by James Warner
Our first Christmas together, I bought Clarice an Ichiwa Ango suede shirt. It was embroidered with lurex thread, and had satirically over-sized cufflinks.Purchasing it was an ordeal. I dressed so scruffily in those days that, when I entered a high-end San Francisco boutique, the manageress assumed I was a shop-lifter and followed me around staring down the back of my neck. I was astonished to discover that a piece of clothing could cost more than a hundred dollars, but I bought it anyway, then grew scared Clarice would think I had paid too much, that she would accuse me of being bourgeois.
But in fact no one has ever received a gift from me more gratefully. The clothes Ichiwa Ango designed were rumpled and disheveled-looking, in a deliberate way that seemed to encapsulate our own aesthetic. Clarice had grown up wearing clothes handed down from her older siblings, and designer fashion unlocked new life possibilities for her.
She wore the shirt for months, and for my New Year present that year, she gave me a black jacket with epaulettes and gauntlets, frilly yet monochrome, something Sergeant Pepper might have worn while moonlighting as a ninja. "Ichiwa Ango," I cried in recognition as I opened the package.
From her laughing imitation of my reverent utterance of his name, our game was hatched. Each time one of us gave something to the other—a cup of tea, an envelope, anything—the one receiving the object would repeat the mantra "Ichiwa Ango."
"Ichiwa Ango" were the words she said when I handed her some Tylenol, the words I said when she gave me a letter to take to the mailbox for her, the words she said when I gave her the wedding ring.
In those days. we spent a lot of time entwined on the couch in our Berkeley apartment, in earnest conversations about how to survive without succumbing to mediocrity. For most of the 1990s, Ichiwa Ango was our private obession, as if his clothes could help us define who we meant to be. There being no official biography, we pieced together what we could about him from magazine articles. According to Vanity Fair, he actually started out in packaging design, until one night a Buddhist statue appeared to him in a dream and declared, "Your way of dressing is not the only way."
Immediately he quit his job and started making clothes. At first he could only afford to buy fabric at flea markets, scraps from old ladies' sewing baskets, obliging him to mix many seemingly incompatible materials together to make a garment, which contributed to the development of his style.
He was not taken seriously in Japan until he saved up enough money to fly to Paris, where he made a sensation with a show featuring a dress made from silicon circuit boards sewn together, over which the model wore a bra made from a pair of headphones. Ichiwa told Paris-Match, "I like things you can wear every day that still seem like timeless artefacts from a museum."
We treasured and cut out such quotes, receiving them from each other with a cry of "Ichiwa Ango" and fastening them to our fridge with magnets. In our twenties then, daunted by life's wealth of pointless possibilities, we looked up to people like Ichiwa, who had triumphed without betraying himself. He embodied our shared vision of an artist as a scout hacking through the impenetrable jungles of daily life.
"I plan to start a religion for no other reason than to design the costumes of its priest caste—that was another Ichiwism.
Clarice and I worked at non-profits, trying to find a way to make a random, violent world less intolerable. We took classes in meditation and in financial planning, classes from which we learned nothing.
Around the time Ichiwa perfected the schoolgirl assassin look with which he is now most associated, I came into some money, and Clarice and I bought a house and fixed it up, a grim process during which we hardly spoke to each other, except to bark orders or, naturally, to say "Ichiwa Ango," when handed yet another tin of paint, some spackle, or a screwdriver.
For weeks at a time, these were the only words that passed between us. Perhaps this was what turned Clarice away from our youthful hero, in the course of what was more a labor of hate than of love, of determination to conquer the mindless ordeal of turning the dump we could afford into a desirable suburban property.
It was a beautiful house, when we were done with it, but we were at a desolate place in our lives. I toiled in nightmarish cubicles. Our house appreciated rapidly in value, but felt more like a facade than a home. Hating the way he had become trapped by the organization he created, Ichiwa designed asymmetrical, hole-riddled clothes with frayed edges. Nothing he designed ever had pockets.
I had never really lost my sense that clothes were more expensive than they ought to be, but I no longer looked so out of place in oppressive boutiques. One Christmas I bought Clarice the newest Ichiwa Ango creation, a scarf that was spiky and disheveled with pieces of driftwood sewn onto it.
One pink stripe meandered over the surface of the scarf—garments with a single stripe were very Ichiwa Ango. Clarice said "Ichiwa Ango," when I handed it to her, and again when she unwrapped it and saw what it was, and even thanked me, although it may not have been very comfortable to wear.
Aging, we left our meaningful non-profit dead-end jobs for meaningless corporate dead-end jobs. Bush took over the U.S. and anticipating that everything would go to hell, Clarice and I sold our house. As a financial tactic, this backfired—what money we had left, Clarice spent furiously on incomprehensible things. She lost her job, I lost my job, and we rented an apartment in San Francisco, while waiting for the property market to crash so we could buy another house—but the crash would come too late for us.
On successive anniversaries I bought Clarice odder and odder Ichiwa Ango creations, which she made less and less attempt to pretend she liked. She told me she preferred Italian designers now—to me, a more important betrayal than her ransacking of our joint bank account. My response to her waning interest in the man whose aesthetic defined us was deliberately to become more obsessed with him, even buying a German DVD documentary about him. Ichiwa wore rugby boots, an Afghan coat, and a sort of vinyl helmet. The point of fashion for him, according to the subtitles, lay in its transience. He spoke of making clothes that disintegrated as soon as they ceased to be trendy. "What matters is always ephemeral," he said, "but by the fashioning of ritual objects, one can at least preserve memories."
Ichiwa's later outfits hinted vigorously at the existence of a civilization more rigorously creative than any yet unearthed. Clarice no longer appreciated his austere, incongruous style, now preferring more ostentatiously opulent products.
Despairing of finding meaning in spirituality, she took instead to out-of-control shopping, and our net worth plummeted. Ichiwa turned over the design of his men's and women's collections to his associates, so that he could return to research. Rumors circulated about what he was working on. His Tokyo atelier—they say he was the first clothing designer to apply a film director's sense of mise-en-scene to his store and its contents—now mostly sold jet-black bunny slippers. His seaweed bandannas were also very briefly considered chic.
I bought Clarice one for our seventh anniversary, and she suggested that from now on I just buy her gift tokens.
"You forgot to say Ichiwa Ango," I said. Her hand flew to her mouth.
Now that I was unable to find gifts for Clarice that she would care for, retail outlets became places of torture, full of racks and headless mannequins, where the arbitrary creations of authoritarian sell-outs stood starkly aligned. For me to hand Clarice a gift token was to be reminded of the shared feelings we no longer had in common. If you cannot pick out the exact gift that someone wants, what are you giving them? All I could give Clarice was money, and no amount of it would ever satisfy her.
I calculated the exact number of gift certificates I would have to give Clarice before I died. I watched my Ichiwa Ango DVD over and over again, while Clarice talked on the phone to her therapist. Clarice's determination to buy things we could not afford, the therapist determined, was really her way of punishing me for no longer being who she wanted. I wondered if it was that first suede shirt I gave her that had begun the process of corrupting and unbalancing her.
Every relationship consists of deep cycles of reciprocity, that with time move further and further out of synch. It was Clarice who initiated the divorce proceedings. When we went to the city hall to fill out the forms, there was a giant styrofoam poodle behind the plexiglass. "What's the poodle for?" Clarice asked.
The clerk finalizing our separation frowned, as if to assert that the question was inappropriate. "They don't like to talk about the poodle," I said.
"This is the sort of thing they never tell you about divorce," Clarice said, "that there'll be a styrofoam poodle there." We were getting on better than we had in a long time. Clarice had typed out long lists of which things we owned now belonged to her, described as lovingly as items in a catalog, things I had no interest in keeping.
She was wearing some meretricious Milanese blouse, with too many stripes. "I can't believe this is happening," I said.
"Think of it as a new phase of our relationship," she said. The photocopier was on another floor, and we had to make several trips to make sure all the forms were photocopied.
We held hands. Neither of us looked back at the poodle.
Ichiwa Ango killed himself, a few years later, by jumping into the thousand foot crater of a volcano on the island of Oshima. Some say he was wearing a sailor suit, others the robes of an obscure martial art where they attack each other with sewing needles. But the truth is that the master plunged naked into the abyss, as must we all.
James Warner has a story forthcoming in Electric Literature online and has also placed work in Storyglossia, OpenDemocracy, Ninth Letter, the Rumpus, Agni Online, and elsewhere.