NEW YORK, United States — “Ukrainian virgin brides with snow boots.” John Galliano’s brief for the Fall 2009 show of his signature label was as obtuse as it was nonsensical. But in the hands of fashion show producer Alexandre de Betak, those six words became the premise for a now legendary show featuring a tunnel of light, multi-coloured laser beams and fake snow. Paired with the designer’s outré creations, what the audience witnessed was like something from another galaxy.
Other galaxies are, in fact, an old source of inspiration for de Betak. Earlier this week, he found himself in Moscow, where he built a gigantic mirrored box in the city’s historic Red Square. It was yet another mega-project for Christian Dior, a longtime client of de Betak, complete with a restaging of the brand’s Fall 2013 ready-to-wear show presented in Paris last March, a VIP dinner and a concert by Brian Ferry.
Yet, the highlight of de Betak’s trip was a visit to the Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, an otherworldly venue devoted to the heyday of the Soviet space exploration program. “My schedule was, as usual, insane, but amidst all that, I was able to escape to one of my favourite places in the world. I have been collecting robots since I was five years old and love anything space-related, so seeing those life-size Russian spacecraft up-close was like a dream come true.”
De Betak has been in the fashion business for 25 years and has produced more than 600 shows. Besides Dior, he produces runway shows, installations, events and exhibits for Hussein Chalayan, Rodarte, Jason Wu, Viktor & Rolf, Michael Kors, Berluti and H&M, among others, from his offices in Paris, New York and Shanghai. He produced Miu Miu’s first ever fashion show (in New York in 1994) and the live Victoria Secret webcast that famously crashed the company’s website in 2000.
Along the way, de Betak has helped transform expectations of what a major fashion show should be. Indeed, until the 1990s, when he and a few of his peers introduced the conceptual, multimedia shows that we are used to seeing today, the vast majority of shows were conceived and produced in-house and, for the most part, monotonous.
Early on, de Betak, who grew up in Paris, developed an interest in photography. “It all started for me when I was seven years old and my grandfather gave me an Instamatic camera, the little Kodak 127, and I started being very passionate about pictures.”
The young de Betak knew he wanted to create precisely framed, memorable images, but he was too impatient to become a photographer. “I was too impatient to take the normal route and wait until I got to shoot for Vogue.”
De Betak produced his first fashion show at the age of nineteen, in Madrid, for the designer Sybilla Sorondo. But it was watching the parade for the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, conceived by Jean-Paul Goude, that the then 20-year-old had an epiphany. “That day changed everything for me. I discovered the perfect medium to do what I had been wanting to do with the camera all along.
From that moment onward, de Betak knew that the images he was going to create were going to be multi-dimensional, moving and real-time, allowing him to combine all the artistic disciplines he loved in one perfectly controlled package.
In 1990, de Betak opened his agency, Bureau Betak, in Paris. But his career didn’t take off until he moved to New York in 1993. “People took what I do more seriously than in Europe. Paris is not a very open-minded workplace, it’s very hard to get anywhere and once you do, you’re very quickly categorised. But in New York, I immediately was offered an opportunity to do what I wanted to do and prove myself. The city was very welcoming and embracing of a wave of foreign, mostly European, talent. It was the beginning of Bryant Park and of fashion weeks as an important international thing. And it was the time of Tom Ford at Gucci and of Calvin Klein’s minimal aesthetic, which was slowly replacing the age of girls twirling in de la Renta dresses twenty-seven times.”
“I proposed the antithesis of what people were used to seeing. I went in and tried to make [shows] very fast, very compact, very energetic and very minimal in the sense of how many messages you put into one, whether I was doing something very narrative and fun for John Bartlett, for whom I once did a finale tableau made out of a human wall of 30-40 almost naked boys with oiled bodies; or a very androgynous, military-like Miu Miu show with make-up free Christy [Turlington] and Kate [Moss] walking very fast and very straight; or my first show for Michael Kors, where Stella [Tennant] came out of a razorblade-thin slit in an otherwise all-black room to very minimal, conceptual, hard music.”
De Betak credits New York with allowing him to create his own multi-faceted function within the ecosystem of fashion, “The key to what I do in life is that I have made my job become what I wanted it to be from the beginning, which didn’t really exist before. And I’m still adding layers and different ways of doing it everyday, which make it a fairly inventive occupation.“
But what exactly does de Betak do in this self-invented job?
“My role, ultimately, is to translate and enhance the best, the most personal aspects of a designer or brand, the core of their identity. And my role is also to oversee everything, to ensure that all individual elements of a fashion show tell the same story. The process is not just intuitive, that’s a myth. It involves a lot of research and reasoning and there’s a real method behind what motivates the choices to do whatever I do, whether it is a fashion show, an event, an exhibition or a film.”
Collaborating with designers is a crucial part of his profession and de Betak prides himself in having nurtured many long-standing, ongoing relationships over the span of his career. “I try to listen first and then with my team I try to really learn and isolate what we believe to be the specificities, the trademark elements that form the DNA of the designer or brand, as well as the seasonal influences. I have to sense the ‘spirit’ of a collection.”
Finding unique, original locations is another big part of de Betak’s job.” I am very grateful because my job gives me amazing access to amazing places in the world. I location-scout around the word all year long, always looking for amazing places in which to produce events and shows.”
The pressure to outdo himself, season after season, is both what drives de Betak and his biggest source of frustration: “My first thought after the show is over and I put down my Clearcom headset is always ‘Oh shit, what are we going to do next?’ Especially if it was a success, because my job is to do it again, and better, or if not better, at least different.”
Getting to that climactic moment at the end of a show, however, is as arduous as it is exhilarating for Betak and his team. According to de Betak, the process of producing a fashion show can roughly be broken down into five main stages.
Once they have been given a brief by a designer — which can come in many forms ranging from a one-word email to a three-hour meeting with moodboards — de Betak and his team come up with ideas regarding venues, format (e.g. central, u-shaped, pyramid, or arena runway; or no runway at all), moods, casting, special effects, music, and so on.
Then a back and forth takes place between Bureau Betak and the designer, usually encompassing multiple presentations, all of which can take from a week to a couple of months. During this time de Betak will fly repeatedly to New York or Shanghai to present his concepts through 3D-renderings, drawings and other media.
Once budgets, vendors and venues are finalised and contracts are signed, and while the often elaborate sets are being built, another important phase (3-7 days before the show) takes place at the designer’s studios. Betak refers to this as the “coordination” phase, when the collection is finally ready, the casting is finalised and the rotation can be determined, which means deciding what model wears what and in what order.
But it is the hours leading up to the show that de Betak enjoys the most, as this is when he gets to take charge, direct and see his vision materialise before his eyes. This is the technical cueing of the show, during which lights, music and special effects are all fine-tuned and synced down to the last millisecond.
“I am very anal when it comes to matching the music, light, pace, the models’ attitude and the overall timing of all that; the way you create tension if you want it or a sad, happy or sexy emotion with the use of all your elements and how you time them. I can spend hours and hours rehearsing a five second opening of a show. It often is the minimal, last-minute changes that make all the difference.”
“As much as we plan, draw and sometimes even animate beforehand, a show is a live experience and during the technical rehearsal you realise that it could be much better if we extend that introduction, if we change the lighting, or if we make the first model appear 10 seconds earlier or 20 seconds later, if we re-time it to [make it] a bit shorter, because any of these details can completely transform the energy and perception of the show and make it infinitely better.”
“A lot of what I do is based on details. You need a great idea — well, first of all you need a great understanding of the designer, a great relationship and creative collaboration with him or her — but you also need an immense attention to details.”
Next, the models are briefed and given a pep-talk. De Betak uses ‘fashion cues,’ the now universally employed boards he says he invented, which tell models whether to be ‘sexy,’ ‘girly,’ ‘tough’ or ‘serious’ when they walk down the runway. By now the front of the house is open and hopefully the guests are in their seats — they never really are, says de Betak, clearly frustrated that fashion shows always run late; his are always on time, the producer says. Once he’s lined up the models, de Betak puts on his Clearcom headset and the show can begin.
But even as the show is unfolding under his direction, de Betak is already preparing, brainstorming and presenting ideas for the next round of shows. Between current productions and generating and presenting concepts for the coming season, at any given time, de Betak can be simultaneously working on more than 20 fashion shows in several cities around the globe. For the coming collections, for instance (Spring 2014, to be presented over several weeks in September and October), de Betak is working on 10 shows in New York, 2 in London and 8 in Paris, in addition to exhibitions and events in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Lisbon.
In the two decades that he has been producing shows, de Betak has seen his audience evolve drastically. “[Fashion shows] used to be mainly for journalists and photographers from monthlies that would come out a month later. Suddenly TV became more important and we started to cater more to that medium, which meant we had to create moments that, when isolated, would be great TV material.”
Then came the Internet, which de Betak says has “completely” changed his work, “It has totally changed how we frame what we show, not just visually, but also in time. It’s about total immediacy now. We are in an age of more, faster, bigger.”
Pioneering what is now common practise, de Betak produced the first ever live webcast of a fashion show in May of 2000 for Victoria’s Secret. And many of his shows are now conceived with an online audience in mind, “Even the way I direct the models is affected by where some of the cameras for the webcast are placed.”
With the recent launch of Instagram video, de Betak expects things to change even more, “It will change everything again. Not only do we have to continue to cater to our traditional, physically present audience, but now you also have to cater to that immediate, Instagram format and to mobile phone screens. You can’t help but being influenced by it, whether you want to go with it or against it.”
As for where things are headed for fashion show and event production, Betak foresees a move away from the homogenisation that the global hegemony of luxury brands has brought about. “Now that the means of communication are worldwide and immediate, I think people are tired of seeing too much of the same. You don’t even know what city you’re in anymore [because they all look the same].”
“I think today, consumers want to be surprised, they want more individualism, more right angles, more weird decisions taken. Of course, brands still need to be recognisable for who they are, but I think more and more they also need to be surprising and reinvent themselves.“
“The same applies to my job, show-making, we have to help brands convey continuity by highlighting their history and their DNA and their values, but at the same time we have to keep the audience interested and surprised.”
So what advice does de Betak have for those hoping to follow in his footsteps?
“Enter the creativity by whatever door you want, but, especially at the beginning, be as free and extreme as you can be. Because once you get into the real professional world, you will have to make compromises, it’s totally normal, such is life. But when you’re starting out, just dream, and never stop dreaming.”
De Betak, himself, certainly hasn’t stopped dreaming. Asked what his dream project would be, he doesn’t hesitate for a second before responding, earnestly and perhaps unsurprisingly: “I would love to do a show in space and hopefully will do that.”