Peter Dundas

In his two years at Emilio Pucci, designer Peter Dundas has shepherded forth a youth movement at the 63-year-old Italian house—one that has both tapped into the romantically lavish ’60s European lifestyle out of which it was born and served as a reminder of a kind of glamour that has nearly begun to vanish from fashion. The original Pucci, Emilio, who died in 1992, founded the label in 1947 in Florence, Italy. Three years later, he opened his first boutique, which was dedicated to resort clothing, on the island of Capri, before expanding into dresses featuring the kind of boldly colored, neo-psychedelic pop patterns that would become his signature. It was a testament to the vividness (and maybe even the trippiness) of Pucci’s vision that a diverse range of iconic women of the era, including Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, all wore his clothes. When Dundas was recruited in 2008 to design for Pucci after the departure of Matthew Williamson, who had served as Pucci’s creative director for the previous six seasons, he seized on that idea: that the brand was built around something more than a beachy flamboyance—that it was about a kind of youthful iconoclasm and a way of being and moving about the world that, in Dundas’s reading, was chic without being fusty, luxe without being louche, and a little bit rock ’n’ roll without being patently rock ’n’ roll.

As most fashion people know, Dundas likes to have a good time, and his clothes reflect that. Even the dresses and gowns he has designed for Pucci, some of which eschew prints altogether, have a kind of subversive mischievousness about them—a surprising color, a body-clinging silhouette, a plunging neck- or back-line. There’s an insouciance about convention and decorum, a kind of sexy, fun-loving, get-up-and-dance quality to the clothes—and, by extension, the women who wear them—that’s perfectly, if precariously, tantalizing. The result has been a broadening—and perhaps a rejuvenating—of the Pucci brand under Dundas’s watch that has transformed his tenure at the label itself into a good time that seems to promise even better ones to come.

If Dundas’s work reflects a deep appreciation for the artful excess of Pucci, as well as for designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli, then it’s with good reason. A quick glance at his pre-Pucci résumé reveals that he’s spent a good portion of his working life, if unintentionally, preparing for the job. Born in Oslo, Norway, Dundas, whose father is Norwegian and mother is American, moved with his family to Indiana at age 14. After graduating from high school, he set off for New York City to attend Parsons the New School for Design before heading to Paris to begin his fashion career in earnest, scoring a job in Gaultier’s atelier. Stops at Christian Lacroix—who himself designed for Pucci—and Cavalli followed before Dundas landed his first creative director job five years ago at Emanuel Ungaro.

Pharrell Williams recently spoke to Dundas, who was at Pucci headquarters—a grand palazzo in Florence—about building upon the legacy of Emilio Pucci, and where the road ahead might lead.

My biggest muses in fashion are probably rock ’n’ roll girlfriends, like Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull and Bianca Jagger—and then maybe Patti Smith a bit as well.Peter Dundas

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: Pucci is based in Florence?

PETER DUNDAS: Yes. I mean, it’s probably one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. It’s very quiet as well—there’s not much nightlife—so it definitely keeps me focused on the work. You just got back from Paris?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. That’s a beautiful city too.

DUNDAS: Do you have a place there? Or do you stay in hotels?

WILLIAMS: You know, I’ve debated that for a decade. Like 10 years ago I almost bought a flat there just to have a place there in the art district, but my manager at the time convinced me not to. I regret it though, because my experiences being there would have been very different if I’d been staying in my own place.

DUNDAS: Well, he was probably afraid of losing you there or something, because Paris is one of the most incredible places to live. Once you get bitten by the city, you never leave. I just got a place there two years ago, and that’s like my main base in a way, because I feel like I have to go back every so often. It just grows on you—the look of the city, the way people hang out there. If you’re in Europe, it’s good for that.

WILLIAMS: It’s a lovely place. So, as you know, I’m a fan of yours. I think you’re a very smart designer who is working at a classic brand. How has it been for you so far working at Pucci?

DUNDAS: Well, obviously I think it’s one of the best houses in Italy—and one of the most legendary ones as well. That’s why I came here. I also like the idea of working with a house that has a history that you can collaborate and exchange ideas with in the way you would with another person.

WILLIAMS: What’s inspiring you at the moment?

DUNDAS: I’m not intellectual at all as a designer. Whatever I’m into at the moment is usually what becomes the collection. Like, last year, I was super-into diving, and the whole collection that season became about aquatic life. The year before was my first collection for Pucci, and I was just starting the job and working in his Renaissance Palazzo, where Pucci is headquartered, so that inspired me. I suppose right now what’s inspiring me is this book on Pucci we just did. We just dropped this huge coffee-table book on Pucci. It was pretty much finished when I came to it, so I didn’t contribute too much, but thinking about it made me ask a little bit about what the house means to me. I found this image in the book. It was an old image of Emilio Pucci hanging out by the seaside with all of these women, and that’s exactly how I used to think about this house—more of a lifestyle thing, you know? This beautiful life. So I’m really working on that right now, on trying to get that lifestyle aspect of the house to be as strong as possible. So I guess that’s the inspiration of the moment.

WILLIAMS: Does music play any kind of role in your design process?

DUNDAS: Absolutely. I mean, I think it does for a lot of people. I’m incapable of functioning without music. I’ve always had it in my life. I played the violin when I was a kid, and my mother was a violinist at that point, so it’s always been important to me in one way or another. When I work, there’s always music cranking. I also spend tons of time on the music for the shows. I work with this DJ, Jeremy Healy, and we do, like, four or five sessions during the week leading up to the show where we put the music together. And then on another level, I think my biggest muses in fashion are probably rock ’n’ roll girlfriends, like Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull and Bianca Jagger—and then maybe Patti Smith a bit as well.

WILLIAMS: Well, let me ask you this: Can you describe your idea of the Pucci woman?

DUNDAS: I think she’s not a Pucci woman anymore. I want her to be a Pucci girl. That’s number one, because I think she should have that vibe that corresponds with today. Pucci—the house is, I think, 63 years old now. It’s an old house. The Pucci woman from the beginning would be 80 years old or something today, so I’ve kind of had to update her. I think a lot of people, when they think about the house, they think of the print. But when people think about Pucci, I want them to think about this really, really hot girl, so my biggest job today is to give her a face and an identity—and I do that by trying to associate that kind of print that people have in their minds with a kind of girl who is free-spirited, rebellious, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and who has a lot of energy, who is up. All of those things represent the Pucci woman to me today—or, I should say, the Pucci girl. [laughs]

WILLIAMS: You’ve worked for other venerable houses before. How is Pucci different?

DUNDAS: Well, first of all, working for an older house is a great opportunity, but it’s also a big responsibility. The fortunes of a lot of people and families are based on what the results of my collections are, and how successful they are on a commercial level, and how big an impact they have on a trade level as well. So I think I’m a little bit more chill about that today. When I started at Ungaro, I was completely petrified by that idea. I was this Norwegian who people thought looked like a beach bum. I guess I am a beach bum, but they thought I looked a lot more like that than a designer. I was very worried about those kinds of reactions. But what’s super-important when you come into houses like that is to take what they have, but also give it your own twist—and you can’t do that if you’re scared. I kind of like to think about it as having to be respectfully disrespectful. In order to be successful, you have to honor what’s there, but you also have to play with it and push the limits of it.

WILLIAMS: How do you find the balance then between being respectful and pushing the brand forward?

DUNDAS: People always ask me, “Oh, do you ever want to start your own thing?” And I don’t, actually. I think what I enjoy most is the sort of coproduction of things, where you bring something and somebody else brings something and a kind of alchemy happens. For me, coming to a house and bringing my love and respect to it—and, hopefully, earning the love and respect of the house—is the only way to do it. I think of it as my own house in that sense as well. So I like not working from a blank piece of paper. I like that there’s something from the past, some kind of identity that I have to work with. There are these good ghosts around, these good energies that kind of reinforce what you do. It’s like how your parents raise you and give you this base, and you eventually grow up and have to say, “Well, you gave me this, but now I need to go my own way.” So, more than finding a balance, it’s about taking the good parts of what you’ve been given and bringing your own thing to it in order to take it all somewhere else—and hopefully, forward.

WILLIAMS: That’s sort of what I try to do with music: to harness whatever energy is already there and see where that momentum takes me. Sometimes you’re spinning that oncoming momentum in a different direction, or sometimes you’re coercing it to consider itself, or sometimes you’re holding it up to a mirror. But I don’t really like to interrupt and come in and destroy everything and start all over. I’m not that kind of guy.

DUNDAS: Do you always know where you want to go in the beginning? Or is where you go based on what you hear then and there?

WILLIAMS: Sometimes I do have something in my head. But, for me, I think it usually ends up being about considering all of the elements, and trying to understand the distance from where we are to where we want to go. You usually wind up finding yourself somewhere in there. Well, I think the house of Pucci has made a very good choice in crowning you king. Your future seems very promising when looking at your past.

DUNDAS: [laughs] Those are big words. I’m just a little baby in all of this. But I hope you’re at least a bit right. I’m having a lot of fun so far.

WILLIAMS: That’s what it’s about.

DUNDAS: Yeah, absolutely. That’s always my downfall—when I start not having fun or not feeling passionate about what I’m doing. But that’s why I love Pucci. There are some design houses that operate on a more intellectual level, but the way Pucci has always worked is more spontaneous and instinctual. So it’s important for me, in creating for it, to really play with the traditions and keep things simple and easy. Ultimately I believe in animal instincts—I think they often end up winning out.

Pharrell Williams is a musician, fashion designer, and Grammy-winning producer.