With the first signs of autumn beginning to set in, I’ve pushed all of the summer fragrances that have gathered at the front of my wardrobe to one side and I’ve started revisiting fragrances that I’ve neglected during the warm summer months. Most of them contain heavier notes of dry moss, leather, burnt wood, warm spices and resins, which I enjoy wearing in a cooler climate.
One of the fragrances I’ve reconnected with comes from Arquiste Parfumeur. Nanban is the 10th release from this New York-based perfume house and it is possibly my favourite Arquiste fragrance to date. In addition to being a well-researched and meticulously crafted story, Nanban is a visceral fragrance and it demonstrates the powerful narrative fragrance can have on its own, without the need for worded definitions and descriptions. Nanban is a fragrance I can get lost in as I wander its olfactory corridors made of woods, spices and leather. Each time I wear it I appreciate a different facet of its construction. This is a characteristic of the style of one of Nanban’s co-creators, perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux, whose creations are always multi-layered and non-linear.
All Arquiste fragrances speak about a specific time and place in history. Carlos Huber, the brand’s founder, is an abled storyteller who draws from his experience as an architect specializing in historic preservation. For Nanban, he chose a story set in 1618, a period he enjoys researching. “I love that era between the 16th and early 19th century. It’s very colourful. Between plagues and epidemics but at the same time it has all this opulence and royal courts, I think it’s a very cinematic era.” Although Nanban’s setting is on the South China Sea, the story is inherently Japanese. Having experienced Japan as a foreigner Carlos says, “I’ve always been obsessed with Japan. It’s one of my favourite cultures. I wanted to do something with Japan but I was aware that being such a unique culture, independent of the Western world, was I really able to tap into something that people would say that I totally got the essence of Japan? It’s impossible in one trip. It’s impossible with this superficial kind of research.”
Searching for a story about Japan that he could convey with authenticity led Carlos back to his native Mexico. “Something we know as part of our history is the Manila trade. These were Spanish galleons that would trade from the port of Acapulco, the first port in the Americas. They would go down to Manila and they would bring all of these Asian ingredients, materials, ceramics and woods. They brought everything into Mexico and then on to Europe. Cinnamon and clove; all these spices arrived in Mexico first and then they went off to Europe. So very early on, before the 19th century, Mexico had a sort of Japonism or Chinoiserie. At the Decorative Arts Museum in Mexico City or if you look at a 17th century house in Mexico, you have more Chinese objects than Spanish objects because they were more readily available.” These ancient trade routes have influenced the way we talk about modern perfumery. Fragrances that combine spices, woods, resins and gourmand notes are described as being Oriental fragrances even though most of these ingredients are not native to Asia. Historically, they were ingredients gathered in the Americas and the Middle East by traders journeying from Asia to Europe along trade routes.
Carlos eventually found his story. Following a paper trail through a string of webpages and books, his research took him to Sendai, a city on the Japanese island of Honshu. In the city’s museum he visited a replica of a Spanish-style galleon or nanban-sen, which completed Japan’s first diplomatic mission to the West in 1618. Onboard was a contingent of samurai led by Hasekura Tsunenaga. Although this historic journey is now celebrated by the Japanese, it was almost wiped from Japanese history books as a result of the Shogun of that era shunning Western culture and religion. Japan’s borders remained closed to the West for the next two centuries. Carlos found evidence of the samurai’s visit to Europe where they met the Pope in Rome, and stories of the exotic travellers were documented in Mexico where the foreign contingent were based for a year.
Nanban’s inspiration came from the final transoceanic crossing that concluded the seven year journey. Carlos imagined the galleon sailing from Manila to Japan and its scented cargo of European leather, oil paintings and carved woodwork, all souvenirs from a new world. An inventory and some examples of what was brought back was exhibited in the Sendai museum. He also imagined the different kinds of exotic perishables the galleon may have transported back to Japan; spices and tea from South East Asia, Mexican coffee beans and cacao. “This is a group of people that were seeing a new world for the first time, leaving Japan and then coming back in.” What they brought back to Japan reflected their view of Western culture. Around the same time in Japan the term ‘Nanban art’ was coined. The term described art created by Japanese artists who had been influenced by Namban or foreigners who the Japanese referred to as ‘Southern Barbarians.’ The concept of what is foreign and the cross-cultural discussions this type of art ignited are as relevant today as they were centuries ago in Japan.
I was introduced to Nanban in late 2014 when Carlos visited Sydney for his Australian launch of The Architects Club and L’Etrog Acqua. At that time Nanban was still being developed. We met under the sails of the Sydney Opera House to talk about perfume and Carlos invited me to smell two lab samples of his next fragrance. We didn’t talk at all about the story behind the fragrance. We only discussed the notes he was working with and a dilemma of concentration. I made an effort to take a mental snapshot of what I was smelling so that I could compare it with the final version Carlos planned to release the following year. Ten months later I met Carlos and Rodrigo in Italy. The fragrance now had a name and it was being launched at Pitti Fragranze in Florence. Although the soul of what I already smelled hadn’t changed, it was remarkable how much the fragrance had evolved with months of subtle finessing. Carlos told me, “A lot of work went into it not only being a piece of art but also being functional. It’s a fragrance I am very proud of technically. We really polished every little aspect of it. Every single ingredient that is in there has a reason for being in there. There is an intention behind it.”
Nanban begins with two parallel textures. The first is a soft floral note of Chinese osmanthus flower. The flower’s fruitiness hints at apricot and has a smoothness, which paired with Persian saffron, provides a lovely ingress into the Spanish leather notes that line the heart of the fragrance. The second texture Nanban opens with is a gritty black pepper extract from Malabar, India. Black pepper often gives perfumes a sense of heat but in Nanban, the fiery spice reveals its camphorous side and has a cooling effect against a black tea accord. There is a subtle hint towards seawater as well. Carlos revealed this subliminal note saying “we are thinking about an ocean night so there should be some aspect of marine.” Nanban is filled with these minuscule touches of raw materials that create a complex tapestry of scent. A glimpse of Mexican cocoa absolute can be found as the fragrance segues from the top to heart. A very small amount was added to enhance the perfume’s velvety texture and builds upon the fragrance’s gourmand notes of hazelnut and coffee bean. It’s this section that draws a comparison to Nanban’s older sibling Anima Dulcis.
Sweet is an adjective that is often used to describe human skin and as Nanban warms up with roasted confectionary notes, the fragrance’s civet note recalls the scent of body odour. This is an acquired taste, especially in many western cultures where for generations we have been encouraged to wash away any trace of the body’s natural odour. In the fragrance industry, perfumers assign a working title to their formula until the client finalizes a name. Carlos revealed Rodrigo’s working title for Nanban was Nature of the Beast. With a generous amount of civet this was an apt title. Comparing Nanban to the modifications I smelled when the fragrance was still under development this Southern Barbarian really was a beast. To me the finished fragrance shows a taming of that beast. The amber woods and sandalwood notes, which wrap around the base of the fragrance act like an olfactory tuxedo; they refine the wild animalic notes that mingle with incense and exotic spices.
One of the design challenges Carlos and Rodrigo faced was to create a classical structure from mostly base notes. “Technically, we were thinking about base notes, everything in the bottom. Everything that is heavy. But then how do we fill an entire structure with that? Which of these big bricks and masonry would we put in the front and the top? So black pepper, it’s not a dainty flower. Black tea goes on the top. Spanish leather is in the heart. Hazelnut and sandalwood is in the heart too. The incense is in the back and the woody, dark animalic notes are in the back.” Despite this list of typically heavy notes, Nanban still retains a sense of weightlessness and it offers impressive longevity on both skin and fabric.
Like all perfumes, Nanban has its fair share of detractors and fans on perfume blogs and forums. It’s a big personality fragrance, which prevents a lot of reviewers from sitting on the fence. I’m a Nanban fan but I am also conscious of where and when I wear it. For me it’s a statement fragrance. It’s a social fragrance that yearns to be talked about so it’s not something I wear when I want to be discrete. Nanban has a similar gusto to many of the big sillage-for-miles oud fragrances that continue to be trendy. It is also a good alternative since it contains no trace of oud. Carlos confirmed, “In today’s market there is a lot of reference to oud and Middle Eastern oud. It has translated not only to that market but also all over the world. Every brand that deems itself a niche or luxury brand has an oud fragrance. For us this was our anti-oud because of course it has no oud whatsoever but it is the same deep, sensual, woody, incensy, balsamic type of fragrance.” Another way of appreciating Nanban is with Arquiste’s exceptional Dark Galleon scented candle. I decided I needed both in my collection.
Perfumer: Rodrigo Flores-Roux, Yann Vasnier
Creative Director: Carlos Huber
Release Date: 2015
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woody oriental