x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Why Peter Dundas is Pucci's prince of prints

Fashion pundit Katie Trotter interviews Peter Dundas, the poster boy behind Pucci's renaissance.

Peter Dundas prepares backstage prior the Emilio Pucci Spring/Summer 2011 Womenswear fashion show during Milan Fashion Week in September 2010. Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images
Peter Dundas prepares backstage prior the Emilio Pucci Spring/Summer 2011 Womenswear fashion show during Milan Fashion Week in September 2010. Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images

The last thing you expect Peter Dundas to be is the fashion guy. From his sheer physical presence, he's a car man maybe, a surfer or a quarterback - the sort of guy who rides a motorbike that roars like a chainsaw. What he is, is in fact "the prince of prints" - the creative director of Pucci, the Italian luxury label.

Dundas doesn't just walk the room, the Norwegian-born 43-year-old swaggers - struts even - perhaps as part of his identity as the man to inject sex appeal back into the house of Pucci. At 6ft 2in (188cm) he stands in a pair of his signature white jeans and a slightly too-tight T-shirt, allowing us to catch a glimpse at the smattering of tattoos (strangely, the only thing he refuses to talk to me about).

A down-to-earth man in that he caters to basic things, such as beauty, desire and emotion, Dundas is what some may call a professional provocateur (he unabashedly declared in 2010 that he only made clothes to be taken off)."There are so many things to love in a woman I don't know where to start," he says. "Her strength, her softness, her wit, her determination, her body language and her compassion." He could go on. This is clearly a man who loves women.

Yet it is his refreshing honesty that is most surprising - something rare in the fashion world; the fear of letting the house down or revealing something that doesn't suit the brand is something that designers are so cleverly moulded into. He talks about his shortcomings and insecurities with the ease of someone who rarely doubts himself - at least with the big things anyway - and is comfortable enough not to feel the need to disguise his sensitivities. He offers - to some - what would be rather personal information on a plate, admitting freely that he wishes he had held his mother one last time before she died, and of the time he once "hit rock bottom and completely ran out of steam". A frightening time he never wants to revisit.

Perhaps it's the Scandinavian thing (Dundas grew up in Oslo), for nothing seems to be deemed neither too shocking nor inappropriate. "I am Scandinavian by birth - it's a place where the body and sexuality are essential parts of life. Of course they are part of my work. I think what I do best is sex appeal. I think, for a woman, feeling special and looking desirable is worth any creative extremity."

Despite his preconceived shortcomings, Dundas was probably a great deal more equipped for his role than he believed. Having moved with his family to Indiana, USA, from Norway at 14 and briefly flirting with the idea of studying medicine (more to please his father than anything else) he went onto to attend Parsons The New School for Design in New York. He then headed to Paris to begin his fashion career at Jean-Paul Gaultier. Impressive stints at Christian Lacroix (who once designed for Pucci himself) and Roberto Cavalli followed before Dundas landed his first creative director role at Emanuel Ungaro, something he admits he was wholly unprepared for. "I was completely petrified, but Ungaro taught me the importance of creating a viable business. When your business is strong it is easier to defend your creative vision."

Most of us know Pucci, a house married to print - specifically, a boldly-coloured, neo-psychedelic pop pattern founded by Emilio Pucci in 1947 in Florence, dedicated to resort clothing and worn by Sophia Loren, Jackie Onassis, and Marilyn Monroe (who was buried in one of his dresses) - a house so riddled with its own history that making a mark as a young designer is difficult. When Dundas was recruited in 2008 (after the departure of Matthew Williamson, who had served as Pucci's creative director for the previous six seasons) he was well aware of the risk involved. "We were in the middle of a recession and I knew I wanted to change the image, which is never easy, but deep down I didn't have any particular reservations. Pucci is a fantastic brand and I approached it with enthusiasm. I still do. I knew no matter what I did, it would be successful if done with excellence."

By his own admission, perhaps rather unfairly, he isn't so much an intellectual, but more an instinctive designer. "My approach is more about being respectfully disrespectful," he explains.

What Dundas has done is to inject a darker, youthful, more mysterious edge into the brand, carving his own path and creating an aesthetic that has meshed well with the House of Pucci's original jet-set retro appeal. He is mixing up the label's stereotypical psychedelic pop with a new bolder aesthetic that lends itself to the red carpet.

There was, of course, an already successful formula in the Pucci woman - a woman that would now be 80 or more today - and one that needed a new direction. "I love the history of the brand, but my job was to take the girl somewhere new. I think Pucci is fortunate to have a strong identity, but that doesn't mean that archive patterns are what we have to blindly reproduce." His job was to give her a face and an identity and to achieve that, he had to change perceptions.

It's a fine line Dundas is treading between the new fun-loving party girl he has created and the now almost distant memory of the house of Pucci's classical Italian roots. Having chosen "the opulence of Indochina" for his Spring / Summer 2013 show, we witnessed an abundance of crystal, ethnic-inspired embroideries albeit trapped under nothing more than a very sheer column of chiffon, much to the delight of the photographers. Perhaps at times we need to focus less on the sexual tension he plays off and more on his cutting techniques, which are remarkable but often in danger of being overshadowed.

Light touches of decadence now linked to the brand were exploited with hand-painted gold dragons, tigers and fauna; embroidered onto silk crepe for a gilded effect - heat seeking clothes he describes as "the Pucci girls after dark uniform".

Does he worry? "Of course I worry. These are trying economic times and a whole company depends on my judgment but you kind of learn to trust your instincts and your acquired knowledge. I want to constantly feel I'm leading my life to the fullest and that I'm the best I can be."

The somewhat curious partnership had the potential to go blunderingly wrong. But, despite initial speculation of impending disaster, it did not. In fact, quite the contrary. His recent collections have had myriad successes, not to mention a smattering of red carpet showstoppers (mostly heart flutteringly, short mini-dresses) seen on the likes of Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow (who can forget the white, side-split column Gwyneth Paltrow wore to the 2010 premiere of Country Strong), Eva Longoria and Evangeline Lilly.

His dresses (some of which eschew prints altogether) are made for women who defy convention; undeniably beautiful, but also traffic-stoppingly risky with their body-clinging silhouettes, plunging necklines or completely cut-out backs.

Yet transformation is exactly what he set out to do and Dundas is a man who gets what he wants."The answer no is unbearable and so often unnecessary," he says. Yet, unlike many of his contemporaries he is under no pretence or illusions about the eccentric world he inhabits, and approaches the industry with a healthy tongue-in-cheek type of irreverence. I get the feeling an excess of any nature excites him and his clothes reflect that. "I think the lifestyle vibe is part of Pucci and perhaps that makes me Pucci's appointed posterboy. I suppose I like intensity in anything I do. If not, what would the point be?