I love the work of Peter Dundas (especially his fine tailoring) and I always thought he was like a party boy locked in a monastery when he worked for Pucci.
I am delighted to learn that he has been liberated from a back street in Florence to be snapped up by Roberto Cavalli.
Despite the famous Milanese maison’s problems with debt and potential investors, RC remains a house devoted to sex and creative anarchy. For Dundas, the gig will be like putting a kid in a candy store. All his innovative fireworks, which were kept damp and unlit by the corporate joy dousers at LVMH (and by Signora Pucci herself), will now be gloriously put to the torch. Oh what a bang there will be! The Cavalli legacy will be secure – or at least it will be in the hands of a man who knows more about why a woman puts on a sexy dress than most.
I interviewed Dundas after he had presented his second collection at Pucci. The piece remains fresh and is worth a revisit for an insight into what makes Dundas one of the few designers working in Milan who can make people’s hearts beat faster. Here it is:
Fashion is supposed to be hot. A designer isn’t paid astronomical sums to be boring, although many often are. When a designer parades his or her new looks down a runway, the audience should experience a measure of shock and awe. Heartbeats should quicken and fashionistas should tap out ‘OMG’s to the Twittersphere.
All of these things happened when Peter Dundas revealed his collection for spring-summer 2010, which was shown for the first time last October, in the 18th century splendour of Milan’s Palazzo Serbelloni. People were moved, pulses were turbocharged and some spectators were aroused to the point of needing a cold shower.
Suzy Menkes, the redoubtable and slightly Victorian doyenne of the fashion establishment, stumbled out onto the northern Italian city’s Corso Venezia and complained to the chill air that it had all been ‘excessive’. The International Herald Tribune correspondent tottered off to her limousine muttering something about there having been ‘too many hot bodies’.
Maybe Menkes and fashion’s old guard have become too comfortable with the astringent asexuality of fashion’s gay designers: famous and powerful men who are apt to build architectural contraptions around a woman’s body for fear of acknowledging too much of what lies beneath.
Dundas is not one of their number. Blatantly heterosexual, a surfer dude, a Scandinavian with a Viking’s eye for pillage and all that goes with it, this former child actor designs women’s clothing with a very particular purpose.
‘Do you know what I say to my designers?’ asks Dundas, affably, a few hours after his show, as he holds court in Pucci’s Milan showroom, his eyes twinkling with a sapphire blue that must have a hypnotic effect on the ladies. ‘I make clothes to be taken off. Because I like being naked myself. And I like nudity very much. And so I make clothes that are very much about somehow provoking the desire to remove them.’
This is a surprising announcement. In the corporate world of modern fashion, one has come to expect something more bland, some pabulum about continuing ‘the house’s heritage’ – most fashion labels, although they might have been founded by eccentric geniuses, have now become ‘brands’ within a global industry in which inventory and profit margin are often more important than creativity.
But Dundas appears to be different, even though Pucci is part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) empire (with stores in Pacific Place and Shanghai), created by luxury retail’s arch-disciplinarian Bernard Arnault. Dundas seems to have been given room to play like a happy child on a sun-drenched beach with Arnault’s full blessing.
‘For this season I really wanted to draw on the sea and the aquatic or underwater universe,’ says Dundas of his collection, which has such a sexy, surreal ?lan that it seems like a cross between the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine and one of Italian film director Federico Fellini’s essays in eroticism. ‘I went for a diving holiday after my last show was over and I suppose I wanted to capture the freedom you get from being underwater and the paradise colours you see in the deeps. I don’t really come at the design process from an intellectual point of view. It’s just about my passion.’
When Dundas talks this way it becomes obvious why the management at LVMH chose him to take over the designer’s desk when Matthew Williamson left to create his own label in 2008. Pucci is a very particular fashion house with a very special history and its heritage calls out for somebody with a unique eye.
The Pucci label took its first steps on the bunny slopes of Zermatt, during the 1947 ski season. Emilio Pucci, also known as Marchese di Barsento, had designed some skiwear for a female friend, using a new type of stretch fabric. The woman’s outfit was captured by a photographer working on the Swiss slopes for Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine’s editor was impressed and asked Pucci to design skiwear for a feature on European winter fashion. The designs appeared in the winter 1948 edition of Bazaar and caused a sensation. Within months Pucci had left the Italian air force to set up an haute couture house on the Isle of Capri.
Despite the almost accidental way in which his label was launched, Pucci should not be mistaken for a flighty socialite who fell into fashion on a whim. The Puccis have a substance that reaches deep into the past. Emilio’s ancestors arrived in Florence in the early part of the 14th century and the large palace where Dundas works today was built in the 16th century, when the Pucci family was closely allied with the Medicis, who ruled over Florence for almost 300 years.
The Puccis of the 1500s were friends of Da Vinci and Michelangelo as well as being influential in Florentine politics throughout the Renaissance. Their descendants occupied important positions in Florence throughout the years that followed and Emilio was expected to follow suit.
He preceded his career in fashion with a doctorate in political science from the University of Florence, after which he joined the air force and became a bomber pilot during world war two, winning a medal for bravery. During the 1940s, Pucci became close friends with Edda Ciano, daughter of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After Ciano’s husband was executed for opposing Mussolini, young Pucci (let’s ignore his earlier support for fascism) helped to smuggle his friend across the Swiss border to safety.
The end of the war did not mark the end of Pucci’s high-risk endeavours. He loved to ski and race fast cars, the former giving him an entree into the world of fashion that made him even richer and internationally famous. Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy became fans and Marilyn Monroe was buried in a Pucci dress after her untimely death in 1962.
The 1960s marked the emergence of Pucci as an icon of pop art. The swirling, psychedelic patterns that he made his own became his trademark, as closely associated with his name as the quilted bag is with Chanel. And, in 1965, when the US airline Braniff asked Pucci to design uniforms for its crews, he broke into the mainstream consciousness of the American public and his patterns were copied by hundreds of cut-price retailers.
A seemingly inevitable decline set in after Emilio’s death in 1992. For the next eight years, his daughter, Laudomia, designed under the family name but by then the Pucci swirls had become passe. In 2000, LVMH purchased 67 per cent of the company and began the process of shoring up its wilting heritage. LVMH shipped in Christian Lacroix in 2002 – he departed three years later after failing to make much of an impact – and then Williamson, in 2005. And now there is Dundas. And at last the Pucci Palazzo may have a prince it can look up to, one who can escape the powerful ghost of Emilio and create a new look for a house that has been trapped in a clich? of its own making for too long.
‘The original Pucci patterns were like body painting,’ says Dundas, as he lounges in one of the grand reception rooms of the Pucci Palazzo in the week following his show. ‘That was a perfect fit for me because I love the human body and it is the greatest source of inspiration for me. A woman’s body is a powerful tool because I really believe in animal instincts. As a man, I know, once you get past a certain point, you don’t reason any longer. So I believe a woman’s power to create that response should always be enhanced.’
It’s hard to imagine Karl Lagerfeld or Marc Jacobs talking in such frank terms about fashion’s power to arouse. As members of fashion’s older generation, one in which the gay aesthetic came to dominate, they have been more inclined to use theatrical motifs derived from a Moulin Rouge style of sensuality rather than the bluntly erotic. But then Dundas is part of a new wave in fashion, a muscular macho man who wants to get down and dirty in the cutting room.
‘For me sensuality always has something erotic about it,’ he says. ‘I love creating clothing that makes women feel desirable and powerful because she is desirable and able to provoke that desire in men.’
Post-modernist sensibility says that sex in fashion must be ironic, a playful paradox in which nothing is quite what it seems. Dundas would prefer to be more direct, more full on. One suspects Emilio Pucci would approve. Like his predecessor in the palazzo, Dundas likes extreme sports and often feels at home when kite-surfing or diving and he now has the money – if not the leisure time – to engage in both.
The young-ish designer, who refuses to say how young, or old, he is, arrived at his enviable place in life through a series of unusual turning points. Born in Norway, he was four years old when his mother died of influenza. The event was a heart-breaking tragedy for Dundas and his father, who was 50 and unprepared to raise a son on his own, a fact that helped the future designer on the road to fame.
‘He dressed me in things that he thought were appropriate based on his recollection of what he wore when he was a child,’ says Dundas, suppressing a smile. ‘It made me look like a bit of an oddball, so I would have to go to a flea market, digging through the racks looking for something I could wear.’
When Dundas hit nine his good looks and blond curls led to a big break. A casting director searching for child actors to join a regional theatre company spied him through the railings of his school playground. A three-year adventure on the stage followed.
‘I bought clothes with my first pay cheque, I didn’t buy toys,’ he says. ‘That’s probably what got me started, what ignited my interest in fashion. Working in regional theatre was quite unglamorous and a bit of an eye opener for a nine-year-old. Although it was a children’s play, the actors made it feel like something darker was going on. They lived nocturnal lives and would come in with hangovers the next day. One night I came off stage and found two adults actually doing it, in the wings.’
At 14, Dundas was sent to live with some of his mother’s relatives in the United States. He attended art school in New York and, at graduation, was told he needed to rethink his design style from A to Z or go somewhere else. He ended up in Paris, where he found work at the Comedie-Francaise, designing costumes for a stage version of Alexandre Dumas’ Caligula.
‘Paris was quite tough for foreigners back then, before the European Union had reached its current status,’ he recalls. ‘There used to be police everywhere and they’d be constantly stopping me to inspect my papers. I was living in this 90-francs-a-night hotel room and had all my food in plastic bags hanging out the window to save money. I couldn’t afford restaurants.’
This may well have been a defining moment for Dundas. Creative people have to find the depths of their passion, to endure an experience that tests their resolve and establishes that their talent and love of their art is real. A lesser man might have been driven to look for a more stable career but, hungry and poor, Dundas found himself completely absorbed in his work.
‘I would be sitting in the hotel at 2am and stuff would be bouncing around in my head, and that’s when I would start to get the play,’ he says, his large hands drumming the table, looking more like the fists of a sculptor than a fashion designer. ‘That’s when I would see the character and understand what he would wear or choose not to wear. It made me feel like I was growing as a person, because I was understanding human nature a bit. For me it was fantastic. I had practically no money but the experience was rich, so incredibly rich.’
It also proved to be enriching. After the first night of Caligula’s run, Dundas was hand-picked by Jean Paul Gaultier to become the great designer’s assistant.
‘I went in to see him and I was offered a job immediately,’ says Dundas, who was with Gaultier for four years (before stints at Roberto Cavalli and Ungaro) and learned an important rule from working with one of the industry’s most anarchic figures.
‘We had a discussion about pushing limits and he told me that I should always include one aspect of familiarity in whatever I do, and that way I’d get away with a lot more. Since then I have always tried to locate something classical in everything I design, which I think lends rigour to the garment.’
This was a useful lesson; and one Dundas had best keep in mind as he pushes Pucci’s limits and looks for a way to reinvent the brand for the 21st century, because he’s in an unusual situation. Not only does he have Arnault’s gimlet eye gazing at him from the Mordor of Avenue Montaigne but he has the founder’s daughter and wife living on the premises. Both Laudomia Pucci and the Baronessa Cristina Nannini (Mrs Emilio Pucci) have apartments in the palazzo and take an active interest in Dundas’ work. Maybe this is why he approaches the design process with the rigour and dread of a master craftsman who is really a surfer-dude slacker at heart.
‘What annoys me the most is that my mind is not sharp for a certain part of the season,’ says Dundas as he walks past the room in which his assistants are hard at work – and which, 500 years ago, may have hosted a ball attended by the Medicis and Michelangelo. ‘This initial dullness of the mind is incredibly annoying. It’s stressful for me and probably for everybody around me as well.’
Some designers might plunge into the Pucci archives or hit the Uffizi Gallery – a few blocks away – to find inspiration. Dundas has done a bit of that but he’s more likely to head out to find a mosh pit at an indie rock concert.
‘I don’t go to museums a lot and if I had to choose between Michelangelo and Warhol it would have to be Warhol I’m afraid,’ he says, almost whispering, as if he might offend one of the Renaissance tapestries nearby. ‘I’m more about energy, I get more from energy. If I go and see a concert – like I just went to see Gossip [the American dance-punk band led by Beth Ditto] – I’ll absorb a lot of energy and that provokes me to go home and design.’
It suddenly seems obvious whom Dundas resembles. He has an old-school rock ‘n’ roll charisma, like that of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant or The Who’s Roger Daltrey back in the (pre-post-modern) day when front men had to be possessed of enough virile energy to power up an electric guitar or charge an audience with nothing but a thrust of their pelvis.
The comparison makes him thoughtful as we walk the marble hallways, as if he’s considering another change of career, a leap back to the stage, this time with a Stratocaster in hand. But no. He’s just thinking about the clothes.
‘Usually my collections start with a word or a colour or a phrase or a reaction to something,’ he says. ‘In the end I’m just trying to enhance a woman’s body as much as possible. If I’m doing an open back, I want to do it right and not go dangerously low. If it’s a neckline I want a woman to feel secure with what I’ve done but at the same time it should be provoking.’
Right. In other words clothes to be worn when getting naked is near the top of the menu. And for this venerable Florentine fashion house that means S-E-X is now stitched into the label just as boldly as P-U-C-C-I, which makes it all the more surprising to discover what Dundas would do if he wasn’t a fashion designer or a plastic surgeon (his father’s choice).
‘I was brought up as an actor but I might have been some kind of [religious] minister as well,’ he says, looking a bit surprised to hear the words come out of his mouth. ‘I think there’s a sense of spirituality within me. It’s completely informal.’
Does he sense, as he works, that there is some kind of dialogue going on, with some kind of higher power?
‘Sometimes,’ he says, soberly. ‘I do.’