‘There’s a European snobbery towards Americans in terms of culture and creation’

Paris – With offices in New York City, Paris and Shanghai, Alexandre de Betak puts a spectacular spin on temporary happenings, from fashion shows to events and exhibitions. His impressive client list includes Dior, Calvin Klein, Fendi, Alexander Wang and Raf Simons.

Here, the Frame Awards 2018 jury member discusses what he’s learned since his first fashion show in 1987.

I was 18 when I met Spanish fashion designer Sybilla and offered to help her. I did all her shows in Madrid, Milan, Tokyo and Kobe before she left the fashion world. After that I moved to New York, a city that was more multidisciplinary-minded than Paris. The mix of different things I was doing didn’t have a name back then. I offered services around concept, creative direction and production, casting, and lighting. I came as a full package and did everything myself. I was 20. It worked. I was lucky.’

There’s a European snobbery towards Americans in terms of culture and creation. I thought the innovation in New York was great, but weirdly enough the results – especially in fashion – were not. But there’s more freedom in America, which is linked to it being less ancestral, and that gave me the liberty to propose whatever I wanted. I had a deeply personal approach and a completely different vision.’

I do most of my research on Google, although we have libraries in both Paris and New York

I have no specific source of inspiration – unless you count everything. I’ve always travelled a lot and been curious. If I’m doing something performance-related, I don’t look at other performances. Instead, I research artistic or architectural trends that interest me. If I embark on a new story with a designer or brand, I might think of doing something associated with kinetics and research that topic. Sometimes I start from nowhere, but I do know there’s a mood I want to convey. There’s no recipe for creative processes. I do most of my research on Google, although we have libraries in both Paris and New York. There’s a great bookseller three doors down from me in Paris and a few other places nearby where I can research and relax.’

Of everyone I’ve collaborated with, Raf Simons is the most involved in his fashion shows. He understands all the stages that go into the final production. Like me, he has a completely free, open-minded approach. He can start out in one direction and shift 180° to another. Raf recently moved to New York. For his S/S 2018 menswear show, he wanted to re-create the energy that New York probably had before we were there. We felt this energy was best represented in the original Blade Runner film [1982], whose mix of futuristic yet raw aesthetics and extreme energy is a recurring inspiration for both of us, and for many people of our generation. The show was held late at night in an outdoor food market in Chinatown – no seats, only standing room. It was an incredibly short, messy setup. Minutes beforehand I was filling buckets with water and throwing it between people’s feet to make sure the lights would reflect on the ground.’

At some point a mix of virtual and augmented reality will offer us 360° live views – we’ll be able to choose what we look at

Social media and Instagram have revolutionized how shows are done today. Before our time, photographers knelt at the edges of runways, shooting the girls from below. When I started, we moved the photographers to the front and changed the lighting to come from the front rather than the top. At the Armory in New York, a venue that’s over 27 m high and nearly 55 m long, we used lighting in a way that allowed photographers to shoot from far away. The internet, and everyone in the audience who has a screen in the palm of their hand, has forced a new viewpoint: absolutely everywhere. We’ve changed our approach to design and lighting so you can achieve what we call the Instagram shot, and we make sure to provide designers and brands with the right conditions for that shot. We’ve adapted the timing and the choreography so that we can create emotion in live settings that might get relayed via hand-held devices with a few seconds of video.’

At some point a mix of virtual and augmented reality will offer us 360° live views. We’ll be able to choose what we look at. We’ve been trying out ideas using these technologies, which are costly and difficult at the beginning. In the future, you’ll feel as if you’re there, even if you’re not. But I believe there will always be emotions that you can only feel in real life. The goal is to move people at the show, to affect all their senses and to create an emotion – the one aspect that is grander in a live setting. The new challenge lies in doing something that can only be felt live while also creating something that can touch one or two senses remotely. Shows will then have the freedom to change format, size, place and time. Maybe they won’t have to be part of a traditional fashion-week schedule. You have to break the rules and change the tools.’


This is an edited version of our interview with Alexandre de Betak, featured in full in What I’ve Learned. The book, which also includes conversations with the likes of Tadao Ando, Patricia Urquiola and Hella Jongerius, is available for purchase here.

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