Stefan Beckman

Set design applied to fashion is often a last-minute affair

Cinematographic greatness and extreme attention to detail. American set designer Stefan Beckman has transformed the humble fashion show into a headlining event. Here his formula.

Coach, set design for 2019 Spring/Summer women's show

Famous for his long-term creative relationship with Marc Jacobs which has defined his characteristics and goals, Stefan Beckman is currently the most famous set designer in the fashion industry. An unstoppable creator of atmospheres which astound for the memories they create, despite the brevity of their existence.

From ceilings with fluffy white clouds to the all-red apartment of the legendary director of Vogue, Diana Vreeland - created with the use of printed drapery - his sets bring together a sense of drama and fantasy, minimalism and Pop, and go way beyond the physical limitations of the catwalk to embellish advertising campaigns by celebrated photographers, museum exhibition set-ups and post-show parties.

From outside becoming a set designer seems to be an unconventional education route, how was it yours?
I went to school and studied Theatre and Film. A great education that opened me up visually but not necessarily where I ended up. Along the way I fell into fashion and started working on shoots. I was fortunate enough to work with some legends like Steven Meisel. This was a great education in itself. Training your eye to a wide variety of ideas and themes. 

After you got the assignment from a fashion designer, what is your way to proceed into researching: consulting books, drawing furiously… ?
It’s always great to establish a visual language with a designer first.  It could be a mood, a color a nod or a gesture. Art, Books and films are always great places to start and to find inspiration. 

Considering the fixed elements of a fashion show like the catwalks and seating places, is very easy to dismiss set designing as mere background. But in your case is pretty much clear there is a strong personality behind it: apart from the fashion theme what is that you want to express with your design?
I want the set to enhance the theme of the collection. The best shows create a world and a personal narrative for that house or designer. People are often looking for a broader meaning of a collection and how it fits into our world. A set can help establish this.

In a set design for a fashion show what are the technical mistakes not to do?
Something that distracts from the clothes and does not work along side of it. You need to also be aware what’s happening in the world around us and be sensitive to it. 

Your close collaborations with Marc Jacobs, and Coach, are quite legendary in their visual impact. For example, the Diana Vreeland painted curtains and the roadside motel with neon lights have the same cinematographic power of Dante Ferretti’s work: on what terms did you developed such a profitable relationships with both of them? Have they changed through time?
For Coach it’s a more cinematic approach usually tied to the idea of the American Myth. Sometimes these evoke nostalgia and the way things used to be it supposed to be. These shows often feel like a dream of a thought or an ideal of a world. For Marc it’s a different approach. Themes and ideas change more drastically from season to season. Things are often more abstract. Music and sound also become more integral to show. I would say that these shows feel more like a bit of theatre. Marc being a great director orchestrating all of the details. These shows can bring out a range of emotions. Not always happy sometimes unsettling but always interesting. 

Was there ever a time you had total creative freedom from a designer’s brief?
It’s the designers show but I feel fortunate that I often push through big ideas that I feel passionate about that get built and produced. 

What gives you more satisfaction, a set full of props created for a one time only experience or a spare one with just digital projections?
Both have its merits. I do feel for the general public one big idea works best. I love the details but often it’s lost. Marc Jacobs SS 2014 is the perfect example. One of the hardest and one of the most rewarding.  It was perhaps the biggest set we have done for Marc. The set was a dilapidated beach. Crazy props and vignettes everywhere in the Armory. People were seated all over the place. In the end it was hard for people to focus on all and take it all in. 

One of the true aspects of a set is its fleetingness. Is it something that pushes you in doing the most to strike a cord into the audience or do you sometimes dream of something more persistent, like architecture?
I started working on shoots where you are creating temporary environments that no one will have a chance to experience. Shows and installations however fleeting at least are  able to connect emotionally with a viewer and a group of people. 

How much does it take to design and build a set on location? Do the “fashion system” give you enough time or is it always last minute?
It’s often last minute. Sometimes we have more time. Several months at best.  Marc Jacobs’s sets are generally conceived and executed in less than 2 weeks. It’s a crazy notion but makes sense. Often a collection doesn’t come together until the end. This enables a strong connection for set to the theme of the show. 

Several stylist moved eventually into the cinema, have you ever thought about doing the same?
I have done some shorts and small films some fashion related. If I find the time I would love to do a feature film. I just want to keep on doing creative projects in any arena. 

Stefan Beckman
Stefan Beckman

Shows, elaborated editorials, short videos and instant gratification: seems like the best of time to be a set designer, is it? I feel very fortunate how my career has been able to evolve over time. Luckily there are Lots of needs now for visual statements. 

Are there any designers from the past you would have wanted to work with, maybe because of some great iconic collections?Haven’t worked with John Galliano yet. Have great respect for his creative process. Was fortunate enough to do one shoot with Alexander McQueen. If I would go back in time I would love to work with Schiaparelli.

What does it mean to work knowing your work will suddenly be posted on Instagram: have the photogenic coefficient value ultimately influenced the research? Yes. At its best Instagram has given a visual platform to a vast array of people. People are aware. On the flip side are clients looking for those Instagram moments. It’s become the thing for better or worse.

Stefan Beckman
"I want the set to enhance the theme of the collection. The best shows create a world and a personal narrative for that house or designer. People are often looking for a broader meaning of a collection and how it fits into our world. A set can help establish this." Stefan Beckman

Did you ever say to yourself about a set you highly admired: “Damn, I wish I could have done it”?.
Some of the McQueen shows are epic and still inspiring to watch. Think of Shalom being sprayed with paint by a robotic arm. It still is captivating! 

What are your advices to a young person that would like to be a set designer?
Take any creative opportunity you can. Even a small shoot or project can lead to a connection with someone you might work with in the future. Also do different things. Work in different departments or with different groups of people. It only adds to more life experiences.

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