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.’
Mary Katrantzou A/W 2015, London
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.
Christian Dior, S/S 2016, Paris
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.’