Alexandre de Betak Has Mastered the Art of Pesto

The renowned fashion-show designer keeps his many obsessions on heavy rotation—the pasta sauce included.

The renowned fashion-show designer keeps his many obsessions on heavy rotation—the pasta sauce included.

A peculiar merry-go-round of ideas inspires me. I’ve got this quest for perfection. It’s very annoying, actually. Some people go into one obsession at a time, removing the previous one and putting all of their energy into the new one. I don’t do that. On the contrary, I continue to go deeper into exploring or knowing and experiencing the things I’m interested in.

I’ve been thinking about robots, for example, since I was five years old. I’m now 49, but I still buy and collect robots—or make some, even. I’ve had Vespas since I was 14 and, more than 30 years later, I’m still driving Vespas. I’m more mature today than I was back then, of course; maybe I should start looking to buy cars or motorbikes, but I really don’t care to. I’m also obsessed with Japan. I’ve been going at least a couple of times every year for at least 25 years. I still feel I could go many hundreds of times and not know enough about the place. I’m particularly interested in sake. At home, I’ve built my own machine that allows for the tasting of three types of cold sake at the perfect temperature.

I like the idea of perfecting things. Like something I’ve cooked a thousand times: How can I make it different or better? By exploring something over and over and over, I can push it to the limits or experience it in new, subtle ways. Take pesto. I’ve been cooking pesto with pasta for the past 20 years, making them at my home in Spain, where I grow a field of various types of basil. I improvise with it, whether it’s for four people or a hundred. I’ve made pesto from a mix—obviously—of basil and garlic and pine nuts, but also anything from raspberries and strawberries and seeds to different types of cheese. I reinvent it all the time.

What I’m describing isn’t all that different from how fashion shows function. The reason I’ve done a ton and keep doing more is probably the repetition of the same format and the fact that it can continue to evolve into something else. I hope they’re all different—I don’t think they’re all the same. For me, the fashion shows are about going deeper and deeper into my knowledge and experience with them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been buying a lot of kinetic art for many years, largely because it really inspires what I do. I design temporary architectures that are a mix of light and sound and movement—you can see the association to kinetic art in my work. Sometimes, the line between kinetic art and my work gets confusing.

Some of my shows have been called “spectacular,” but what they really are is a very precise choreography of many elements—the sound, the light, the special effects, the movement. They’re cued and timed in a very exact manner, down to the millisecond. In a way, kinetic art is that: a choreography of different elements put into a box or an art piece. I presume I’ve been drawn to kinetic art for that reason, not the other way around. I started doing what I do when I was a teenager. Everything in my life is somehow connected to these moving parts, from pesto to Vespas to sake to kinetic art.

The author is a New York–based designer of fashion shows, events, and furniture. His new book, Betak: Fashion Show Revolution, was recently published by Phaidon.

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