In Paris, the legendary designer discusses the transition to Cavalli, his international upbringing, and the service of fashion in troubled times.
Turning around a corner in the bar of the Park Hyatt in Paris, Peter Dundas materializes on a sofa—golden surfer curls, snug jeans, his tan game strong. The night before, his boyfriend, the actor Evangelo Bousis, took him to a Céline Dion concert, and he’s a little coy about it. He wants the burger but goes for baby spinach with prawns. “I’ve got a wedding in Mykonos next week,” he sighs. It goes with the jet set lifestyle, which Dundas—as a fashion celebrity—can’t really help but lead. Luckily, he’s got the star quality to back it up—that most elusive of super powers, and fashion doesn’t have a lot of them. Isabella Blow was one, John Galliano is another. Unlike designers who take their bow in baggy jeans and a washed out white t-shirt, Dundas and his larger than life peers wear their hearts on their sleeves. They could never not look like that, because they live and breathe the beautiful life they’ve created. La dolce vita. “I don’t think you’re supposed to make depressing clothes for depressive times,” Dundas says. “If there’s economic hardship, should we all be wearing black? That doesn’t make sense to me.” As Donatella Versace would have it: Less, darling, is really just less.
It’s a week after Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union, and throughout the men’s shows in June—and now couture—Paris has had the blues, backed up by a year of recent terror attacks and the reality of France’s dire economy. Like the rest of Europe—and America, too—the state of the EU has created a Paris even more divided than it already was, right and left of the river, and certainly of the political spectrum, too. If fashion is a reflection of everything, its two poles are expressed through dreamers and realists: the anti escapist new kids on the block fronted by Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy, who seek a sense of grounded authenticity through their work, and on the other side, the guardians of the fashion fantasy to which Dundas and his house, Roberto Cavalli, have always belonged. “Fashion is a weird thing, because it’s so subjective. It makes people insecure,” he says. “Of course you want to have relevance in what you do, but I also think fashion is supposed to make you dream. It’s one of our duties.” That fact isn’t just splitting into two camps the designers of the industry, but their spectators as well. “I always find it difficult when people talk to me about analyzing from the point of view that what I’m doing is not their cup of tea,” Dundas says.
He tells the story of a since retired fashion critic who came backstage before his debut show as the newly appointed creative director of Emanuel Ungaro in 2005. “Don’t you think all these 80s getups were a really horrible moment in fashion? Why on earth did you go there?” she asked him. “A, it was half an hour before my first solo show ever, and B, I obviously believe in it if I’m doing it,” he says. “So it always gets a bit tricky when you have to defend what you do.” Of course, that question mark is a sign of the times. In the 80s and 90s, designers didn’t have to defend the dream, no matter how lavish or opulent it was. But times have changed, making this designer a unicorn amongst the clothes horses. Since Dundas took the reins at Roberto Cavalli in 2015, following more than six lauded years at the helm of Emilio Pucci, he has insisted on holding on to the fantasy world—and excelled in it, too. His rakish sophomore collection of Belle Époque rock goddesses for Fall/Winter 2016 proved it, drawing rave reviews that all echoed the same Dundas centric sentiment, even if the invitation said Cavalli on it.
“Dundas has always been fashion’s most committed translator of the louche world of the early 70s rock chick,” Sarah Mower wrote, echoed by Suzy Menkes: “[He] may have referenced the past, but new life was put into the familiar.” It’s no surprise, then, that likeability comes naturally to Peter Dundas. He has the light heartedness often associated with his Norwegian countrymen, but a surprisingly reserved character for a man sitting there lit up by all his fabulous gear like some rhinestone Viking. He’s wearing a U.S. army jacket covered in Cavalli insignia from his men’s Fall/Winter 2016 collection. “My jeans are Cavalli, my belt’s Cavalli, my scarf ’s Cavalli,” he pauses, pulling at one very fancy baroque number with a leopard on it. His boots are Cavalli too; snow leopard on a heel, which isn’t nearly as high as the men’s platform boots he’s designed for his decadent traveler’s collection for Spring/Summer 2017. “I’m afraid I’m going to look like Frankenstein,” he says, but he’s still getting them. “I like how men look in heels. It makes their legs look nice.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to make depressing clothes for depressive times.”
January’s men’s collection wasn’t just Dundas’s first for Cavalli—it was the first of his career, too, allowing a spiffy dresser his first ever opportunity to dream up an entire wardrobe for himself. And he’s not afraid to admit it. “I’m sorry, I’m egotistical,” he shrugs. “If I cannot imagine it either for myself or my friends, I don’t want to do it.” Inspired by rock stars who’ve often been referenced in his womenswear as well—Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, Serge Gainsbourg, Gram Parsons—Dundas nailed fashion’s hot topic du jour, gender fluidity, but fused it with the masculine values that have always belonged to Cavalli. The house didn’t launch a men’s line until 1999, but the Roberto Cavalli man was always defined by the founder himself: his free spirited youthfulness as an Italian playboy in the 70s, setting the Florentine hills he called home on fire in a Ferrari Daytona and a leopard shirt. “I really followed my own sensibilities, but thank God they corresponded with Roberto’s,” Dundas says with a smile.
“I haven’t spoken to him for a while. I think he’s been busy with his Swedish island,” he says, referring to Stora Rullingen, the island not far from Stockholm that Mr. Roberto Cavalli bought with his Swedish Playmate girlfriend Sandra Nilsson after selling 90 percent of his fashion house to Clessidra SGR in April 2015, a month after Dundas was hired. “It’s not my first time at the rodeo,” Dundas points out, eyebrows bouncing like a Ken doll cowboy. “In this case too,” he quips. His first chief designer job was for Cavalli from 2002 until 2005, working under the suave expertise of Mr. Cavalli, Italy’s king of animal prints and general glamour. (Dundas spent two years working for Christian Lacroix in Paris prior to the move to Cavalli’s headquarters in Florence, preceded by eight years assisting Jean Paul Gaultier.) It was almost symbolic: as Roberto travelled north to the Nordic scenery where Dundas spent his childhood, his Norwegian successor went south to the Italy so synonymous with Cavalli. And it is perhaps a paradox that a boy from Norway should learn to speak the Italian language of glamour so fluently.
Born in Oslo in 1969, Dundas spent the first decade or so of his life in the pleasant but decidedly unglamorous bubble of Norway. “I didn’t know my mother because she died when I was four, but I think my father painted such a vivid picture of her. He always depicted her as very glamorous,” he says. Dundas can recall rummaging through her clothes as a boy, a colourful wardrobe of rich fabrics and lots of jewelry. “For me that was probably my first conception of what beauty and glamour were and what was desirable.” Those impressions would follow him through his childhood and adolescence where the white winters of Norway— sometimes so snowy he’d have to ski langrenn (“cross country”) to school through the forest—were interrupted by escapist get aways to see his maternal American grandparents in Indiana. “I loved visiting them and looking at “Life” magazines from the 40s; movie stars and a different life than my own.” At 14, Dundas moved there with his cardiovascular surgeon father, and became an all American high school student, who’d go on to study fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York. His continental accent still bears witness to a life spent crossing the Atlantic, more melodically Norwegian than jaw breakingly American, but with occasional Southern European pizzazz.
In Indiana, he was surrounded by a clothes loving aunt and a sister who shares his statuesque Norwegian physique. “She’s almost too glamorous because she’s five foot 11 and she loves four inch heels,” Dundas smiles. His father died a few years ago.
“He was a really fundamentally good person and he’s been an inspiration in life. I try to be that as well.” Dundas doesn’t at any point hint at the tough sides an uprooted childhood like his must have entailed, but his optimism never comes off as forced. Rather, it’s appreciative—the key to that beautiful life his whole character and lifestyle embody. He talks about his homes with exuberance, his main residence in West London’s Notting Hill as “a place where I go to let my guard down.” And every summer he opens his hammock filled house on an undisclosed Greek island to friends. “It’s simple, total relaxation,” he says. “No tourists. My neighbors are goats.” He has an apartment in Paris, but like any self respecting rock star, he prefers to stay at the Park Hyatt when in town.
For work, he’s rarely in Florence, where Cavalli was traditionally based. “It was important to turn the page for the company and also send a message that there was change both internally and externally.” So he moved the ateliers to Milan, where he insisted on having his office two doors down from the CEO. “I found that in the past, working in companies where the manage ment and myself were not in the same place, it left a lot of room for misunderstanding or lack of basic dialogue.” Taking over a family house as the first designer not of the blood is inevitably an unforgiving task. “You know, Roberto chased me for this. It was not the fund that now owns Cavalli that initially approached me— it was Roberto and Eva,” he asserts, name checking the Cavalli matriarch, who served a vital role in the company. “I really am there because there’s a part of the Cavalli language that’s my language as well. And so, even when I do things that are perceived by others as not being typical Cavalli, it’s coming from a place of knowledge and love.”
In the game of houses and designers, great expectations are fickle. When it comes to change, you’re often damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Dundas says he didn’t notice, but his debut collection for Cavalli—women’s Spring/Summer 2016, with its skimpy asymmetric dresses and floaty summertime trains covered in lion’s heads—did get his ride off to a bumpy start for some critics, although everyone could agree on an epic denim segment wisely extended by Dundas for Fall/Winter. “I’m very happy with that collection. I thought it was very honest. Maybe that’s why I was so unconcerned with the response to it,” he notes with the pragmatism of a designer who’s worked for enough houses to cultivate it. “I think the biggest challenge, and a unique one for me, was what to keep and what to discard when changes are expected. I had actually been part of creating some of that language that people associate with the brand today, so the challenge was how to change something that’s part of yourself as well.”
“Of course you want to have relevance in what you do, but I also think fashion is supposed to make you dream.
While Dundas’s first women’s collection for Cavalli largely represented a brighter, younger approach than the glitzy, yacht ready glamour favored by its founder, his sophomore collection took the Cavalli woman closer to Dundas’s Cavalli man: a rock ‘n’ roll sense of aged opulence with an emphasis on the 70s. It had all the glamour Cavalli stands for, but was rugged, decadent, and essentially much closer to Cavalli’s early work than the founder’s own efforts had been in recent years. Those collections were symptomatic of a house resting too much on its glamorous laurels, where routine had become protocol and a shake up was needed, right down to its foundation. Just Cavalli, the diffusion line launched in 1998 as a younger and more accessible take on the main line, had virtually lost its identity. “So the first thing I did was to cancel the show,” Dundas says. “I wanted to free it from the constraints of being runway friendly.” For Fall/Winter 2016, he staged a series of casual mini shows over one day in Milan, presenting his new Just Cavalli: skinny glam rock kids in vibrant, clubbier interpretations of that louche tone he’d already established for the parent label.
To highlight the Milanese youth scene for which Just Cavalli was originially created (but few visitors will ever see), he threw an enormous party for the city’s club kids that evening. “I ended up bartending because I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he laughs—and luckily he makes a good gin and tonic. Dundas, of course, is no stranger to the millennial generation of fervent Instagrammers who follow him for his ritzy lifestyle and illustrious posse of friends. When you make a name for yourself designing the kind of dresses Dundas does, expect Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ciara, and Naomi to follow you back. And he isn’t a fame snob. The first dress he designed as creative director for Cavalli was the heavily beaded, feathered ball gown Kim Kardashian West—that most divisive of superstars—wore to the Met Gala in 2015. “Here’s the thing: I really like Kim. I have a blast with her,” he says. “Yes, I did wonder what the reaction would be, but I was really happy with the way she looked, and I know she was as well. She’s keeping the dress for her daughter to get married in.”
As far as that glamour factor goes, so central to Cavalli, Dundas couldn’t have found a more dedicated pin up for his debut—or bigger scale exposure. And whether you like the Kardashian Wests or not, whether you think they’re trivial entertainment or a distraction from those disasters that preoccupy our lives right now, they represent that unapologetic escapism that creates the aspiration for a beautiful life—that Cavalli dream world far away from Brexit, terror, and failing economies. Looking at it like that, Peter Dundas plays a pretty decent role in fashion. “I don’t want it to sound like a cliché,” he says of going to Cavalli, “but it feels like going from a small passenger plane to flying a double decker.”
This article first appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2016 issue.