Baking with the FT: Peter Dundas

If anyone should understand the dangers of stereotyping based on appearance, it is someone in the fashion world, which is predicated on the way image can deceive. Yet, after many seasons spent next to the Pucci runway watching Peter Dundas, the brand’s 6ft 2in Norwegian creative director, redefine the house that print built into a sex-and-strut style for the modern jet set, I admit I made certain assumptions about the man.

I assumed, for example, that when I called him to propose writing about what he does in his spare time, he would choose something high-octane like kitesurfing, salsa dancing or poker. It never crossed my mind that Dundas – fans of his slinky dresses cut down to here and up to there include Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry – would choose something as … well, old-fashioned as baking.

“I love baking,” says Dundas. “For me, it’s a form of meditating, a kind of stress-less creation.”

So recently, when he was in high-stress mode, jetting between Paris (where he lives), Florence (where he works), Miami (for a cruise catwalk presentation) and New York (for the opening of a new-look Pucci store), I invited him to come and demonstrate.

He arrives at my home in New York in black jeans and black jumper, toting a paper bag of supplies: I have warned him I don’t love baking that much, and am not that well-equipped.

“I have been baking ever since I was a child,” he says, divesting himself of his sweater to reveal a panther tattoo on his forearm, and donning a red apron, which makes him look like some sort of surfer dude Santa Claus. Dundas’s mother, an American, died when he was four, and he and his younger sister grew up in Oslo with their much older father, a cardiovascular surgeon. He begins to lay his supplies out on my countertop: flour, molasses, cookie cutters in all shapes and sizes, sprinkles. We are going to make gingerbread cookies. Though I have made chocolate chips in the past like any parent, gingerbread has always intimidated me, and this is my first time.

“We had these old aunts who used to take care of us” – as Dundas explains he also melts butter and sifts flour – “they were called Maren and Ruth and they were in their seventies, so they didn’t play. But they did cook and sew, so that’s what we did together, from when I was about six. One had been a home ec teacher, and worked for the military on survival skills, like how to make bread from bark. I owe them a lot.”

Dundas is working from a recipe on his BlackBerry, emailed by his sister. Gingerbread is one of the things she and her two children make every year with Dundas when he goes home to Oslo for Christmas. In NYC, my three children are eager assistants. “Baking feels like the holidays for me now,” says Dundas. “It’s a nice way to spend time with your family.”

Dundas hasn’t officially lived in Norway for a long time. When he was 14 he moved to Indiana for high school and lived with his American uncle. He went on to Parsons School of Design in New York, and then to Paris, where he worked at the Comédie-Française before joining Jean Paul Gaultier. “I went for my interview, and he talked incredibly fast in French,” says Dundas, stirring molasses into the melted butter. “And at that point, my French wasn’t too good, so I just nodded and said ‘Oui, oui’ and he hired me as his first assistant. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never sent a fax; I didn’t realise the pages were supposed to come back out.”

Still, he adapted – and eventually ended up at Pucci in 2008 by way of Roberto Cavalli and Emanuel Ungaro (Dundas speaks four languages). However, he says, “I feel more Norwegian now than when I was living in Norway. I appreciate the fact that it’s one of the few countries in the world where people actually strive to be nice. In France, they equate nice with stupid.” Hence his decision today to make traditional Norwegian fare.

“I started sewing very young too, first on a mechanical machine and then an electric one,” Dundas continues. “Growing up, my Dad used to say, ‘People say having children is very expensive, but I think it’s amazingly cheap’ – and it was because he dressed us in the weirdest things! Brown polka-dotted shirts and stuff.” Dundas is now busy kneading the dough into a ball. “It was excruciating. So out of necessity, I had to customise; I’d go to the flea market and find things and fix them; make things for my sister.”

He pauses and tells me the dough is best if it is left in the fridge overnight to set, but in the interests of time we are going to cheat a bit and stick it briefly in the freezer to harden (about half an hour). “What else do you know how to do, home-maker-wise?” I ask. Dundas smiles. “I’m very good at ironing,” he says. “It’s a secret weapon of anyone who wants to make clothes.” Then he goes to the sink. “I was also taught always clean up after yourself as you go, so you don’t have too much to do at the end.” He starts soaping the bowls.

Once the dough is hard enough, we take it out of the freezer. Dundas grabs a baseball-sized chunk and rolls it thin before cutting out stars, giraffes and angels. “When I’m in Florence and Paris, I don’t cook for myself at all, because I usually don’t get home until 9.30 or 10,” he says. “So when I do, it can get quite elaborate. We have a sort of Christmas workshop at my sister’s, and we assign some people to do the baking, and some to make the table decorations. We also do a gingerbread house. When we were young, my father always did everything very last minute – we’d be scrounging around for trees on Christmas Eve – and I think both of us were traumatised by it. We usually leave the tree up for a month now.”

The cookies are baking in the oven and my kitchen smells wonderful. Dundas pulls out silver sprinkles, some Smarties he brought from Paris, and icing he has just made with icing sugar, water and food colouring. “You can tell the cookies are ready when they are brown around the edges,” he says, and sits down to begin decorating. Pink icing is swirled with coloured sprinkles and met with an appraising eye. “Those are Pucci colours,” he says, reaching for a gingerbread man and getting ready to give him a happy face. “You know,” he adds, “sometimes it’s nice to make something that isn’t clothes.”

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor.

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