Oscar Pellegrini is a talented fashion designer with a deadly enemy: his own critical mind. He destroys much of what he designs and has been drifting for years, gradually retreating from the fashion business he loves but holding on to his dreams of success.
A chance meeting with a former girlfriend triggers a creative crisis so deep that Oscar escapes to Russia, where he drinks and despairs like never before. Just when he thinks he has lost everything he discovers a magical machine that turns ordinary outfits into irresistible sartorial triumphs. Oscar takes the machine back to Italy – and before he knows it, he has become famous for his designs, and celebrities and socialites are fighting to be first to wear his gorgeous garments.
But the happily-ever-after ending for the fashion messiah turns into a nightmare when his dresses acquire a life of their own, gaining energy and evil as time goes on. Haunted by his creations, a dark secret he is no longer able to hide, Oscar finds himself fighting for his life and sanity, and searching for the answer to a question he never knew existed.
Is there such a thing as stolen genius, and if there is, can it turn against the very person who stole it?
How It Began
In the beginning was magic, and magic was all that there was. Before my longing for genius, before genius was invented, before fashion and Paris and black lace dinner gowns, magic was alive in the forests of the North. Before reason began to overshadow religion, before factory chimneys coloured city skylines in grime and charcoal grey, and steam trains puffed their way through honey-coloured fields and dark woodlands; before the Bastille was besieged, the Titanic sank, and the atom bomb was invented – yes, before much of anything, up there in the North, between the two seas, where the earth was arid, the days were short and people silent, magic ruled the world.
Two kingdoms flourished, Kalevala and Northland, one on the current Finnish-Russian border, the other on the snowy plains of Lapland, and their rivalry was the stuff of legend and romance, the kind that came into being by the crackling fire during long winter evenings, when the wind was howling in the corners.
Back then, everything was different. This was not the era of reality shows and low-cost flights, but of long-bearded wizards and heroic bards who sang their enemies into perdition, and instead of blogs and tweets you had spirits and spells of every imaginable variety, and all the other makings of a timeless epic: adventures, battles, kidnappings, bloody weddings.
In the heart of this shamanistic set-up stood not a king or a warrior, or a princess with the face of Helen of Troy and the rump of Jennifer Lopez, or a great dark force whose name couldn't even be uttered. No, the leading role belonged to a magic mill so formidable that it was something not of this world, something mankind had never seen before.
Its name was Sampo and it was the talisman of talismans, because somehow it made money (or success, or whatever you wanted) out of nothing. All you had to do was to put an object inside it, and the Sampo was set in motion. After grinding your rubbish, after some wheezing and vibrating – and some hocus-pocus and abracadabra – and a concluding thud, it spit your milk and honey out, like a cash dispenser gone crazy, so that whoever possessed it was the richest, most powerful and goddam luckiest person in the world.
Everyone coveted it. Nations and heroes perished because of it.
Years passed, metamorphosing into decades and centuries. Napoleon escaped from Elba and Darwin set off on his five-year voyage on the Beagle and Van Gogh cut his ear off, and the Bolsheviks shot their tsar, and millions died in the trenches, and Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt shook hands in Yalta, and Dior dressed his women like lollipop-pink candies in wasp waists and stiffened skirts, and man set foot on the moon for the first time, and Elvis asked millions of women to love him tender, and life, in short, went on. Hardly anyone asked what had happened to the Sampo – even if in the villages of the North rumours circulated about it being hidden and forever lost to the modern world.
But the Sampo wasn't lost. Up there in the cold, hidden in the shadowy silence of an old forest, behind the rocks and the ferns, perched the biggest jackpot of the bygone world, covered in moss, forgotten yet functioning, waiting for its taker.
I have never believed in the power of magic – let alone stories, and much less folk stories coming from the back of beyond.
But then the Sampo entered my life.
And that's where my story begins.
It all began last month when I spotted a redheaded woman wearing a black dress in a boutique opening party in St. Petersburg, Russia, and that moment changed my life.
To the casual eye it was just a dress, and there was nothing visibly striking or particular in it. It was the quintessential little black dress, with an off-the-shoulder neckline, short cap sleeves and an ankle-length skirt.
Yet it took my breath away. I had never seen anything like it in my life before. There was something in it that went beyond ordinary craftsmanship and expertise, something unworldly and hypnotic, which couldn't be described. And the most amazing thing was that it was shining, and its shine radiated all around, so that the woman wearing it was shining too, and her milky skin glowed as if her body was illuminated from within.
Spotting it, I became motionless. I felt butterflies in my stomach, and a pang of jealousy in my heart, for someone had created this outfit, and it hadn't been me. I knew that I wouldn't rest till I had touched it, turned it inside out, and unravelled its mystery.
That was one June evening a month ago, when it all began.
'A fairytale in the old sense, when fairytales were sinister and mysterious and at times depraved, before they were censored and edited and made into children's stories. Witchcraft Couture is dark, very dark, and leaves you not quite knowing what is fantasy is reality.'
Polly Noble, The Forest Mermaid
'When I first starting reading Witchcraft Couture I was a little skeptical, a fantasy book about high fashion? How was that even going to work? West made it work perfect though, she drew me in so fast that I loathe to stop reading for silly things like eating or sleep.'
Melissa Ann, My Creatively Random Life
"Witchcraft Couture is a unique turn on a classic tale - you can draw comparisons with everything from Doctor Faustus to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde... Katarina West displays the world of fashion in as much honest and gory detail as the world of publishing is shown in Rowling's The Silkworm."
Priya Dabak, Tabula Rasa
'I've never read a fashion book... to be quite honest, I'm not even sure if there's a genre for it. Is there? But honestly it wouldn't matter if there wasn't because Katarina has easily made her own mark which will likely spark a rise in this type of fiction.'
Jesse Kimmel-Freeman, The Insane Ramblings of a Crazed writer
Want to know more about Witchcraft Couture?
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.
Italian fashion was born in Florence.
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.