‘The adrenaline carried me
for over 30 years.’

Interview by Thomas Lenthal
Portrait by Juergen Teller
Creative partner Dovile Drizyte

Show space. Alexandre de Betak. - © System Magazine

When the teenage Alexandre de Betak set up shop in Paris in 1987, there wasn’t a word to describe what he wanted to do. Today, 35 years later, terms like ‘show producer’ still barely begin to define the creator behind an astonishing body of work: Bureau Betak has produced 1,500 runway shows over more than three decades, for the likes of Dior, Fendi, Calvin Klein, John Galliano, Jacquemus, Michael Kors, Berluti, Victoria’s Secret and many others. The 18-meter high mountain of blue delphiniums in the Louvre’s courtyard for Raf Simons; Anthony Vaccarello’s Saint Laurent shows within a stone’s throw of the Eiffel Tower. In 2021, a majority stake in Bureau Betak was acquired by The Independents, the spectacularly well-funded PR and events group founded in 2017, which also comprises Karla Otto, K2, Qode, Lefty and Prodject, the agency that produces the Met Gala. Then, in June 2023, it was announced that Betak was stepping back from the business that bears his name (now run by co-CEOs Benedicte Fournier, Paco Raynal and Guillaume Troncy, and global head of design Simon Caillaud) to become Creative Chair, Head of Strategy for The Independents. His unofficial job description is to help identify talent and acquisitions, with a view to doubling the size of the group by 2025, reaching $700 million in annual revenue. But Betak’s vision for The Independents isn’t only defined by financial growth. As fashion, entertainment and events merge into one of the world’s most influential art forms, Betak sees new responsibilities to the industry, to emerging talent, and to the planet. System sat down for a mile-a-minute conversation about chasing adrenaline, resisting categories, and why we all need to step back, before a leap into the unknown.

Thomas Lenthal: What year did you start out?

Alexandre de Betak: In 1987, when I was 18. I started on my own, as Alexandre de Betak, and then launched Bureau Betak in 1990. In that era at the end of the 1980s, Paris felt very international; there was a lot of international creativity around.

There’s a brilliant book that’s just come out about Jack Lang, where you can see his international ambitions at that time; this ambition with Mitterrand for Paris and France to be at an international level of excellence. The state wanted to raise the bar and launch major projects, and there was this new idea that, ultimately, the great servants of the state in the field of culture might not have to be French.

I definitely felt it was more international. Not out of calculation, but because we had a period and a place that was so culturally interesting that it attracted creative people. I was twelve when Mitterrand was elected, and I already had a photo lab in the bathroom at my mother’s house. I liked taking photos, and I was very serious about my work from a young age. But it was never an active decision of mine to do the job that I ended up doing – that job never had a name; it didn’t exist. I started out as a photographer when I was 15, taking photos for the Berlitz Guides, those tiny, square-format Swiss travel guides. I did Chicago, Alaska, stuff like that. When I was sixteen, I was taking photos in Spain for newspapers and magazines like Actuel, Globe, La Luna de Madrid. At 17, more magazine work came in, partly because I’d done a huge reportage on nightlife in Paris, which got me into all the best parties and clubs at the time. At 18, because I was in Paris and I thought it was classy to have a student card at the Sorbonne, I enrolled there, but at the same time I enrolled in Milan too because it was a fun place. A friend and I were also putting on a weekly night there called Paris Latino.

There’s a brilliant book that’s just come out about Jack Lang, where you can see his international ambitions at that time; this ambition with Mitterrand for Paris and France to be at an international level of excellence. The state wanted to raise the bar and launch major projects, and there was this new idea that, ultimately, the great servants of the state in the field of culture might not have to be French.

I definitely felt it was more international. Not out of calculation, but because we had a period and a place that was so culturally interesting that it attracted creative people. I was twelve when Mitterrand was elected, and I already had a photo lab in the bathroom at my mother’s house. I liked taking photos, and I was very serious about my work from a young age. But it was never an active decision of mine to do the job that I ended up doing – that job never had a name; it didn’t exist. I started out as a photographer when I was 15, taking photos for the Berlitz Guides, those tiny, square-format Swiss travel guides. I did Chicago, Alaska, stuff like that. When I was sixteen, I was taking photos in Spain for newspapers and magazines like Actuel, Globe, La Luna de Madrid. At 17, more magazine work came in, partly because I’d done a huge reportage on nightlife in Paris, which got me into all the best parties and clubs at the time. At 18, because I was in Paris and I thought it was classy to have a student card at the Sorbonne, I enrolled there, but at the same time I enrolled in Milan too because it was a fun place. A friend and I were also putting on a weekly night there called Paris Latino.

And then there was the parade for the bicentennial of the French Revolution by Jean-Paul Goude –that was really the quintessence of that period.

At the age of 20, for Goude’s parade in 1989, I was lucky enough to go on my little Vespa to see the rehearsals in the Bois de Boulogne, and I spent days watching everything I could. I watched the show on TV – because I sadly hadn’t been invited – which was the pinnacle of envy for me. It wasn’t a concert, opera, theatre, cinema; it was something new, something else. I wasn’t into fashion at all, but I was into composition, like Man Ray and surrealist photography, and watching this show made me realize that you could do in life what I already loved doing in photographs: creating a frame. But using a billion other instruments that I hadn’t even considered: movement, choreography, music, light, animals, clothes. I saw something that fascinated me and it made me want to have this emotion and adrenaline. It drew me away from photography towards this thing which didn’t have a name.

What did you do then?

I set up an office. Nothing like a traditional press office. I was doing PR for the Sybilla collection, but then I was doing artistic direction for the Spanish photographer Javier Vallhonrat; and there was a model agency in Tokyo, called L’Homme et la Femme, for whom I was doing some scouting, finding unusual faces. The owner of that agency was a collector of old Renault Alpines, so I’d bring Renaults over to Tokyo. I’d go to Madrid to see Sybilla and then go out at night; I’d take photos and then bring them to City magazine, which produced Madrid guides. I just did a bit of everything, and I refused to put a name on my office. In 1990, I opened a big office in Paris, on Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, above the Sybilla shop. I started doing the first Sybilla shows, which were in Milan, at the Osservatorio, the old place that Prada later used for their shows. Then we went on to Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, Madrid…

Paris in the 1980s attracted creative people. I was 12 when Mitterrand was elected, and I already had a photo lab in the bathroom at my mother’s house.

Alexandre de Betak

What were the shows like at that time?

Because I was Parisian, I was able to go and see the big shows at the time: Gaultier, Mugler and Azzedine. The creation of those shows was entirely in the hands of the designer, and the production of the shows entirely in the hands of the press offices – in-house, external agency, or a mixture of the two. The external producers were people like 2e Bureau and Catherine Miran, and the créateurs were the teams, like Jean Paul [Gaultier] with Franck [Chevalier] and Lionel [Vermeil] and the whole gang. At that time, in my eyes, the most creative things were always created in-house. The creators had both the means and the time. Perhaps they were less spectacular, but when something isn’t as big, it means there’s less money, and less money means less responsibility, more freedom. You can afford to be crazier. What I dreamed of doing was the art direction and the creation of all the communication tools: the photos, the ads, the fashion shows, the parties. I did a huge party when I was 20 for the opening of the Sybilla boutique on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And fashion designers that I liked or didn’t like began to approach me, and I’d say to them: ‘I don’t mind getting together to do your show, but I have no desire to do a showroom.’ And in a very short space of time, after opening this beautiful big office that I loved, I decided to leave for New York.

At that time, there was a feeling in the industry that New York could become a really important place…

As we’ve said, we used to think that Paris was very international. The reality is that in 1991, at the start of the Gulf War, all the Americans began to leave Paris: the models, the photographers, the fashion people, the make-up artists, the hairdressers, the stylists, from London, New York, Italy, everywhere. I had the very clear feeling that very quickly all of these people were no longer there.

Do you think that’s also due to the arrival of Bazaar in the US? That felt like a rather special moment.

I think one goes with the other. I don’t think they left for Bazaar, I think they left because of the war. I was at the Sybilla party on 15th March 1991 – I’m nuts when it comes to remembering certain dates – and one of the magazine headlines about it was that it was the first ‘post-war party’. Then there was the economic crisis, which only lasted a short time in America, but started later in France and lasted longer. France was feeling down. New York, on the other hand… It was the beginning of grunge, the beginning of androgyny, and a trickle of minimalism which we – the Europeans – were starting to get into. When people in New York asked me: what do you do? I said straight out, ‘I do fashion shows: I advise, do the design, the concept, the art direction, the production, the casting, everything.’ I had my first clients at the same time: Ghost in New York and Prada in Milan. And I did John Bartlett, which was a very interesting moment of homoerotica; it was hyper-liberal for America, very advanced and rather brilliant. I was soon doing Michael Kors; I was doing quite big things pretty quickly. Then came the launch of Miu Miu; I did the first Miu Miu show in New York, in 1995. It was that American dream of being able to arrive anywhere, at any age, at any time, and say: ‘I’m doing this’, and before they even ask you for your CV, they say, ‘okay you’re doing it.’ Of course, there are good and bad sides to this. The bad sides lead to a Trump presidency, but there are good sides, too. People give you the chance to do what you want and if you do it well, you can keep doing it. That fascinated me when I first arrived there, and that’s why I stayed for a very long time. It was a bit pretentious: I was 22 years old and I was like, ‘Yes, I do Prada and Bartlett.’ But when I started Donna Karan, Michael Kors and things like that, people said ‘Okay, fine’, and I quickly found myself with a lot of big clients on my hands.

‘You were given two hours, three white walls and a room, and depending on your budget, you were told whether you could put a logo on the back wall.’

Alexandre de Betak

What was the catwalk format in those very first shows? What were you trying to do?

It was the beginning of the standardization of American fashion shows, in Bryant Park, which I immediately reacted against. You were given two hours, three white walls and a room, and depending on your budget and how many people you had in production, you were told you could put a logo on the back wall, and put a green or red filter on your lights. You could play your own music, obviously, but it was very, very limited. One of the first shows where I managed to break out of that format was John Bartlett. John was an amusing man, and he said, ‘What do you think about the logo?’ and I said, ‘Why don’t we put a swinging hammock on the runway with you in it, the models walk underneath you, and at the end, you take off your hat, sit down and take your bow?’ So that’s what we did. The logo was John Bartlett himself in a hammock, but the audience didn’t know it was him. The room was a bit dark, it was a summer show, the cast were super muscular guys, all oiled up. It was a show with no budget; I just threw pallets on the floor. The finale was a sort of pile-up of oiled flesh, 30 sublime beefcakes in their swimming trunks, the music rising, the light rising and John lifting his hat and waving. It was a roaring success. Once I’d broken out of the format, I started holding shows in weird places: like in the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station, where the girls walked between the oysters, with Sandra Bernhard talking nonsense about them as they walked.

And you were all on your own in this approach? You didn’t have any competition?

There was KCD, a big, extremely respectable and talented press office, which did both PR and shows for clients; when I arrived, it was the end of [KCD founders] John Duka and Kezia Keeble, with a new team taking over. Steven Meisel was directing Anna Sui’s debut fashion show. There was Marc Jacobs, who was starting to do grunge. He used a white runway; he just didn’t care. Ralph [Lauren] just made the girls spin round. I was the one who started making them change the location, the format. Sometimes I put the photographers on the stage and made the girls come in from the street.

And there was a standard budget?

There was no budget! Spending on shows, on comms at even the biggest American luxury brands was not comparable to luxury in Europe; it was so much lower. The shows cost nothing! You rented a tent for three hours, you changed the colour of your runway and you put whatever money you wanted into your casting and your music. At the time I left Paris I had a huge, sublime office. When I arrived in New York, I lived in a friend’s spare bedroom. I bought two trestles and a plank at the hardware store, sat on my suitcase, and made that my office. It was a huge step backward, financially, that I took in order to be where there were more possibilities, because people were open to listening to a little Parisian guy.

How long did you stay in New York?

Ten years at first, but I came and went. I was going to Prada and other shows in Milan, then I started Paris and London. My first big show in Paris was Hermès with Martin [Margiela]. It must have been 1996 or 1997, and very quickly I did Céline with Michael Kors. It’s funny to think I did Hermès at the same time. And Dior with John [Galliano].

What was your first show with John?

The Versailles couture show in July 1999 with the parachute. For that show, I just worked with John on the casting twist – that I took some boys to the couture casting and passed them off as girls. My first official show for Dior was in January 2000; it was couture, with the tramps at the Petit Palais.

How do you think the metrics of success have changed in your profession in the last 25 years?

In a way, it’s both totally different and exactly the same. It was quite simple to describe a buzz that can be measured by media coverage. When I started, it was the beginning of seeing fashion shows on TV. You had succeeded if it got a few seconds of coverage on the news. But when there’s an emotion in the room, you can feel it straight away backstage. The models come back and they’re excited, and the butterflies set in. Back then, the book of press cuttings would come in and it would be this big… Today, it’s the same except digital impressions are measured in millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. It seems to me that Pharrell at Vuitton has surpassed the billion mark. An unimaginable figure. Not so long ago, the biggest brands I worked with were trying to reach a million on Facebook. Not even Instagram – one million on Facebook was a benchmark less than ten years ago. Now we’re talking billions, one thousand times more. That’s an eighth of the planet.

It’s difficult to take that as a benchmark today, because the appeal goes beyond the brand and the show. It’s a billion people going to see Pharrell’s thing.

But more than 50% of brands are run by Pharrells. The person who stages the show doesn’t necessarily make it bigger, rather they channel it, to get a result that is not only huge, but positive. I think real success happens when the public associates a memory and an emotion with a brand, and that experience serves as a foundation for the creation of the brand into the future. I’ve always wanted to invent an individual format for each house. With John, for example, his exit [onto the catwalk] is one of the fundamental elements of the language. Real success is about emotion; emotion is the necessary tool for memory. When you don’t move people; you don’t make an impression. But you have to make sure the message is there, too: Whose house are you in? Where are you? I arrived after John’s sublime shows, with the trains, the Indians, the Marie-Antoinettes; they were some of the most beautiful spectacles I’ve ever seen in my life. But the reason he called me was that despite the incredible memories those shows created, they didn’t help the brand. They didn’t help people to project themselves, realistically, into today’s world.

‘For the smallest shows today, overall budget, we’re talking half a million euros. That goes up to 15 million euros, which is 30 times more expensive.’

Alexandre de Betak

It had nothing to do with the quality of the shows; it had everything to do with what he was doing in fashion.

Exactly. As soon as it doesn’t move people, it becomes unmemorable. Which fashion show do you remember well from the Covid times?

I remember some very mediocre things, which I won’t name, but which I remember vividly as just bad cinema.

Yes, but fashion is more complicated than that, because there’s a need for surprise, for subversion. Fashion is not theatre or opera. On 14th July, 1989, when Goude took the catwalk onto the street, it was an emotional, experiential, physical exchange. That’s irreplaceable. The fake runway show, like we saw during Covid – meaning the real show but without an audience, and filmed more cleanly, with cameras everywhere – did not have the immediacy or the live feel or the emotion that that exact same show would have had with an audience present. At the same time, I really think that it’s not necessary for everyone to be everywhere all the time. For half the people in fashion, it was hell to do all that travel. But I sincerely believe that the live aspect is a real issue: the human side, the human emotion helps enormously. Also, regularity becomes boring and puts people to sleep. Showing every six months, on the same day, in the same city, with the same audience and in the same format… Even if you change your decor, your cast and your music, after a while it becomes boring. Even if the show is extraordinary, moving and memorable every time, as those of McQueen and Galliano were, they become boring. So there have been times, before Covid, when people said, ‘Okay, this season, I’m making a film, or a play, or a book.’ Those films, plays, and books have never been as effective or even as memorable as the shows that came before and after, but they have served to revive interest.

What does one of the very big shows cost these days?

For fashion shows, there are two or three figures to keep in mind. There’s the production part of a show. That’s what we call the ‘hard’ part: the location, the set. Then there’s the models. And the fashion, the collection. Where do you start and finish? And then you have all the hospitality and PR costs, the guests…

Yes, but you don’t deal with that.

No, I don’t deal with it, but I know what it’s worth. For the smallest shows, overall budget, we’re talking half a million euros. That goes up to, say, €15 million – 30 times more expensive. That’s something that only exists in fashion.

Well, there’s cinema: American blockbusters cost $100 million and French films cost $5 million.

Yes, but how many times have you had the same audience see both? In fashion, people will go from a €10 million show straight to one that’s cost €100,000. That doesn’t exist in the cinema. There are expensive films and cheap films, but aside from The Blair Witch Project, there’s no cheap film that’s going to have the same life. And the worst thing about the shows is that they’re judged in the same way, by the same people. I’ve always wanted to help young designers because, creatively, it’s much more stimulating to do something great for nothing. But at the same time, you’re doing great stuff that costs a lot of money. For a very long time, we did Viktor&Rolf, Jacquemus, Vaccarello, Rodarte. It’s extremely gratifying when you have Dior and Vuitton in a magazine, and Hussein Chalayan is on the cover. But what can sometimes seem so unfair is to have journalists complaining to you because it was too hot for them during the show, or too cold, or raining. You want to say to them, ‘You do realize that you’re at a €100,000 show, right? And that the one after is a €10 million show? It’s not the same hotel. It’s not the same comfort.’ You don’t even have to pay to attend. That doesn’t exist in cinema. There’s not one guy who’s going to critique a low-budget film as if it were a blockbuster.

‘Today, digital impressions are measured in the hundreds of millions. Pharrell’s Vuitton show surpassed a billion. That’s an eighth of the planet.’

Alexandre de Betak

In a way, you’re saying that a film’s budget has to correspond to what the film sets out to do. And there are small budgets that manage to tell monumental stories in a very small way.

I don’t want to make problems for myself, but in most cases, in creative work, the lack of means, the constraints force us to find solutions that are artistically and emotionally more effective than when you have a surplus of means. Unfortunately, in most cases, the extra resources come with specifications that, in the end, are emotionally and creatively much less effective.

When you handle the higher-end budgets, there’s always a chance that it falls flat on its face. There’s an extraordinary tension.

You just keep your fingers crossed. That complete catastrophe almost never happens. Accidents, or things that don’t work – that happens all the time. Serious things have happened, but not to us. We’ve had insects, rain…

Have you ever said to yourself, I’d love to do the Super Bowl or the Oscars?

Yes and no. Guy [Oseary], Madonna’s manager, tells me every time I bump into him that I’m the only guy who turned down the Super Bowl with Madonna at any price. It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that it was an unseemly amount of time for me to abandon my clients, my ongoing projects, including Dior. She’s of a generation of talented people who need someone to be with them all the time on the preparation, for three or four weeks. I don’t have the means to do that, but also, I don’t need to: I design on paper, I brief and direct talent, I work with choreographers, lighting designers and dancers without being on their backs 24 hours a day. You couldn’t do 25 shows in a three-week season otherwise, it’s simply not possible! So I’ve had to turn down the Super Bowl, and lots of other huge concerts. Ironically, I did do the first fashion projects with celebrities from the entertainment world, starting with J.Lo more than 20 years ago. We did Beyoncé, we did Kanye, Gwen Stefani. We made the debuts, the concepts and launches of all the non-designer brands, the showbiz brands, Hollywood brands, singer brands, actor brands. It was a language I understood, that I might have wanted to develop more effectively in concerts. But fashion works at a pace so regular and so frantic that it never really leaves the opportunity to do anything else very seriously.

You’re known in the industry as a creative show concepteur and producer. But you’ve recently announced you’re stopping all that to reinvent yourself, so what are you doing now?

I’m privileged to have a great team. Some of the leaders in that team have been with me for more than 25 years, and all of them have been there for at least ten. It’s thanks to this extraordinary team that I can calmly take this decision to hand over, and to withdraw from my daily life and my original profession. I’ve taken it further now, to withdraw completely from Bureau Betak, and to use my experience and my knowledge and my influence elsewhere.

How many people are there at Bureau Betak today?

About 70. It seems like a big number, but compared to the number of shows we do all over the world, it’s a very small team. We’ve always tried to stay small, like a small car that goes very fast and is easy to handle. In September 2021, we announced that we had sold the majority of Bureau Betak to The Independents, a group set up by Olivier and Isabelle Chouvet, and then I became a partner and started to distance myself somewhat from the day-to-day business. I’m basically a creative person, but I learned about management and business on the job, because I was on my own from when I was 18 all the way up until two years ago, when I sold my majority shareholding. I’d been thinking for a very long time about how to prepare the handover, to train people how we do Betak, and how we approach a brief.

Is it an idea of quality, or a particular ambition for something?

It’s a mixture of approaches, but there are things that come up all the time. One of the primary ones is the marriage of what we call the ‘cueing’ of space and time, of music and light; the synchronization of all the elements. The way you synchronize your music with your action, your lighting, your effects, your whatever, means that you can manipulate attention in one direction or another. That’s one of the first hallmarks of Bureau Betak: the precision and the way you use the elements and the means. The high and the low. Ultra-juxtaposition is part of the language here, as well as a kind of retro-futurism. A kind of theatricality through synchronicity. Celebrating the past, to pay homage to previous collections and previous eras. At Rodarte, when I started out, they didn’t have a penny to their name and I said that the next show would always be a continuation of the previous one, using the same elements. I put a few fluorescent tubes on a metal base in New York, and I wrapped a backdrop with aluminium foil. Ten years later, we had ten times more fluorescent tubes, we had ten times more aluminium foil. Now all the Rodarte fashion shows have had these recycled elements: fluorescent hay bales, fluorescent towers. What I call culture at Bureau Betak is always a bit of history, a piece of the past.

‘The lack of means, the constraints force us to find solutions that are artistically and emotionally more effective than when you have a surplus of means.’

Alexandre de Betak

Tell me more about The Independents, your new venture.

The Independents group was set up by the Chouvets from their production company in China. They’d acquired Karla Otto a few years earlier, plus Lefty, and now a lot more. I came onboard in 2021, helping them to bring in other talent. The first to join after I arrived was Prodject, which is a rival company from New York, that produces the Met Gala, the LACMA Gala in LA; big cultural and fashion events. At The Independents, my role is Creative Chair, Head of Strategy, to help identify talent that can be complementary to the group’s mission, which is to help luxury brands communicate in a broad way. So I help to identify talent that is already very recognized, that will sell, or very young talent that we could incubate and help to develop in the business. We are lucky in that my partners have major financing capacity that inspires immense confidence from external investors to put resources on the table.

Can you tell us where specifically you’re looking for that talent?

All of the creative professions that are similar or parallel to my own former activity, i.e. technology, lighting, robotics, kinetics, programming, web – all the technological elements, the traditional creative and scenic elements. Beyond that, talents in design, whether it’s interior design, scenographic design, or design in general. And then, even further afield, talents in applying ecological technologies and sustainability, which opens things up a bit more. And PR communication, digital communication, strategy, talent representation. It’s very broad.

You could open a school!

That isn’t a topic of discussion with The Independents, but it is for me personally. I’ve always dreamt of having an official technological and artistic residency at Bureau Betak. We’ve always been so lucky with extraordinary interns, but we’ve never done it. The associations and acquisitions to which I’ll be contributing by helping with research and selection – be it talking about communication in the very broadest sense, or production, creativity, design, research and so on – these are the same areas in incubation at a much younger and broader level. We invite them to participate in brainstorming and creation at Bureau Betak, for fashion shows, events, exhibitions. We’re building a great group of successful companies, with great talent that we’ll help to develop. Although I was a creative when I started out and always will be, in the depths of my soul, I wasn’t too bad at business and management. But that was always intuitive; I never went to school, I didn’t learn anything. I started working before I was even 17 and I’ve based my whole life on intuition. Most of that intuition has served creativity, but the other part has served management and therefore business, or at least entrepreneurship. I’m just one of many examples of a self-made man. But the interesting part of being self-made is not the glory of coming from nowhere – I don’t come from nowhere, I grew up in Paris, in a fantastic cultural and political milieu. No, the interesting thing is that I think a huge part of my creativity has come from my freedom to think, which came partly from not having studied. I didn’t learn how to do things or how to follow rules. I invented a job; I didn’t even have a name for it for a very long time. I think this freedom of spirit is priceless. When I started out, I never drew up a business plan or a project plan, but things were growing, we were making big numbers. And, to come back to my role in the Group, I’m extremely lucky to have found partners who are brilliant strategists. Olivier is a man who has tremendous knowledge, technical skills and accuracy, which enables him to inspire investors to bring in hundreds of millions of euros for businesses that, just a few years ago, didn’t exist. In September 2021, we announced the approximate value of Bureau Betak, because I sensed that the rumours that were circulating from quite a few financial sources had already revealed it, and it got back to me that a lot of people, particularly in finance, fell off their chairs: a company that makes catwalk shows is worth almost €100 million? That’s just insane. Since then, it’s generated a lot of excitement and interest, thanks to my partners.

‘I always wanted to invent an individual format for each house’s shows. With Galliano, his exit onto the catwalk became a fundamental element of Dior.’

Alexandre de Betak

Is the vision with The Independents that it should be a one-stop shop for show production?

You could say it’s a one-stop shop, although that’s not exactly the case, because association or incubation also generates things that are not directly saleable. The interesting part of growing a group through acquisitions or associations is that putting complementary talents together means everything and nothing at the same time. You and I, who have a few decades of experience in parallel professions and in the same worlds, we’re comparable, we’re on a similar level. But people who are 20 or 30 years old, who have just started a business like yours or mine, with extraordinary talent but a completely different vision and very little experience – for me, they’re comparable too. We can give ourselves the means to be able to brainstorm together. When you’re an entrepreneur, when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, you never have that time, because your duty is to get your ship moving, to support your family in the broadest sense – your family, all the families of the people who work for you. That’s your first duty, your indisputable duty – to move forward. In a world like ours, which moves so fast, to move forward means, effectively, no time to do anything else, and not giving yourself the right to take that time to do something else, because you have a duty. I decided to take a step back, at a time when everything was going well, to give myself the opportunity to better analyse the situation in the fields I know, to find ways to develop which are viable economically, morally, politically, ecologically, even socially, and which I believe are a necessity for the evolution of brands in the near future. For a long time now, I’ve had a level of respectability and of power; quite simply I can call major executives who are my clients, and major talents who are my colleagues in the media, in luxury, on big campaigns, and we can sit down and talk shop. There is a limit to what we can say to each other when we each have our own companies and we have to defend our interests, but it’s a group. The success of some makes the success of others, and we have common interests, including a common economic interest that really helps to put everything on the table. I don’t want to be vulgar, but the extremely privileged contacts that I have with the great designers, the great luxury houses, the CEOs of those houses are, I think, relationships of mutual respect and trust, and I have even more trusting relationships with these people now than when I was selling them shows.

Does the new knowledge that you’re acquiring by being part of this group, through free and privileged conversation, help you to sell more things to your clients?

No, I’m not the salesman. That’s a question we haven’t resolved, to be honest with you. But the fact that this group is growing with complementary talent means that it’ll naturally offer more services to its customers. And from the inside I’m going to be contributing to a creative and strategic reflection, with all these other talents, to find and put the evolution of our ideas on the table.

What is it about today’s industry that makes you feel there’s a need for deeper thinking?

I think that the speed of evolution, particularly through technology and growth, means that we are now effectively reaching a worldwide transition in luxury, consumption, and fashion. And the future generations of consumers, of people who buy luxury and fashion, the very foundation of those industries are rapidly entering a new era. Communication today is almost more important than the product. Today, in reality, we don’t give a damn about the consumer. There aren’t one billion Vuitton consumers, but there are one billion people interested in Vuitton. I think that’s a generational transition. There’s going to be a moment when something will click or, unfortunately, with the ecological degeneration of the world, that the social tension will clash. I think we all believe that to some degree. We don’t think there will be a particular day when it happens, but it will happen: a transition that is going to happen faster than all the previous transitions and evolutions in the world. This might sound hypocritical for someone who has spent his whole life helping to promote and sell luxury products that are neither needed nor useful, but I’m delighted that this turning point is coming. I’m not telling my customers that they should stop manufacturing. The big luxury brands that we work with have achieved so much power that they are no longer just fashion brands, but cultural transmitters. As soon as we accept that – that these brands have immense power to influence all populations, not just their customers, we can use this power to make an ecological improvement. I’m also certain that brands can start to imagine dematerializing what they sell, because they have so much power, they could sell you anything. You were talking about schools earlier, and I think that the big groups today – beyond the luxury products that we already know – are already moving into hospitality, and beyond that, they can target well-being, and well-being is a word that means everything and nothing today. Beyond well-being, we could start talking about education, we could talk about culture…

‘Madonna’s manager tells me every time I bump into him that I’m the only guy who turned down the Super Bowl with Madonna at any price.’

Alexandre de Betak

We now see that cultural impact with art foundations, which are capable of putting on better exhibitions than museums because they have the means.

The world of luxury and fashion that we’re talking about could really help change habits in significant ways. It could help to change, obviously, polluting consumption, whether from fashion or from other sources, because fashion is not the worst of them. In figures, the worst polluters, well before fashion, are oil and meat. But neither oil nor meat have the power to influence in the same way as fashion. In my opinion, fashion and luxury are the most influential forces in the world today, undoubtedly more so than music, art or Hollywood. Fashion and luxury have the power to help bring about a positive revolution. I think the leading luxury houses could sell us anything: education, food, anything. Tomorrow, you could absolutely be eating Dior or Saint Laurent. In fact, it’s already starting to happen.

I thought that 20 years ago; that Cartier could start by saving panthers.

It’s amazing that it hasn’t been done, and it’s not too late for it to start. LVMH and I were already talking about it years ago.

They could have single-handedly removed all the plastic from the oceans.

Exactly. 20 years ago I was proposing that they join forces with UNESCO. When we started the cruise shows and all this travel stuff, for me the immediate, obvious solution was that we should also be UNESCO’s biggest contributors, and that UNESCO could immediately benefit from the full contribution of the big groups and companies, so that every time we traded, we’d contribute to saving something like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In my job, you go to extraordinary places on the planet, exploit them for commercial purposes for people who have the means, but you could also save them for eternity, knowing that UNESCO doesn’t have a penny. My role today is that I’d like to contribute as creatively and intuitively as ever, with the added bonus of having partners who can translate these ideas and creations into reality; who can make this group grow and make others invest in it; to contribute to bringing talent and companies and people who can, by complementing each other, help us think of solutions for the future. When I had my nose to the grindstone, I didn’t take the time to think like this. Neither did my team, or the teams of all the companies, when they were hard at work – that is to say, always. They don’t have the possibility of taking a step back. I’m interested in incubating people with experience like mine – people who have done communications, advertising, images, tech, all these parallel and complementary things at a certain level of innovation. If we all give ourselves the time and the distance, we can reflect on things that no one has made the time or space to think about before.

What do you see as the future of the fashion catwalk and the fashion industry as a whole?

There’s the immediate future and the very long-term future. The future of the catwalk, we saw with Covid: we said we’d change everything, and we haven’t changed anything at all. For the time being, I think we’re on a roll that’s not likely to stop. Quite the opposite, in fact, because the catwalk, in the broadest sense – the physical communication experiences that are catwalks, events, exhibitions – are the most effective communication tools, and their effectiveness is growing all the time. Unfortunately, the traditional press is shrinking. Traditional advertising is shrinking, and all those budgets are going into runway shows, events and so on, because those means of communication are growing all the time. I don’t think this trend is going to stop at all. In perhaps a very short time, we’ll have gone so far that everyone will be fed up again and, one by one… will it be Dior or Chanel? Saint Laurent, Balenciaga or Vuitton? It doesn’t matter who’s first, but someone will break this rhythm and repetitiveness, in favour of something else, only to come back to it again, no doubt. This growth is ultra-efficient, and it’s not going to stop. There’s also the beginning of a turning point, though it hasn’t really got off the ground yet, with a new generation of customers who look at the problem that luxury brands can cause morally and ecologically in a very different way. And there are obviously new emerging markets that aren’t completely in that equation yet. But one day, this new generation is going to say ‘no, this isn’t for us anymore – we don’t need a new bag or shoes.’ At some point they’re not going to buy eight or sixteen handbags anymore. We have to help our clients to grow by declaring their negative impact on the world. It’s starting now, already, and I’m convinced that we can do it through technology, culture, education and dematerialization. In a relatively short space of time, they’ll be able to start making just as much money, selling new things that they’ve never made before, that not only have no negative impact, but even a kind of virtue. I dream that all of our professions, of communication and influence through luxury brands, can serve the planet positively.

‘When we started the cruise shows and all this travel stuff, for me the obvious solution was that we should also be UNESCO’s biggest contributors.’

Alexandre de Betak

Lastly, why do you think the big groups don’t incorporate the kind of thing that you or I do – show production or art direction – into their own structure?

I don’t know why they don’t do it, or why they haven’t tried to do it. But I think that to be able to renew your creativity, to keep your impartiality, you need your independence. If Bureau Betak had been part of the x or y group, even if we had been given total freedom, we probably wouldn’t have had the same freedom of mind and impartiality. First, we wouldn’t have given ourselves the rights that we have given ourselves. Second, we wouldn’t have the experience and knowledge that you can acquire by working for a variety of clients, because the day you join x, you don’t go to y anymore. Look at the type of talent that the groups need – all this talent that gravitates around luxury brands, whether it’s photographers, directors, advertisers – it’s in their interests to remain independent from luxury brands.

Do you think they’d let you back at Bureau Betak?

I don’t think so! But the adrenaline was amazing – it carried me for over 30 years.

Don’t you miss it?

Yes, of course. There are other jobs that need as much adrenaline, but maybe not in fashion. I’ve done more than 1,500 shows over more than 30 years. A lot of things happened. And now I’ve been lucky enough to sell big, which has given me the means to take this step back. The adrenaline… Of course, it’s lacking in my life now. I still haven’t thought about what could replace it.

Taken from System No. 22 – purchase the full issue here.