Wednesday 1st April

| BY Dino Bonacic

What’s the future of fashion shows? Producer Extraordinaire Alexandre de Betak Weighs In

It’s been a popular opinion within the fashion industry for a while now that the seasonal calendar of shows is due a rethink. The consistent hustle that seems to be going all throughout the year has created an environment where designers, editors, show producers, photographers et al, seem to be part of a continuous cycle without a single moment to stop and digest what just happened. And while describing the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the world as catastrophic would be an understatement, we’re bound to start looking for positive effects of the new ways that have been put into place. As previously announced, the upcoming menswear and couture shows have already been cancelled, and in Shanghai, a fully digital-based fashion week took place after just few weeks of notice. Things are changing, and we’re still in the process of finding the new path we oughta take.

I initially got in touch with Bureau Betak in February, after they announced their new ISO 20121 certification of eco-consciousness and responsibility which made them the major first fashion event production company to get such classification from International Organisation for Standardisation. With international offices in Paris, New York and Shanghai and 30 years of experience, Alexandre de Betak has had his hands in turning some pretty iconic catwalk moments from an idea and into reality: Raf Simons’s room of popcorn for Calvin Klein AW18, Hussein Chalayan’s furniture-infused theatrics, all those John Galliano spectacles at Dior… But by the time I’m actually on the phone to the show producer extraordinaire, the mood has completely shifted. The majority of big cities is under lockdown and even talking about the reality of fashion shows seems trivial in the grand scheme of things. But it’s a major part of a real business worth billions. “Our work is based on live shows and events and that’s the first thing down in this situation, as you can imagine. Right now, very suddenly, every single thing we were working on, until July at least, has been cancelled,” de Betak explains.

Dior AW20, photo by Dior Salemi

We first talked at the end of last year for Issue 3 of 10+, as part of which de Betak was chosen as one of Alessandro Sartori’s 10 People to Meet, a person part of his creative family at Ermenegildo Zegna. “I personally believe that we are at a turning point in the world as well as in our lives and the fashion industry. The fashion shows have become important communication tools but not necessarily dedicated to the live audience of a few hundred people that are there. They are mostly dedicated to the people who will live these dreams while watching the show live on social media. And with no disrespect to anyone in the live audience, our role now is not only to create and elevate the dream but also create conversations politically and sociologically,” he said, subconsciously anticipating what was to come. Fast forward just a few months and the change of focus isn’t just a choice but also a necessity.

When I quote his words over the phone, de Betak responds with a positive outlook “I think that the discussion about switching is happening, even if it’s not as fast as I wished. The mentality and the habits of over a century of fashion shows and fashion weeks are hard ones to change yet I think they will. In order to see the positive side of that negative situation, it will force us to do so. Coming out of it, doing things exactly the way we did them before won’t make sense. The environmental benefits on the planet of the slowest time in our lives, as far as we can all remember it, will hopefully make us realise that we shouldn’t go back to the way things were.” But even before this was the case, Bureau Betak were already setting new standards in fashion shows.

Kenzo AW20, photo by Marie-Laure Dutel

To concur with the announcement of the eco-conscious certification of the business, they presented their Ten Commandments – a list of commitments that will ensure all of their future events will have minimised impact on the industry. These included everything from reusing materials throughout the production process and use of green energy (for example, all shows are running on renewable bio-fuel instead of traditional fossil fuels) all the way to the more base-level ban of single-use plastic in any aspect of the show production and responsible catering. These have been in the works for the past few years with Bureau Betak, with AW20 marking the first season to see these significant measures fully implemented with every show. Some of their clients this time round were Nanushka, Nina Ricci, Isabel Marant and Kenzo as well as the two longest-running partnerships – Dior and Saint Laurent. When discussing the biggest challenges of the implementation process, de Betak references the cost of changing practices, with shows having to fit into a certain budget that’s being set by the company. “But in the long run, a lot of what we propose – like the technical and conceptual solution for being more environmentally conscious – will end up being not more expensive, and at some point even cheaper.” However, such adjustments were easier made by larger brands. For example, the ban of single-use plastic proved to be quite a challenge for smaller brands who didn’t have as much resources and manpower to put the strictness in place.

The second obstacle the shift encounters are the habits. “It’s very hard to tell a designer or a fashion house that we can creatively propose a solution so that you don’t need hundreds of people travelling,” says de Betak, citing the expectation for this unique interaction coming from both the designers as well as the editors, influencers and clients. “But at some point this will be a necessary change, and this time has arrived.”

Nina Ricci, photo by Zoe Joubert

In the way he communicates about his practice, Alexandre de Betak is completely radical. And that isn’t some sort of frustration that’s developed over time – it’s the rebellion that’s been part of his work for a while now and has resulted in research and innovation. Unlike a lot of his peers, he isn’t afraid to question his past. “In the long run, we have to find a way to do it well or we shouldn’t do it at all. Because it’s not just that it wasn’t sustainable but the whole concept of doing this is not sustainable. The concept of doing something that you know is not fully necessary to the planet and that’s only damaging and has no positive effects at all,” de Betak goes on as he narrates the path of coming to this point. 

But where do we go from here? “Firstly, we will have a fairly slow coming back to normal,” says de Betak, predicting that there will be a lesser first-hand audience that will decide to travel in the coming seasons. “We are all, of course, working on better digital solutions.” In search of those, de Betak has previously launched Bureau Future, a branch of his business dedicated to creating a multimedia-first experiences which included creating everything from diverse visual assets to live-streams, all assuring that physical presence at shows doesn’t become imperative in their reach. “But at the same time, I don’t think anything will ever kill a fashion show. It’s a live event – and even if you see it only reported to you digitally, you understand you’re seeing a live event. I think our world needs live experiences. Once things get better again, our world will continue to want to celebrate it, just maybe not as wastefully as it did. (…) I will always try to find a better solution to a 100% old-fashioned live show. What I’m sure of is that I don’t want to revert to a 100% virtual and digital life. Our world needs human interaction and we shouldn’t let go of it entirely for any reason.”

Top image: Saint Laurent AW20, photo by Marie-Laure Dutel.

@bureaubetak // @alexdebetak