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The Illusionist

When the lights go down on the runway before the show begins, there’s one man many of the industry’s most revered fashion houses rely on to make sure they go back on—at just the right moment.

by Tali Jaffe

When the lights go down on the runway before the show begins, there’s one man many of the industry’s most revered fashion houses rely on to make sure they go back on—at just the right moment.

Alexandre de Betak does more than just flip the switch. He is a master creator, producing otherworldly environments that captivate and ultimately transport the audience deep into the fashion universe. Whether through simple tubes of light, dense and clouded gardens or just the right shade of red, this multitalented scenographer/art director/designer knows how to a long-lasting impression in a mere 12 minutes.

We caught up with the brilliant designer via Skype to discuss the language of fashion, humanizing technology and the great divide between New York and Paris fashion week.

So, first things first, what do we call you? Producer, director, artist, designer?
Basically I’m a designer. And a scenographer. And, a producer as well… it’s always very hard to put a name to what I do.

Tell us about your Fashion Week(s)
In New York I did DVF, Jason Wu, Michael Kors, Rodarte and the launch of BLK DNM, which is a line from J. Lindeberg. In Paris it was quite a troubled week, actually, since I did the Dior show… I also did Viktor & Rolf and a new designer called Anthony Vaccarello—it was his first show.

Do you think there's more of an emphasis on showmanship in Paris versus New York fashion week? If so, to what do you attribute that to?
Overall there is absolutely a difference between the two cities’ shows. And the main reason, I think, is a practical one. A lot of the New York shows are more commercial in a way. They’re more realistic.
Some shows are better enhanced with simplicity. In the Rodarte show, for example, it’s more about scenography. The designers have a very interesting story to tell which is really enhanced by the setting.

And did you incorporate those same elements into the Rodarte exhibition you designed at LA MOCA?
Yes, I try to have a thread and a language that’s particular to each of the designers I work with. To make sure you know where you are when you watch something from any of these houses. For Rodarte, since I started doing their shows several years ago, I’ve kept the materials I use and recycle them into something new yet in continuation with the previous show. The very first show began with fluorescent tubes, and they’ve remained a part of every show since. A lot of the scenography at the MOCA exhibition incorporates fluorescent lighting. At MOCA there’s no sound. It’s all light.

You’ve worked w numerous materials, but do you have a favorite, or a sort of signature material?
One of the tools I work with a lot is light. I started working with Dior 12 years ago and I created environments with light. Walls of light moving in different directions, lit seating, it all creates different moods.
I like mixing high-tech with low-tech. Using high-tech materials but creating a low-tech look. It humanizes it.

Is exhibition design something you'd like to continue pursuing?
Yes, I really enjoy it. I’ve done quite a few exhibitions now in Beijing, Shanghai and one on fashion shows—funny enough—in Dusseldorf. I love doing them.

And they last a bit longer than the runway shows…
Yes, absolutely. I also design light installations and furniture, which are a bit longer lasting as well. I like designing permanent things as well.

How did you begin to design furniture?
It was quite natural. Designing events included designing sets and furniture. I think I began designing furniture about seven years ago, and have designed for Swarovski, Domeau and Peres and Artcurial.

Have you ever thought about artistic direction on a feature film?
Honestly I would love to. I’ve been asked several times, actually. But timing is always very complicated though, because you need quite a long time on site for a feature film. But I would love to do some concept design where I wouldn’t be needed every day.

How large of a team do you work with at your studio, Bureau Betak?
Not many, about a dozen full-time. But I have many, many more that I work with consistently on a freelance basis: the special effects people, the fabricators, renderers, the lighting technicians.

What other projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a very big event called the Red Ball for DVF that’s on March 31 in Shanghai. After that there’s a brand launch—which is still a secret—in Paris. 

Did you study design in school?
No, no, no. I studied photography when I was younger and began shooting for magazines when I was 16 or 17. I met a fashion designer in Spain named Sybilla 20 years ago who I helped with all of her production, PR, everything for her line, and from there I realized how much I enjoyed art directing the shows and events and everything and I just started doing it.

I never took time to study. Sometimes I regret it, thinking what a few years of studying technique could do for me. But I think you can learn everything by yourself and then it’s a matter of surrounding yourself with people who can do the rest. Great computer animators, 3D, an amazing team who can produce my ideas.

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