reward enough. But the show location found by de Betak, in a 16th-century cloister of a hospital garden, created what Mulleavy remembered as “a magical experience.”

“I think Paris is especially romantic about clothing,” she said. “It was a big shift instigated by someone believing our clothes could flourish in this environment.” In her review of Rodarte’s show, Sally Singer called the decision “a high-risk move.” A move she deemed to have paid off. “The French debut was assured,” wrote Singer, “breathtaking.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated to remove mention of Bureau Betak’s involvement in the Victoria’s Secret show at the Grand Palais in Paris. The 2016 production was orchestrated by OBO, an international creative and production management group, now in their 12th year of collaboration with Victoria’s Secret.

“Betak: Fashion Show Revolution,” with an introduction written by Vogue critic and Creative Digital Director Sally Singer, will be released Oct. 4, 2017 by Phaidon.