In your novel Oscar finds a magic machine, the Sampo, which transforms clothes into glowing masterpieces. Can you tell something about it?
Well first of all, the Sampo isn’t my invention! It’s the essence of the Finnish national epic Kalevala. So I felt fairly intimidated revamping a national icon into a dressmaking machine.
What’s the Kalevala about?
It chronicles the struggle between two kingdoms, Kalevala and Northland, the first of which is the homeland of many heroes and the latter a dark and menacing place ruled by an old witch. In the centre of it all lies a magic tool called the Sampo and whoever possesses it is the most fortunate and powerful person in the world.
The landscape of the Kalevala.
You grew up reading it?
You bet – it's one of the standard set books of the Finnish schooling system. You can't grow up in Finland without at some point wading through pages and pages of verses in old Finnish, and to your adolescent eyes it looks like the most mind-numbing, pretentious and incomprehensible brick of a book you've ever laid eyes upon.
Then everyone in Finland knows what the Sampo is?
Think of it this way: it's like going to Greece and asking passers-by who Odysseus was. The Sampo is in our collective mind, and in everyday life. You can buy Sampo matches, do business with a huge insurance conglomerate called Sampo, and so on. You just can't get away from it.
Why did you want to write about it?
Because it has always fascinated me. It’s a little like Tolkien’s One Ring, a seemingly simple object that makes you the master of the world.
Tolkien was a great fan of the Kalevala, too.
That's what they say. He even taught himself Finnish so that he could read the Kalevala in its original version.
An old barn. Like the one where Oscar found the Sampo.
So how much did you study it?
Oh, a lot – in the beginning at least. But then I stopped.
Because I realised all that pedantic fact-finding only blocked my mind, and I wasn't getting anywhere with my story. After all, Witchcraft Couture isn't about the Kalevala: it's about a man who believes he has found a miracle machine deriving from that epic.
So you're no Kalevala expert.
Can I tell you a secret? I honestly don't know a thing about it! This is something that makes me uncomfortable. I'm worried that I might be… say, invited to a prestigious Kalevala symposium where scholars and starchy professors split hairs about the essence of trochaic tetrameter. When it's my time to speak I don't even know what the others are talking about. I would probably sink into the ground right then.
Stop reading. Write!
Oscar is a fashion designer. Was that your idea right from the beginning, to write about fashion?
No. I wanted him to be an artist. I'd read Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence and for a period of time his Charles Strickland was an inspiration for Oscar Pellegrini.
So what made you to change your mind?
I'm not sure, but I suppose it's because there are so many novels about artists, whereas fashion in literature is a much less explored terrain, apart from chick lit of course. Plus, you can't do anything with paintings – you just hang them on the wall and admire them – whereas now Oscar's clients could wear his mysterious clothes in everyday life, and as such, it offered more possibilities for the plot.
Not to mention that there's something magical and fickle about the fashion world itself.
There is, isn't there? I mean, why does everyone want to buy the same bag all of a sudden, when a day before nobody even knew about it? For me, that's magic.
Some Kalevala books.
Do you have any fashion icons? Anyone who inspired you when you were trying to visualise Oscar's creations?
If I had to choose something, I'd choose the golden years before and after the Second World War. Schiaparelli, Vionnet, Balenciaga, you name it. I also visited the Roberto Capucci Foundation here in Florence and it made an everlasting impression on me; he's a real artist. That's why I was so excited – and honoured – to have a picture of his evening gown on the book cover.
You haven't worked in the fashion business.
No, and that meant that I had a lot of studying to do.
Wasn't it difficult then, to see the world with a fashion designer's eyes?
Well no actually, because I used to paint and for a period of time drew from the nude at the Florence Academy of Fine Arts. I suppose I understand people who are consummate aesthetes. There's no shortage of them here in Italy!
Finally, was there anything else that influenced Witchcraft Couture?
Oh yes, many things. For example, I invented the Russian roulette scene after seeing an Emir Kustirica film. And the music of Madredeus fits superbly the atmosphere of Oscar's world. I always thought that a scene in which a woman enters wearing Sampo clothes while Madredeus's music is playing on the background would be just perfect.
Italian fashion was born in Florence.