Alexandre de Betak's high-voltage vision goes from fashion stage to fashionable furniture.
Alexandre de Betak, the enlightened mastermind behind some of the best shows on Earth plugs into the home with light-filled furniture.
If Oz were a land of fashion shows then Alexandre de Betak would be its wizard. President and founder of Bureau Betak, a production company with offices in Paris and New York, de Betak, 36, is the high-octane mastermind behind some the best fashion shows and special events of the last decade. "One of my young son calls me a 'pestacleur,'" explains Betak, "it comes from 'spectacle' in French and translates loosely into 'showman.'" Inspired by Jean Paul Goude's flamboyant bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution in 1989, Betak set up shop in NYC in 1994 to infuse poetry and personality into the fashion stage using design, sound and light. His inexhaustible imagination quickly seduced a kaleidoscope of clients including Dior, Viktor & Rolf and Victoria's Secret. Raising the barometer year after year, he has staged just about everything from Shaolin Monks, man-made snowstorms, Mondrian lightshows to upside down runways. Recently de Betak brought his signature light-filled philosophy into the home with a range of illuminated furniture designs produced by Domeau & Pérès. This year he is looking forward to creating interior designs and producing light installations. In Paris, days before he flips the switch for Dior, John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan and Viktor & Rolf, we snagged the whirling dervish to talk about life, light and luxury.
What is your definition of luxury?
To live what you love at its fullest.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
A very long moment of inactivity.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
A place in my dreams.
What characterizes a Betak production?
If there is anything that embodies the Betak signature it's the creation of extreme emotion through the spontaneous treatment of simple things. That doesn't mean there isn't an enormous amount of work involved. When I script a show, it's down to the second or millisecond at times. Often there are 20 lines per second.
What vocabulary do you use to describe the movement of light and music?
I often use buzzing and hissing sounds. I think that you can invent your own vocabulary as long as the concept behind it is good. If my ideas can't be understood by "bzzz bzzz" or "zzzt zzzt" it means that they aren't good. I communicate a lot of my drawings through speech; three-fourths of them I can describe to my 3D rendering team over the phone.
You started experimenting with light and electricity as a child. How has your attraction to light evolved with time?
My interest in light has been consistent throughout. It's a basic instrument that I find useful and effective in influencing people's humor and emotions. Obviously I have a strong visual attraction to light, but there is more to it than just that.
How does light shape your visual language?
It's a tool that I use to express myself simply. In general, I like things that are communicated in a direct way, like a child might. There is something eternally young at heart about my sensibilities. I like when things are bold, easily understandable, and easily memorable. That doesn't mean that I don't like subtle things. Light is one of several of my obsessions that I've lugged around with me throughout my life and that I use in everything that I do.
Why did you decide to launch into furniture design?
Since most of my work lasts for around 15 minutes, I wanted to see what it would be like to design something that could last a lifetime. With my shows, I spend my time drawing moments, imagining the crescendo of music, movement and light. At the opposite extreme are my designs that are static and timeless. Longevity and agelessness, while opposite from what I do for others, were key elements in this new exercise. My first design was an illuminated bookcase for Domeau & Pérès. When it's full, it looks as if it is just floating in space.
What are your current design projects?
Right now I am working on an interior design project as well as a non-commercial light installation. Several of my one-off neon light designs that were created for special events will be auctioned at Artcurial, Paris, in November, as part of the Light is More design sale.
Which designers do you admire for their use of light?
While there are so many designer that I admire, I think I'm most influenced by a sort of natural melting pot that contains Times Square, the Vegas strip, the Eiffel Tower, James Turell and Dan Flavin, among others. The Kinetic School has inspired me enormously as well, especially the work of Nicolas Schoffer. My list of influences could go on and on. The things that influenced me as a kid continue to do so, I just keep adding more. I accumulate without erasing anything.
Are there any other objects or memories that inspire you particularly?
I think that for most people, the moments from childhood leave a lasting impression. For me in was the Seventies. I have a profound attraction to the designs and objects from that era, especially those that incorporate light or movement. Then there's my Vespa; I've been driving a Vespa for years. I'm also crazy about futurism in general and have been since I was a kid. I have an enormous collection of robots that keeps getting bigger.
Do you ever imagine venturing into cinema or theater?
Cinema no, because I'm very much interested in the live show. I could definitely imagine doing musical productions, however.
You recently produced fashion shows for J. Lo and Gwen Stefani. Was it much different working with music artists as opposed to established fashion designers?
Yes, it was a very different. But even though their ideas and experiences are not the same as a John Galliano or Hussein Chalayan, what I try to do with each one is similar: to illustrate in a honest and memorable way what seems to be the most personal, creative and enriching in their work. For the two singers, who are both radically different themselves, the idea was to help them tell the same stories in the context of fashion that they express through their music.
How did you conceive the soundtracks for each?
Is was very different for each. With Gwen we had access to tracks from her upcoming album that we remixed with Jeremy Lee, with whom I work often. We then spliced in samples from The Sound of Music, one of her personal favorites, combined with some acappella tracks that we recorded with her in our offices. With Jennifer we mixed the songs she grew up listening too – the musical building blocks of what she's become today.
Are there any fashion designers that you'd one day like to work with?
There are tons of designers that I admire and with whom I'd like to work, but in a new context. For example Karl Lagerfeld, I have tremendous respect for his polyvalent talent and would love to collaborate with him, but not just as the creative director of his show. Fashion shows have proven to be very effective ways to rapidly communicate ideas, but that model can be applied to other areas be they social, political, or cultural. The only person who demonstrated that, and unfortunately it hasn't been repeated since, was Jean Paul Goude in 1989 for the bicentennial celebration of French Revolution. It was an important event for me personally, one that inspired me to do what I do now. What I think we can do with my profession that we don't do enough is to try and communicate ideas that are larger than just the particularities of a fashion collection.
Which are you working on now?
We're opening the Grand Palais in Paris with a Dior show, the first show in 12 years held in the magnificent location. For Viktor & Rolf, the show is upside down, just like the boutique. Plus we are doing the Hussein Chalayan show and the John Galliano show. At the end of Paris fashion week we're also launching a huge production called Fashion Rocks for the Prince Charles Charity Fund — it's a visual and aural marriage between 10 fashion brands and 10 music bands.
What has been your most challenging show to date?
Bizarrely they all are. The most challenging has been the succession of them all – 350 and counting in 12 years.