Alexandre de Betak On the Necessary Role of Fashion Shows

Images courtesy of Bureau Betak

To show or not to show? That was the question on everyone’s mind this past Spring/Summer 2021 fashion season as the industry reeled from the longstanding effects of COVID-19. With diminished budgets, cut staff, ever-changing travel logistics, and the essential health guidelines needed in place, many brands couldn’t, or what was more existential – adamantly wouldn’t, host physical shows. What was left was an amalgamation of what we were used to and what will be in place for the foreseeable future – “phygital” mash-ups or live-streamed experiences that were supposed to take the place of the real thing. For the few mega-brands like Dior and Jacquemus that could weather the needed logistical storm, producer Alexandre de Betak was there, navigating the long list of operational demands so that brands didn’t lose a seasonal step. Was it necessary? Should it have happened at all? Betak spoke to to discuss further, give insight into how he got his start, and talk about how Bureau Betak maintained sustainable practices, even in a pandemic.

Images courtesy of Bureau Betak

Congratulations on a successful season. The Jacquemus show this past summer was one of the first shows that came back to the runway show format. In preparation for these plein air events, how did Bureau Betak shift course and adjust to the global pandemic restrictions?
Alexandre de Betak – We have historically done, and love doing, large shows outside. We’ve done a lot of that over the years, the pandemic in a way was an accelerator of senses that had started previously, it added sanitary measures. From a practical point of view, it was of course very different because we had to spend the summer on training then designing for this past season without knowing if at the end whether we were going to have a lot of people, no people at all, or fewer people that are social distancing. These measures change all the time, and you cannot plan a show at the last minute; it is many months in advance. In this case, it was very weird because we designed ideas and concepts with options A, B, C, and D. With a lot of audiences, with no audience. With three-foot distancing, four, five, six, seven, eight. It was quite intense in that matter. The practicalities of applying the local sanitary measures everywhere (inaudible) made it quite challenging.

More importantly, I think it’s the philosophical meaning behind doing the show that matters. A lot of people, especially in the States, from the beginning of the pandemic said it was wrong to even consider showing and doing a fashion show, and we heard that a lot whether it was in the industry or within the wider audience. Planning and doing the show, it was very important to understand and to listen to these opinions, but to also push our own. We personally believe that a fashion show is a communication tool for a brand, and in general for an industry. That industry has a great economic impact on millions, or tens of millions, of people’s lives. It’s a professional tool and the tool exists because it works, and because it’s needed, otherwise it wouldn’t work. It’s a very simple answer for me. When people ask me if I find it immoral to do a fashion show, the obvious answer for me is I say no. It’s way more immoral to let the worldwide economy slide into chaos where millions of people are going to suffer and possibly die of hunger. When it comes to the fashion show itself, it is an assisting tool for sustaining the business it sustains which in this case in the fashion industry. But nevertheless, you need to listen to other people’s responses to you, consider them, and therefore design in accordance with everything including those points of view that you don’t share.

And so you started with Jacquemus this summer with this line of thinking. How was the experience?
Jacquemus was the first physical live show post-pandemic with a live audience back in July. A year ago, he already had started showing off-calendar, off-site, off-everything and it was a very reduced audience. I think it worked well of course and it was a lovely show and it answered all of the predictions and the necessary measures in place and was sustainable. After that, we tried something else at the Christian Dior Cruise show which we did in July, in Puglia which is the south of Italy. That was the first big live show with no audience, and that was very interesting because we put on a really big production – we had a huge set, we had live musicians, live orchestra, live dancers, models, hair and makeup and it was like a Dior show would be.

Images courtesy of Bureau Betak

How was show production when you first started and how do you feel the industry has changed?
Well, I’ve been at it for a hundred million years now. When I first started, I was a teenager. I got attracted by it, I’m not even really sure how. I started by taking pictures and creating images. I didn’t even really shoot fashion and I kind of fell in it then started creating fashion shows, so making full experiences was an evolution of all of that. The world used to be purely professional, dedicated to buyers and journalists only. Then it expanded to wider audiences and wider press, then it started going onto TV which was kind of the time when I started. I began at a time where I tried to help make shows more relevant to a wider audience. With a wider audience, I needed to catch their attention with big ideas.

What sectors are essential to full production when you’re planning a show? How many people are involved? What are the different positions that maybe someone doesn’t think about are in jeopardy when you say you want to cancel a show?
Depending on the size of the brand and budget you can have anywhere from maybe a hundred to three, four, five hundred people helping with the show. The Christian Dior show used a few hundred people interestingly enough. So of course in COVID times things are adjusted and organized in a way that everyone was masked, tested, and the setup took longer because you could have fewer people close to each other outside and the teams had to social distance. Truly It made everything more complicated and all of these people live off the fashion industry and show structure. We believe at Bureau Betak it is the start of a new world and a new format. What we started in December, was the beginning of something that might go on forever. I think that fashion shows will be hybrid forever.

What is the biggest difference between developing a show with an audience versus no audience. Is there much difference between the two or can they kind of co-exist?
No, there is a huge difference between being digital-only if you are doing a show or a video. Time is of the essence and people wouldn’t think of it so much. A fashion show is a live event and in the word “live” comes the fact that the action is dynamic – you have a beginning and an end, a certain date, and place. There might be surprises, it’s a mystery who will be in the first row, the celebrities, influencers, the models, the action. If you remove that then effectively it is a film and the film can be watched anywhere, at any time. The film is timeless in a way but fashion is not timeless, fashion is interesting because it’s attached to time. I have nothing against and I think fashion shows should opt for all different formats but when the fashion show has no link to time, then people are less interested and it’s less efficient.

Images courtesy of Bureau Betak

Bureau Betak has committed to sustainable practices – what is the best practice for your group and how exactly do you maintain sustainability in show formats?
The sustainability shift at Bureau de Betak was announced ironically in late February before we shut down. We spent years researching and working on sustainability measures and came to our first milestone when we received our ISO 20121 certification at the beginning of the year. We came up with 10 major commandments of Bureau de Betak and managed to lower our carbon footprint by 25% already just by applying them. It starts with eco-conscious design, meaning when we think of a show we’re already planning it with being eco-consciousness in mind. We minimize fossil fuel use with renewable energy that comes through green contracts through the cities where we work. We design using existing things and products, by always building them, and using local resources.

In fashion shows today, travel is the biggest carbon expense and the hardest to reduce. Before COVID it was very hard to convince people to do video conferences and meetings instead of going to see them in New York, Beijing or God knows where. We reduce non-essential travel for ourselves and a few years ago we showed that we can do amazingly well with much less of an audience. Sometimes having more creative freedom in more inspiring places, you can have a limited live audience and still be more efficient.

We upcycle and give a second life to a lot of our decor and we have relationships now with recycling companies that buy back unused materials. We have recycling containers for all sorts of different things. Then we of course have a 100% no plastic policy which is very hard to maintain in these COVID times but we have managed and are very proud of. We have water fountains everywhere and now provide reusable metal bottles to fill up. Sometimes the shows we do are many weeks of setting up and there is a huge quantity of food – we not only want to make sure it’s responsibly sourced and organic, but we also make sure we eliminate the waste with our many relationships with different associations in every city that can take the untouched meals and redistribute them to the right people in need. Finally, we implemented a carbon calculation and compensation on all of the productions we do and have a regular “1% Percent for the Planet” donation at the end of all of those measures we’ve done throughout the year.

Images courtesy of Bureau Betak

You have offices in New York, Paris, and Shangai – how has it been connecting projects in these three regions without physically being there?
Obviously, COVID started in China so they were confined earlier in the year around January and stayed like that for a couple of months and reopened. They’ve organized their way out of the crisis and now they are completely out of it. For us, at Bureau de Betak our Chinese operations were mostly for foreign clients, European, and Americans. So even though the Chinese operations are fully going on it makes us pretty slow in China as everywhere else because no one from abroad can actually go to China. In a way, [the pandemic] accelerated the trends that were needed. Personally, I don’t believe in all or nothing for any topic so, we’ve done 100% Zoom and only digital relationships for a really long time during the lockdown, and that was really annoying. But if you do a bit of both I think it’s actually very efficient. It’s good to travel less and reduce some of the time given to something that can be done more efficiently but it’s not good to not travel at all and as I see it not one should replace the other entirely.

Images courtesy of Bureau Betak

How has isolation influenced your creativity, artistically, and or in business?
It makes one reflect. Before the pandemic, many people were loudly advocating for a need to change within the system. In a way, it seems that the downtime due to COVID has accelerated all this. It has brought some new, great ideas and shown that we can do things a bit differently. It allowed us to have time to research topics and discover new technology.

How does architectural design fulfill you creatively and have you always been focused on settings? Like in events in your life or even in your work.
What I do involves architecture as well as design as well as conceptualizing, choreography and music and special effects are all these things that interact. They all nurture one another and definitely when I do architecture for myself or do research for my personal projects it influences what I do for work and vice versa.

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