Alexandre de Betak sat down for a chat with the guys from Opening Ceremony. Read the interview here !
SC: What was your first show?
AdB: My first shows and events were for Sybilla, who you may know. She was an amazing Spanish designer in the 80s who decided to stop what she was doing once she got really big. I was just a kid; I was 17.
SC: Wait, you were 17 when you produced your first show?
AdB: Yes, I started working with her when I was 17, after I finished high school. She started showing a year later, and by the time I turned 20, I opened her first store in Paris with a huge event. But it all really started when I was a kid taking pictures. I was very into it, and I still am, by the way. I still make images––but they are 4D, they are live, and they last a certain amount of time in a certain place.
SC: How old were you when you picked up your first camera?
AdB: I was seven. My grandfather gave me a plastic 126-millimeter Instamatic camera. And ever since, I’ve been completely obsessed with framing and making images look the way I want them to. I still have the negatives from back then. So in high school I kept taking pictures of things here and there. I started working for trendy magazines, taking pictures of parties at night. I remember shooting Kid Creole & the Coconuts at four in the morning at one party, when I must have been about 16.
SC: So you were just out-and-about photographing in Paris in your late teens. What drew you to working in Spain?
AdB: Well, in Paris I had been shooting for this small Madrid-based magazine called Primera Línea, which was somewhere between what Interview and Paper were back then. So it made sense to go to Madrid. Coincidentally, it was the time of the Movida in the late 80s––when Almodóvar, Juan Gatti, and a 20-year-old fashion designer named Sybilla were starting out. I had met Sybilla in Paris. Back then her team was about five people. It was just her, three seamstresses, and her right hand. But one thing led to another, and before I knew it I was helping her do anything and everything––working with her on her brand’s image, the art direction, the shows, the PR. I didn’t even know what my job meant or what it was called, but Sybilla’s brand grew into a successful label pretty quickly, and I opened my office right away.
SC: So your business card could have easily just had one big question mark on it!
AdB: [Laughs] Exactly! Which was quite fun and suited me well. I went very intuitively from making pictures as a kid to doing visuals for a designer who was starting out. Then one day, Sybilla felt she had reached the point in her career that she’d always dreamed of, so she just stopped and moved to Mallorca. And that’s when I moved to New York, almost 20 years ago.
SC: What other projects were you working on from your Paris office at the time?
Adb: I was doing PR and art direction for Sybilla, as well as for another Spanish designer, Joaquín Berao, who was doing jewelry. I was art directing and producing shoots for a photographer called Juan Carlos Retamar, I was doing work for the magazine Per Lui of Condé Nast in Italy… It was quite diverse! I was doing exhibitions for Sybilla and a few others. What else was I doing? I was scouting for a Japanese modeling agency in Tokyo. [Bursts out laughing]
SC: A true jack-of-all-trades!
AdB: I mean, do you really want to know everything? [Laughs] It was trying to invent pluridisciplinarity, not because you were talented in every discipline but because you didn’t know any of them! And the truth is, it laid good foundations. And you could do that back then. I didn’t have any restrictions. I literally started when I finished high school. Back then, I would go down to my grandmother’s newsstand in Paris and I’d spend hours copying in a notebook the top name of the masthead of every fashion magazine, with the phone number of the magazine––back then there were no e-mails. And I would call and say, “Hello, can I speak to Anna Wintour please?” [Laughs] And they would ask, “What do you want?” And I’d reply, “I don’t know, I have something to show you!”
SC: Unreal! So which editors answered?
AdB: The editor of French Vogue at the time, Irène Silvagny––an amazing lady––was one of the first. She came to see me where I lived. It was on the ninth floor of this 70s building in the 15th arrondissement. You had to walk through the service elevator, outside a little balcony, and through a little glass door to get to my apartment, where I had hung clothes by Sybilla from the shower curtain rack in my bathroom! Just thinking of it now cracks me up! [Laughs] It worked though. It led to something.
SC: That’s incredible! What did you show her?
AdB: A few pieces by Sybilla and some photographs by Juan Carlos and Javier Vallhonrat, whom you might know––he is an amazing photographer who was big then. The truth is, what you never know until you look back in life, is how different the times were. Back then, it was more relaxed and less professional. It was just me. I was 17 and I didn’t know any better.
SC: Did you think about higher education at any point, or you were just going to go with the flow?
AdB: I wouldn’t say I was going with the flow. I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. I didn’t want to accept that there should be any boundaries, and I wanted to do something creative that didn’t necessarily have a name. Being a creative pluridisciplinary was much harder then. New York in general has always been more open to anything. In Paris, which is considered more creative maybe because it’s more culturally ancestral, there are boundaries. Even when I was having fun doing all of these things in France, once I reached the point of success I felt like I was hitting a wall. New York was where you could say, “Hi, I design, direct, and produce fashion shows. Give me a fashion show to do.” And eventually, someone said, “Why not?”
SC: In what year did you arrive in New York?
AdB: I arrived in 1993. After the Gulf War, the beginning of the recession. In terms of trends, it was the start of minimalism again––the post-80s, early 90s look that started with Prada, Calvin Klein, and all of them. It was the right time to be here. It’s also when the fashion weeks started. So you felt that you were at the start of something.
SC: What were the shows like before then?
AdB: There were two extremes. You had big, amazing, spectacular fashion shows in Paris––Gaultier, Mugler, Alaïa, and Montana. But it wasn’t like today where you have 10 shows every day for 10 days in every city. There were less shows, and they were done internally in a very personal way. There weren’t even stylists back then, really. They didn’t have much outside help. And what I decided to do was precisely bring that outside help. And the other extreme is just having a girl model the looks in a showroom. No spectacle, no nothing. I purely wanted to design, direct, and produce shows and events, and I did that right away.
SC: What was the first project you took on in New York?
AdB: When you move, the first projects you get are tied to the people you used to work with. So the first thing I did was the launch of Jean Paul Gaultier’s corset perfume. Another was the launch of Miu Miu for Miuccia Prada. Then I worked with John Bartlett and Ghost. Very quickly, I took over Donna Karan and DKNY producing the shows. I did Prada in Milan, and I began taking on others: Dior, Galliano, Victoria’s Secret… I didn’t really have a portfolio, and I still don’t––we’ve had Coming Soon on our website for the past 15 years! We’re coming soon, I swear! [Laughs] I guess it’s all the love and dedication, and from there it’s just being patient, having people know and see your work. What I was doing was very different from what was being done. I try to always do it very sincerely, very personally, and very passionately. I try to think for the brand I do it for, not just for me. I fight for what I believe to be right for the brand to go in the direction it should.
SC: What is the collaborative process like with brands and designers?
AdB: No one lets you do whatever you want. But it’s about analyzing the person, the brand, and the company you work for, and trying to use your objectivity and knowledge to tell them what they should do to be more “them.” My job is to advance the inner qualities of the brands we work with. It’s just a subtle exercise in taking everything you have to make the brand be everything they are.
SC: What’s it like working with a brand over time? Is there always innovation?
AdB: That’s a good question. I think it’s like life and love. The deeper the relationship––for friends, love, and work––the more you need to reinvent yourself so that the relationship never becomes too comfortable. And yes, we live in a world that wants more novelty, faster and quicker every time. But I think people still understand depth and savoire faire. So if you have deep qualities as a designer, you shouldn’t change who you are every six months. You should dig deeper into your core identity and make it better every time, not drastically different. You can be attracted to many things, you can be inspired by different topics, but if you’re generally creative, you’re going to reinterpret them in a personal way, which is always going to be yours. Therefore it’s going to be consistent with what the brand is and what you are. You have to keep understanding that the world evolves, and that you have to evolve with it. Otherwise, you get old.
SC: Do you find that exhausting?
AdB: I find it exhausting when it’s a race and it’s not natural. Personally, I’m not exhausted because I don’t go against what I believe. I stay away from people who change every season because they think they have to.
SC: Your creations are ultimately so bracketed in time and space. Do you wish something like the snow tunnel you created for the JOHN GALLIANO FW09 show wasn’t so ephemeral?
AdB: John’s briefs were always very short, like, “Make it dangerous and S&M” or, “Make it surreal.” For that show, he wanted Slavic winter tzarinas. The idea for the snow came up very naturally and spontaneously. I wanted to put the models in no space and no time. I wanted to be completely abstract, modern, and futuristic, yet also completely narrative and realistic. So I wondered, “What happens if you throw a laser into real snow?” And it made something completely crazy and mad.
And the great thing was that when you arrived in the room––this gigantic, empty, ugly, all-concrete industrial hole in Paris––there was only a line of benches. You couldn’t even tell where the light would come from, since we frontlit the space with two followspots from far away. I remember when we opened with Tom Waits’ cover of “Roxanne,” and the snow started falling. It was magic. It’s a show I still love and I think people remember.
But the night before the show, I had been ready to kill it all! At 4 or 5 in the morning, I remember kicking the machine, thinking, “It’s not working, it’s crap!” All night. Because it felt like a laser in one of cheap clubs in Ibiza. That extra little thing that makes it magical was not there. There’s a fine line between something that’s really bad and meaningless, and something that’s wow. And that hair-thin line is one of the reasons I do what I do, and why I get the adrenaline of doing it.
SC: Do you collect anything?
AdB: I don’t like the word collecting. Real collectors are academically anal about the rules of what they collect. I don’t believe in rules. I’ve loved robots since I was a kid and I’ve never stopped amassing them; I have hundreds everywhere. I love kinetic art and its late 60s artists of South America and Italy. So I have a lot of kinetic pieces that I like. Kinetic art sums up very well what I do, in a way, because it’s putting live action––movement, light, and sometimes sound––into an object in a very controlled manner, but with mathematically live discordances or events. At any given time, movements can produce shapes that are slightly different when done live. Which is what I do.
SC: Because what you do is live, there is also room for a lot of last-minute surprises, for the better or worse. What’s your most memorable production?
AdB: What we do is very planned yet it’s very live, so it’s true, anything can happen. PETA jumping onto the Victoria’s Secret runway one year and running after Gisele is one example. For god’s sake, it’s not like they produce fur or anything! But she had just come out in a fur campaign for a brand, and it happened to be her first time back on the runway. This kind of crazy thing created emotions and nightmares, yet made it a memorable experience. I’m not saying PETA should go ahead and jump on everyone so people can remember it. But unexpected problems can create memories.
SC: Do you have a favorite production that you have worked on?
AdB: Yes. But I haven’t done it yet. It’s yet to come!
read the original interview here