For some reason, recent years have seen a surge of discussion of how people could be so gullible they believed the obvious distortions of so-called reality TV shows and their stars. If my memory serves me correctly, I, too, was that credulous several decades ago. I was so disappointed to discover that Kitchen Stadium was not a real place in Japan, and that Takeshi Kaga was not an eccentric millionaire obsessed with discovering the most refined experiences for his jaded palate, at least those which could be prepared within an hour by a stable of specialized iron men of cooking. I suspect he was not even a real chairman of any organization.
The conceit was attractive, and looking back obviously flavored with an exoticism that was only the flip side of the West’s racist (yeah, I said it) 1990s cultural perception of Japan: imperious, unpredictable, hypercompetitive, with incomprehensible motivations and indeed appetites. Perhaps those features and perceptions, as well as our realization those were ridiculous attitudes, are why the original Japanese Iron Chef still seems so much better than its American adaptations. To this day one of my daydreams is to eat at the restaurant of “The Delacroix of French cuisine,” Iron Chef French Hiroyuki Sakai.
Chairman Kaga played up that bizarreness, infamously taking a vigorous bite out of a yellow pepper in the show’s intro and generally wearing outfits that could make Liberace blush. Frilly lace jabots, frock coats and some sort of garment patterned to look like the spots of a Holstein cow were among his most memorable. Be reassured, those don’t make him a style icon, although given the current state of runway fashion, give him a few seasons. No, he becomes a style icon for his most memorable garment, and perhaps the only elegant thing he wore on the show apart from his Japanese robe: an uncharacteristically sober black overcoat with silver astrakhan collar and cuffs he sports during a visit to France, in the train to Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in Saint-Etienne and then in horse-drawn carriage to the chateau of the Duc de Brissac.
No doubt some of the unusual wardrobe choices for Kaga’s character sprang from a desire to portray an individual completely immune to the class and value judgments of others, a man beyond the dress and behavior strictures of his time, beyond everything except his single obsession with finding and tasting the creative and unusual. His regal astrakhan-accented coat might be the only one that succeeds outside the luridness of Kitchen Stadium, not just a garment against the chill but almost a royal robe.
Astrakhan has regal, or lordly, connotations, after all. It returned from fashion limbo a few years after Iron Chef ended, atop the head of Afghan head of state Hamid Karzai. Rare and expensive, it lined coats for the Duke of Windsor; I’ve read that the young Benjamin Disraeli, a notorious dandy before he became British prime minister, used some of his writing earnings to add an astrakhan collar to one of his coats. Tightly curled and brilliant, astrakhan stands out from afar as almost suspiciously decadent and self-indulgent, qualities that the British often preferred to attribute to foreigners or cads. Arthur Conan Doyle put “heavy bands” of it on the coat of an incognito German ruler in A Scandal in Bohemiaand an astrakhan collar on a society blackmailer in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.
Arnys, the defunct Paris outfitters that incarnated the French exception in its fussily complicated clothes, even offered an opera cape with an astrakhan collar, while Belstaff put it on officer collars on a small capsule collection of expensive coats.
Perhaps astrakhan is best left to the defunct, decaying yesteryear, being sourced from very young Persian lambs of the karakul breed. Once I learned that I didn’t want responsibility for adding to the trade. Eventually, I did discover that there’s a trade in remnants, pieces of fur that were either the remains of a closed shop’s inventory or that were part of an old hide that had otherwise been used. With that slight ease to my conscience, I eventually accumulated enough odds and ends to put a collar on one of my coats. A furrier, rather than a tailor, is necessary for the task.
I have no idea where Kaga sourced his astrakhan. On my coat, it appears as eccentric, novel and refined as the character Kaga invented, even getting me good service at a British shop notorious for its staff’s diffidence. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided it’s a bit too eccentric to wear as often, being better suited to the fairytale fancy of invented reality.