Show stopping: a new book traces Bureau Betak’s runway extravaganzas

An image of shoes tied to balloons and which are floating in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
Berluti A/W 2015, by Alessandro Sartori, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.
(Image credit: Daniel Beres)

Since the early 1990s, Alexandre de Betak has created some the most memorable fashion show sets in history. This month, Phaidon publishes Betak: Fashion Show Revolution, a visual compendium chronicling his creative output for brands such as Dior, Viktor & Rolf, Hussein Chalayan and Rodarte, among many others.

Divided into four ‘acts’, the book analyses the essential components of his work: in situ, the set, light, and performance. These chapters explore different elements of Bureau Betak’s work, from its impressive locations (like the Dior A/W 2017 show at Moscow’s Red Square, housed in a mirror-clad box) to its wide-ranging approach to set design. ‘The goal when we build a set is always to create something new,’ he says. ‘We create sets that are emotional, intellectual, or maybe even something not of this world. They are interpretive.’

The book charts over two decades of Bureau Betak’s set design (each show handily listed over four pages at the back), which has attracted a cult status that reaches well beyond fashion. ‘As a kid, I started by taking pictures, and designing installations of scenes. I got to fashion shows by chance,’ de Betak explains. ‘I started proposing myself to create sets for fashion designers with an outsider’s point of view – outsider to the brand, to the company. I think it’s important to come in with a great knowledge of what they do, but it’s also interesting to have a critical, objective, outsider point of view.’

Image showing an open double page of Betak's book featuring Mary Katrantzou A/W 2015, London

Mary Katrantzou A/W 2015, London

(Image credit: press)

The revolution referenced in the book title is many-sided: de Betak has indeed turned the field on its head, but over time, the field itself has evolved. Betak explains that the the sphere of fashion shows has changed from an event for a select guests, to one that is now a public, social media spectacle.

This has ultimately affected his approach to show production. ‘It’s a drastically different story now, the audience ranges from someone very cultured and knowledgeable giving their full attention to the show, to a much wider, global audience who will see it from different points of view,’ he says. ‘We now have to make everything more condensed and more compact in its action as well as in its design, to make sure it’s relevant but still impressive and memorable on a small screen.’ De Betak adds, ‘But we still have to create shows that will last beyond the few seconds of an Instagram story.’

The book itself is an engaging – and more permanent – survey of the memorable qualities of each show; flipping through its pages, the reader finds impressive sets that have remained relevant long after the collections have left the shop floors. Take Dior’s flower-clad tents – during Raf Simons’ tenure at its creative helm – their fragrant blooms acting as spectacular symbols of the floral-focused lineage of the house, and M Dior’s passion for floriculture. Or the ethereal Berluti A/W 2015 show set, where shoes floated through the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, lifted by oversized white balloons.

Image showing a double page of Betak's book featuring Christian Dior, S/S 2016, Paris

Christian Dior, S/S 2016, Paris

(Image credit: press)

The next revolution, de Betak explains, will be to acknowledge that social media and technology have completely changed the fashion show as a medium. ‘We have to address that and take it to the next stage, which I think will lead to a wider variety of genres, of when, where, how and who you show to,’ he says. ‘I think there will be a larger freedom of format once we acknowledge that a lot of the events that we design become mostly digital content. But I also still think there will still be live events and shows – they are an important tool for luxury brands to remain just that.’

In the meantime, this new collection of de Betak’s work highlights that the designs he has produced over the years (and the stories behind them) can work on yet another medium: print. Designed by Patrick Li, the book features both front of house and backstage photography, dotted with essays by de Betak, an introduction by Sally Singer, and a conversation with long-term clients Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte. Li added small ‘windows’ on some of the pages, which can be lifted to offer a further look into de Betak’s design.

‘People credit me often for having turned fashion shows into spectacular affairs,’ de Betak says. ‘I don’t know if I turned them singlehandedly, but I definitely addressed them as a design element in addition to the clothes on the catwalk.’

Image of a white set fashion set in a cave-like design

Christian Dior haute couture S/S 2014, by Raf Simons, Musée Rodin, Paris.

(Image credit: Daniel Beres)

Image of a models on a catwalk under a dark/blue shadowy light

Anthony Vaccarello A/W 2012, Cité de la Mode et du Design, Paris.

(Image credit: Daniel Beres)

Images of models walking on to the white circular stadium like set in a line in big white dresses

Christian Dior haute couture A/W 2014 by Raf Simons, Musée Rodin, Paris.

(Image credit: Daniel Beres)

Image showing the front cover of Betak's book

Betak: Fashion Show Revolution charts over two decades of Alexandre de Betak’s set design

(Image credit: press)

For Christian Dior’s S/S 2016 show, Raf Simons and Bureau Betak joined forces to create one of the most ambitious sets of the season. Inside a blue Delphinium-covered hill erected in the centre of the Cour Carrée, a pristine white space was lit by a set of four robotic arms equipped with multiple spotlights


Betak: Fashion Show Revolution, £69.95, published by Phaidon

Rosa Bertoli was born in Udine, Italy, and now lives in London. Since 2014, she has been the Design Editor of Wallpaper*, where she oversees design content for the print and online editions, as well as special editorial projects. Through her role at Wallpaper*, she has written extensively about all areas of design. Rosa has been speaker and moderator for various design talks and conferences including London Craft Week, Maison & Objet, The Italian Cultural Institute (London), Clippings, Zaha Hadid Design, Kartell and Frieze Art Fair. Rosa has been on judging panels for the Chart Architecture Award, the Dutch Design Awards and the DesignGuild Marks. She has written for numerous English and Italian language publications, and worked as a content and communication consultant for fashion and design brands.