There are two schools of designer in our current fashion age. Increasingly rare are those of the Phoebe Philo persuasion: discreet in their personal appearance, restrained in their aesthetic and exceptionless in the protection of their privacy – or as much as is possible while running a global fashion house. Philo’s opposites are the likes of Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, for whom personal celebrity adds burnish to the brand and millions of Instagram followers are an essential asset in the label’s success. Peter Dundas, the newly installed creative director at Roberto Cavalli, belongs firmly to the second camp. Over 6ft tall, chiselled, strong-jawed, dressed in ponyskin boots, unbuttoned silk shirt and skinny jeans – his outfit accessorised with tattoos and blond curly locks – the Norwegian looks more like a rock star than a fashion designer.
But then fashion designers are the new rock stars, at least where Dundas is concerned. The 47-year-old is regularly mobbed by fans when he walks the cities he calls home – Paris, London, Milan – and, indeed, we are only five minutes into our interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Milan when our table is approached by an exuberant middle-aged Italian fan holding a small white bichon frise, accessorised – the dog, not the woman – with a pink, glittery hair clip. She greets Dundas in high excitement, and as he graciously rises to his feet to kiss this voluble stranger she puts the small dog into his arms and asks for a photograph – the dog, she explains, is a fashion blogger: “She writes it, not me.” No hint of a snigger escapes Dundas as he duly sits with the dog on his lap and smiles for the camera.
A designer of exaggerated allure is exactly what is required at a house like Roberto Cavalli. Since its inception by its namesake in 1972, the Florentine label has defined a flashy iteration of the dolce vita, with a steady output of animal prints, silk, leather, denim and glitzy dresses best offset by the light of a nightclub mirror ball. Cavalli, dubbed the “king of excess”, became the outfitter of choice for a customer who wanted to wear their money as boldly as their suntan. In reality and spirit, Cavalli’s clothes evoked a sort of luxury nomadism, a lifestyle of yachts, fast cars and private planes. Peter Dundas, a designer whose Instagram account is a personal paean to beaches and ballgowns, celebrity gala dinners and supermodels – of a level of glamour that verges on parody – is a perfect fit for the house.
Dundas has worked at Cavalli before: after studying at Parsons in New York and cutting his teeth at Jean Paul Gaultier and Lacroix, he spent three years heading up the studio from 2002. His were “some of the most successful years at Cavalli”, according to the brand’s former CEO, Renato Semerari. Dundas graduated from Cavalli to become creative director at luxury Paris house Emanuel Ungaro and subsequently spent seven years at Emilio Pucci, successfully negotiating the brand’s re-entry into the wardrobes of fashionable young women. It was at Pucci that Dundas perfected his decadent 1970s aesthetic, favouring tactile fabrics, sheer layers, ruffled evening gowns and body-skimming tailoring, and boosting the label’s profile via a glossy cabal of his female friends – socialites Bianca Brandolini and Eugenie Niarchos, models Naomi Campbell, Natasha Poly, Karlie Kloss, and celebrities Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian. Women who are now dubbed his #Cavallicats.
Selected by Roberto Cavalli and his wife Eva as a natural successor to the house, Dundas met with the couple recently to discuss his return. “I liked their crazy Italian way of working,” he says, smiling. “It suited me, and creatively it felt very close to my own point of view.” His arrival at the label last year came not a moment too soon. After over 40 years at the head of his house, Roberto Cavalli retired in 2015, selling 90 per cent of the brand for an undisclosed sum, though financial markets platform Dealogic listed the figure as $430m. The majority was bought by Italian private equity firm Clessidra, whose portfolio includes preppy-wear label Harmont & Blaine and jewellery brand Buccellati alongside companies in industry, airports, card payment services and cargo transport. The label subsequently reported a 14.2 per cent drop in revenues, a loss attributed to the stalling luxury sector, and the brand’s Rue Saint-Honoré store was quickly sold.
The loss might equally be attributed to a certain weariness with Cavalli’s high-heels-and-leopard-print style. While Dundas’s vision for the house remains focused on glamour, it promises a more contemporary take. Reflecting a designer more inspired by bands than bling, the Cavalli woman’s coordinates have shifted from the yacht marinas of Europe to backstage at Coachella, swapping her four-inch stilettos for a pair of python platform boots (£2,105) and an embroidered denim tasselled handbag (£980). Despite the 1970s nostalgia of his autumn/winter collection, Dundas’s Cavalli still feels very of the moment. “Yes, the Cavalli girl can wear a beaded gown, but now she could wear it with a pair of trainers,” he explains. This broadening of the label’s appeal to a younger, cooler audience is part of an ongoing effort to scale up the business, increase its global reach and reposition the brand in a difficult market.
With Alessandro Michele overhauling Gucci and the success of Pierpaolo Piccioli and (until her recent move to Dior) Maria Grazia Chiuri at Valentino, it’s a favourable time for Italian fashion. But the transition from a family operation to a corporate enterprise is not always pretty. Shortly after we speak, Renato Semerari, who moved from beauty conglomerate Coty Inc to take the CEO position at Cavalli, quit the company, citing “divergences on the development strategy”. He has been replaced as CEO by Gian Giacomo Ferraris, formerly of Versace and Jil Sander. But the upheaval didn’t stop there: Cavalli’s chairman Francesco Trapani has also now left the company.
These changes followed the sudden death in January of Clessidra’s founder and CEO Claudio Sposito, which led to the firm and its portfolio, including Cavalli, being acquired by Italian financial holding company Italmobiliare, an investment firm with assets in construction, industry, banking and property. Direct repercussions for the brand remain to be seen, though the subsequent exit of Semerari and Trapani is likely to be linked to the move. One factor remains non-negotiable: Cavalli needs to make money.
Semerari had spoken frankly of the challenges facing the house. “Cavalli was a family business for over 40 years. It was a difficult company to take on, with a number of areas that required modernising,” he told me, citing the need to create more compelling daywear and a stronger accessories business as priorities. Bags and shoes, not ballgowns, drive profits. He also believed eveningwear would remain important – it is the DNA of the brand, after all – but Cavalli needed to grow its offering. With that in mind, a revamp of its 182 stores is underway, the design studio and showroom have moved from Florence to Milan, and the web platform has been relaunched. The latest ad campaign was shot by Tim Walker – willowy, androgynous bohemians now replace the va-va-voom pin-ups of Cavalli’s advertising past – and in February, the label opened a boutique in Tehran, a first for Iran, and part of its global expansion plan.
“It’s a healthy pressure,” says Dundas of the hopes riding on him, “you can’t let it pollute your mind.” He compares the transition from Pucci to Cavalli to going “from flying a small passenger jet to flying an A380”. Currently, his 18-hour days involve martialling “three ready-to-wear lines for men and women, accessories, two watch lines, perfume lines, childrenswear, gymwear, loungewear, swimwear, homeware… We’re premiering villas on Mykonos and there’s a hotel on its way in Doha.” Cavalli, he says in sonorous tones (pronouncing Cavalli as Cav-awl-i), has become “a lifestyle brand”. Being a creative director now means having an opinion on teapots as well as the cut of a suit.
His first collection, for spring/summer 2016, was “a palate cleanser” as much as a statement of intent. “I wanted to connect the Cavalli woman to today’s fashion. A big focus had gone into her only being very glamorous, which took away the voice of what she would wear in everyday life.” His 1980s-inspired collection of denim, frilled skirts and draped leather trousers received a mixed reception. Italian newspaper La Repubblica dubbed it “the end of glamour”. He grins. “I’ve been lucky enough to work for brands that are institutions within the Italian fashion industry. They look at me and think: here comes this Norwegian who looks like he should be salmon fishing or chopping down trees. I change their idea of what the house should be like. It’s natural there will be raised eyebrows.”
His autumn/winter show was supremely assured, a boho luxe showcase of Dundas’s love of the “loucheness and decadent sensuality” of the 1970s, and his inclination towards “the more baroque side of Cavalli”. It was Woodstock by way of Via Monte Napoleone, a heady mix of Italian craftsmanship and attitude expressed in a wool/Lurex puff-shoulder jacket (£1,745), a python-print crepe shirt (£800), slinky emerald scarves (£422), embroidered jeans (£4,425) and velvet snake-hipped flares (£720) and a short, cobwebby lace tunic (£4,350). “It felt like a sincere expression of what I love to do,” says Dundas.
It hit the right note with retailers too. Matchesfashion.com began stocking Cavalli a season before Dundas arrived – to service the site’s eveningwear demands – and buying director Natalie Kingham was thrilled at the change in direction. “To do that 1970s bohemia in a luxurious way that feels inimitably Cavalli and yet bang up-to-date is a real achievement,” she says. “I’m excited about the denim and tailoring in particular. The velvet trouser suits [blazer, £1,155; trousers, £690] are going to be a key seller for us.” (Alexa Chung recently wore a tiger-print version to a film premiere, cementing the brand’s cool.)
At Selfridges, designer womenswear buying manager Jeannie Lee praised the collection for the way it melded Dundas’s nostalgia for the golden era of rock ’n’ roll to the archetype of sensual Italian glamour. Her selections for the store include a shearling and velvet brocade military jacket (£4,700) that she describes as “the signature Dundas bohemian statement. This is how he’s making his mark on the house – through the introduction of new icons in his distinctive handwriting.”
Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director at Net-a-Porter, agrees. “Peter Dundas understands the Cavalli DNA. At a moment when maximalism is ruling the runway, his autumn/winter collection catches the attention of Cavalli’s existing audience, but also a new clientele.” She anticipates the serpentine-print silk maxidress (£2,760), galaxy-print silk blouse (£1,100), gold wool/Lurex blazer (£2,140) and gold lamé trousers (£800) will play well to Net-a-Porter’s “runway-oriented customer”.
The Cavalli woman is a reflection of Dundas’s own personality as much as any ephemeral notion of femininity. “I’m always looking for that element of desire in my designs because it’s what I want to feel. A dress doesn’t look a certain way because the market requires it – it’s what I like.” His inspiration is the human body – how it moves, the relationship between the body and different fabrics. “I usually have one not too far away from me to be inspired by, so that helps,” he deadpans.
It also helps that the bodies to hand belong to some of the most highly visible women in the world. Beyoncé chose an off-the-shoulder mustard-yellow Cavalli dress of cascading ruffles (£17,405) for a recent music video, while Kim Kardashian wore a beaded Cavalli gown – and Dundas on her arm – to British Vogue’s centennial gala. He defines the #Cavallicat as “a free spirit. She isn’t chained down by trends; she’s a traveller, a nomad. She bundles up her dress and sticks it in her beach bag.” He adds, “I don’t think she necessarily goes to the office in the same way other people do, or certainly not with the same mindset.” On cue, the hotel’s resident tabby stalks past.
Bianca Brandolini, a #Cavallicat who holidays with Dundas in Trancoso, Brazil, defines the soubriquet as, “a woman who is confident, independent and loves to have fun. Peter likes to be among the girls who wear his dresses, to understand how they live, what – and how – they want to wear their clothes.”
“This label isn’t just about fashion,” agrees Selfridges’ Jeannie Lee. “It’s about mood and confidence. Peter Dundas is intuitive to women’s physiques and their minds; there’s a reason he’s surrounded by the most beautiful, connected and fun-loving set. The idea that he is pivotal and adored in that circle brings something dynamic to the way Cavalli is now positioning itself.”
In other words, the #Cavallicats are vital to business. This is the way a fashion house grows these days: lassoing, via social media, a fresh, contemporary market that might buy into the label at the accessories level and graduate to ready-to-wear. Equally vital is the perception of Dundas as a man who lives his life in the full blaze of the spotlight. “When you have a brand that represents a certain type of living, naturally the focus will fall to the designer and how they personify that,” he says. “Fashion is aspirational, people want to see a life they can touch a little bit of – they don’t want to see the torturous morning where you have ‘sketch time’ in your diary and nothing is coming to mind.”
Dundas is good company, dry and self-deprecating, particularly when describing the more outlandish aspects of the fashion world. “The Italians can get quite dramatic,” he says. “They’re leaving and quitting on you and you have to call them, persuade them to stay. These things can be traumatising for a Norwegian,” he laughs. Raised in Oslo by a single father “who didn’t know how to dress me”, the young Dundas customised his clothes and made outfits for his sister on his sewing machine. His American concert violinist mother died when he was four but lived on in his father’s descriptions as “someone who loved strong colours, someone who was quite exotic. It set my imagination off.” Fifty-one at the time Dundas was born, his father was a doctor and Dundas expected to follow in his footsteps. He left home at 14 to study in America, but when Dundas turned 17 he wrote to his father to say he wanted to try his hand at fashion design. “I expected to be cut off, but my dad replied, saying, ‘Your grandmother painted, your mother was a violinist. You’re not surprising me as much as you think.’”
Cavalli under Dundas is not difficult or obscure. He makes clothes that are unapologetic in their luxuriousness, in their straightforwardly sensual appeal. And as his #Cavallicats appear to attest, it would be difficult not to have a good time wearing his designs. Indeed, creating and capitalising on this vivacity – on the fun – is a serious business chez Cavalli. It’s part of what the brand is banking on to get it through these choppy waters. If he’s feeling the pressure, Dundas isn’t showing it. The designer smiles. “When I start saying to my teams ‘I’m not having fun’, it’s usually a bad sign. I don’t consider my job a job. It’s my favourite hobby.”