Nanban, the newest Arquiste perfume, feels like a return to the line's original narrative. A big part of the charm for me was the way creative director Carlos Huber managed to bring together various aspects of his heritage (L'Etrog), his native Mexico (Flor y Canto), and various cornerstones of Western culture (Aleksandr, Fleur de Louis, Infanta en Flor). Oh, and also some good sexy fun (Anima Dulcis). Those perfumes not only resonated with me on several levels, but also kept me interested in the story around them. This is a big deal for the jaded perfume blogger who's read eleventy seven press releases too many.
Nanban is a Japanese word related to the arrival of Portuguese (and later Spanish) merchants, explorers and missionaries in Japan during the 16th century (they were unceremoniously kicked out later in 1614). The Nanban, those foreigners brought to Japan guns and bad table manners:
"They eat with their fingers instead of with chopsticks such as we use. They show their feelings without any self-control. They cannot understand the meaning of written characters." (from Boxer, Christian Century. Thank you, Wikipedia).But that was not all. The Nanban trade period also promoted a certain cultural exchange that was expressed in art and a decorative style, as well as Japanese sweets and pastries that recreated Spanish and Portuguese recipes. But how does this mix (and often clash) of East and West comes together in a modern perfume?
More than anything, Arquiste's Nanban is a resinous perfume, redolent of spices and leather like the stockroom of a high-end merchant dealing with precious materials from all over the world. You step inside and the noise and hassle of the alley outside disappear, and you're standing in a dark treasure cave that gets your imagination and taste buds going. Ornate boxes full of black tea, carefully-wrapped saffron threads, peppercorns of every color, dried flowers for various infusions, and exotic incense.
I have a thing for chewy balsamic notes that are almost sweet but not quite. At its best, myrrh does exactly that, and Nanban has that myrrh in spades. Sometimes I'm reminded of a childhood memory: getting tree sap all over my hands (and probably on my clothes), the smell of old pines, late summer shrubbery (it's always late summer in those memories), and secret hiding places among the trees. that's how Nanban speaks to me and lets me step into those long gone shaded afternoons. Maybe not exactly 16th century Japan, but evocative and beautiful just the same.
Arquiste- Nanban ($190, 100 ml eau de parfum) is available from osswaldnyc.com and Barneys.
Image: Nanban ships arriving for trade in Japan. 16th-century six-fold lacquer and gilded screen (Wikimedia Commons).