15 Minutes with Peter Dundas

Peter Dundas

I find that designers with spark and charm, who engage openly with the people around them, create collections of true vitality. They are always fashionable because they have the flexibility and interest level to stay connected to changes of the world — the changes that really create fashion.

Charming, engaging, attractive — those are some of the words to describe Peter Dundas, the new designer for Emanuel Ungaro in Paris. If his designs are a reflection of him, I’d say they’re cheerful, unpretentious, fashionable without being ridiculous… and very seductive.

Wearing black leather Saint Laurent, Dundas spoke with me at the Clift last week, near the end of his whirlwind week-long tour through California, where he delighted Los Angeles actresses and San Francisco socialites alike (while making some time for a Hollywood burlesque act and dinner at Mandy Moore’s.)

Damion: It sounds like you’ve had a fantastic week in California.
Peter: It’s been so much fun.

D: Have you been to San Francisco before?

P: No, it’s my first time here.I wonder why I haven’t been here before. It’s beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. It really has amazing buildings. I’ve just driven around, like on the hills. I was up on Hyde Street.My middle name is Hyde, so it’s funny to see that. It’s been great.Are you from here?

D: Yeah, I’ve been here forever. I live here and in the Wine Country.

P:I’ve been told that’s a must see as well.

D: Especially now. The weather is great. Are you going to be here over the weekend?

P:I leave on Sunday so I might be driving there.We thought about going there as well.

D: You should.Do you like Hitchcock? A lot of his movies were filmed here in San Francisco, so there’s some great locations for you to see.

P:Oh really? I don’t know them well enough. Shoot. I wish I had known that! Nobody told me that.

D: Yeah, you’ll have to go home and watch them, then come back!

P:Yeah, exactly.A good reason to come back.

D: Yes. Well, let’s talk about your collection. It’s very sexy. Not in an overt, trashy way, but very silky and sensual.What was your inspiration?

P: Well, really to me it’s like this French woman that I have in mind when I design for the house of Ungaro, which is very sultry and flirty and plays a lot on body language. It plays a lot on seducing. That’s an omnipresent element in whatever I do because I love the body, and I love communicating with the body.But I think especially working for a house like Ungaro that becomes more pertinent than ever.

P: The collection last night (Spring 2007) was really inspired by butterflies. I got the idea the day of my first show for Ungaro because it was next to a garden, and I was thinking — Wow, it would be great to have a show that’s either out doors or in daylight, and almost like a field of butterflies. Almost when you come into a forest opening and you see this field of butterflies and birds flying around, and bees and things.And that became the starting point for the collection, basically. Butterflies for colors, for movement, lightness, the shimmering qualities, either through fabrics or through embroideries.There’s a lot of mirrors to embroider to get that effect. And patterns, mixes of patterns.

D: That’s exciting. It’s refreshing to see a designer who is inspired by nature, rather than just looking in a history book.

P:Yeah. That’s probably the Norwegian part of me as well.That’s the starting point. I’m really about defining the image of the house, defining the products that we’re doing, which is primarily dresses, and incorporating what’s close to me right now. As a Norwegian I grew up in the woods and all, so it would be that as well.

D: It’s interesting that you’re Norwegian, that’s so different a background than Ungaro, which is very Mediterranean.But you seem to fit right in with the Mediterranean style.

P:Yeah. I think fashion is fantasy. Even as a kid growing up, you know, I loved the power that clothes have in communicating and accentuating who you are. And I think that’s international.

D: Did you follow Ungaro when you were studying design?

P: It’s funny because it’s one of my memories when going to school I went to school in New York for fashion school and was passing by the Ungaro shop and seeing these incredible little dresses, shirred dresses in prints, in yellow or something, and just thinking — Wow, that’s really Paris! So really having that stick in my mind. Then a couple years ago I started thinking about what I was into as far as French references on my work. At the time I was working for an Italian company.And I started looking at Ungaro with renewed interest as far as that because I really thought it marked a particular era, a particular era for me and my fashion culture in the ’80s.

D: Is it tricky or intimidating to work for a house when the designer is still alive?

P: I think it would be tricky if the designer were actively involved in the company, because obviously they have a history and a heritage with the house that is very, very personal. My job coming in there is to do my own take on the whole thing, which is personal to me as well.But to answer your question, no, it hasn’t been any problem at all.I really like — I put on my little patches on my eyes and I really go forward, and I look to the house, and I try to be very respectful to the tradition of the house.

D: Are you doing just ready-to-wear or are you going to do couture as well?

P: I do some made-to-order.Absolutely.We have some private clients, and private clients from the past.Some new private clients have been brought to me or have come to me since I started, and of course we try to cater to them as well.It is a house that is one of the last few haute couture houses.It has a haute couture atelier.It has the tradition.It has the hand as well.And it would be a pity to let that perish.

D: I hope you do a full-fledged couture line in the future.

P:Oh I would love to, yeah. I would love to.

D: That would be fantastic.What have been the most popular items, so far, for your newest collection — Fall 2008 [which was just shown in Paris a few weeks ago]?

P: A huge interest, both by media and clients, in all the embroideries, the beadings.A huge interest, also, in the evening wear. And also in the fur. I mean, I have a lot of fun with fur.That’s, again, the Norwegian part of it, the Norwegian part of my work, and there’s been a lot of interest in that as well.But it seems the color, both in Los Angeles and here — women are really into the sense of color in the collection, which I’m delighted to see.

D: I noticed a photo of a recent red carpet event where the star was wearing a little short evening dress, and she had her hands in her pocket — and then I read you always put pockets in your dresses.Is this some sort of trend that’s taking off?

P:Well, I love the movement. It’s funny, I never did it as some sort of deliberate thing.I love the attitude of a woman with her hands in her pockets.It’s such a masculine gesture that I find it — I find it such a turn-on to see a woman asserting herself in that way. And doing that on something very feminine is, I suppose, my continual quest to empower women with their femininity. I think femininity is a great asset because men don’t really have it, to that extent in any case.So yeah, I always put pockets on my dresses. Always.
D: So, have you started your next collection, Spring ’08?

P: Well, I’m here right now instead of designing– but yeah, I’m starting to think about it.

D: Any advanced peek into your mind… of what’s going on?

P:Well, I can say from carrying on from Winter that I think shapes are taking on a whole new importance. And I think we’re going into a new century, so I’m hoping that there will be technological advances that will bring clothes to a new place.But apart from that, I mean, I’m just continuing to define the Ungaro woman, and defining that product as well.It’s in a very early phase of the house’s renaissance, and so that part of it really needs to solidify in my mind, and also in the client’s minds.
D: You look great. Do you have any plans on doing menswear?

P: Well I’m really concentrating on the women’s right now. So I really want to get that going and we’ll see where men’s is at.

D: Excellent.It was a pleasure to meet with you. I do hope you come to San Francisco again soon.

P: Oh, any time you’ll have me.

By the positive reaction to his collection, I’ sure there will be many more visits to come.

More photos from Peter’s visit to San Francisco:

Peter chats with the always adorable Claudia Castillo Ross at the Neiman Marcus trunk show.

With Tatiana Sorokko and Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing.

The owners of Emanuel Ungaro, Asim and Isha Abdullah.


Olivia Hsu Decker at the Ungaro after party, wearing an Armani coat with Ferre fur collar, and Ungaro skirt.

Jessica Mullens and Karen Caldwell at the after party.

UPDATE 4/2/07: Fashion Week Daily has an item about the event, with some words from Tatiana.