It’s not often that a fragrance leaves me utterly befuddled and almost at a loss for words. The new Akowa from M. Micallef is one of those rare scents. Thanks to a secret mystery ingredient from Africa, its opening bears an alien strangeness that is riveting and peculiar, particularly when juxtaposed next to contradictory elements. I honestly don’t know what to make of it sometimes, let alone know if I can describe it. It dominates Akowa from start to finish, emits a wide range of unusual facets, and has an otherworldly strangeness that can be quite fascinating. Yet, other parts of Akowa verge on the repellant and nauseating, often being loud to the point of almost being garish. Wearing Akowa was one of the most perplexing scent experiences I can recall, leading me to feel as though I were practically stuttering in confusion and beset by a push-pull set of opposing, contradictory forces. It’s wildly original, probably unique, but… but… Well, I’m bewildered.
Akowa is a new eau de parfum in Micallef’s higher-end Jewel Collection. According to Luckyscent (which sent me my sample), it was created by Micallef perfumers Geoffery Nejman and Jean Claude Astier, and named “for a mysterious tribe [that is] purported to live in the wilderness of Gabon.” Fragrantica adds that “the African tribe … keeps secrets and mysteries to themselves” and that Martine Micallef said she wanted to “‘celebrate a secret ingredient, which is original and enigmatic’[.]”
That ingredient is the key to the Akowa’s uniqueness. Apparently, it comes from the roots of a plant that the perfumer, Geoffrey Nejman, discovered on his travels in Africa, but Micallef won’t reveal its name. I can tell you that it doesn’t smell like Karo Karunde or Buchu, both of which are wildly animalic, leathery, and/or urinous. This is something else entirely, a rootiness that is intensely bitter and herbal, dry, green-brown, dusty, and often evocative of hot desert sands. It’s intriguing beyond belief, and lends Akowa an almost otherworldly aroma.
According to Luckyscent, the rest of Akowa consists of a wide range of notes that make the fragrance ultimately straddle a lot of different genres, sometimes simultaneously. It is: a clean, aromatic, woody scent; a lushly tropical floral oriental; a bitter, dusty, leathery, woody desert oriental; and a heavy, dense, custardy gourmand — each of which is blanketed and infused by the mystery note’s herbal bitterness, and several of which occur side by side at the same time.
The full list of notes is:
Bergamot, orange flowers, secret ingredient, fig leaves, cacao, vanilla, patchouli, vetiver, amber, white musk.
As a side note, I can’t seem to shake the tendency to call the fragrance “Okowa” (or even “Akawa” at times) in my head, so mea culpa in advance if that inadvertently happens in the review. Clearly, the fragrance’s name befuddles me as much as its actual scent. Also, I tested Akowa twice and it was always a very complicated fragrance with more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, and the oddness of some of the notes means that it’s not always easy to describe, so buckle up, because this is going to be a long post.
Akowa opens on my skin with a flood of sweetness juxtaposed with intensely rooty, herbal bitterness. The former feels almost like honeyed orange syrup; the latter is like bitter medicinal herbs that are dusty, bracing, acerbic, and dried like roots. Moments later, they take on an odd aromatic quality, a hint of soapy cleanness, and an intense, hot aridity that I can only describe as “hot sands.” I’ve never smelt anything like it. Ever. It consistently evokes the image of gnarled roots bundled into giant tumbleweeds on the dusty plains of the hot African desert. There is also something grainy about the aroma, conjuring images of pulverized dried roots that you see tribes grind with a mortar and pestle on some exotic travel food show like Anthony Bourdain’s.
Obviously, I don’t know what aromas are typical of this mystery ingredient, so I can’t explain the soapiness that occurs at the same time, and whether it is endemic to the African plant or simply the result of the white musk in Akowa. All I can say is that the soapiness grows stronger, is oddly creamy in a way, and mixes with the herbal bitterness to smell like a wholly alien, herbal version of Nivea and Noxema together.
There are other elements hovering in the far distance. Subtle wisps of a green, dry, equally rooty vetiver stand beside fig leaves. They are leathery and tannic, like the dark dregs you’d find at the bottom of a very old bottle of red wine. The vetiver and fig leaves are splattered with a few drops of brisk, fresh bergamot that adds to the suggestion of greenness, subtle though it may be.
One of the most dominant notes in Akowa’s early stage is the honeyed orange syrup. About 5 minutes in, it turns into something more floral in nature, but not quite. The orange blossoms don’t smell either indolic, or fresh and green. They’re very unusual, smelling more like a Seville bigarade floralcy mixed with the bitter oils of the orange rind and a thick stickiness. It’s like a dark, bitter marmalade version of orange blossom, only this floral marmalade is blanketed with the crushed grains of the herbal African roots, hot desert sands, and aromatically clean, herbal soapy cream, before being decorated with a few leaves of leather, tannic fig, and a pinch of rooty vetiver.
In all honesty, none of that adequately or fully describes Akowa, because I lack the terminology to properly convey the oddness of that secret African ingredient. It is the dryest, bitterest, rootiest, most distinctive herbal aroma I’ve encountered in a while, but it’s also oddly spicy, bracing, dusty, and… well, hot. “Hot” in several senses of the word. It’s not quite a chili-like, biting note, and yet the spiciness does bear a sort of heat at the back of one’s throat like a pepper. The main thing, though, is that it’s hot in a dusky, desert sense. Can a plant absorb the energy, aura, climate and environment of its surroundings through its roots? It must, because these roots radiate the desert in such a way, it’s as though my feet were crunching through burning sands. Parfumerie Generale‘s Djhenné sought to evoke the same thing but it never came close, in my opinion, or certainly not to this degree.
Roughly 30 minutes in, Akowa begins to shift. The herbal soapiness and leathery figs grow stronger, while the bitterness feels almost black at times. The vetiver surges forth, wrapping itself around the African roots. When combined with the other accords, the result is a very clean, herbal, rooty freshness that is dominated by aromatic, slightly green (black), dusty, leathery, and strongly woody notes more than floral oriental ones.
What’s interesting is that Akowa’s nuances and focus in the first two hours seem to change depending on the quantity that I applied. I had a little mini-atomizer and using a few spritzes amounting to somewhere between 1 and 1.5 sprays from an actual bottle, the soapiness was barely noticeable in the opening hour, while the bergamot’s citric freshness was prominent. The fig note smelt like aromatic, cool, fresh leaves more than something so leathery and tannic. The level of bitter herbaceousness was slightly less intense and all-encompassing but, more importantly, the orange blossoms were more overtly floral. They were still heavily drenched in syrup, but they weren’t swaddled quite so thoroughly by the herbal roots, thereby letting the aroma feel more like the actual blossoms. As a whole, Akowa skewed more towards the herbal, bitter, rooty, syrupy floral oriental side than the aromatic, clean, soapy, herbal, leathery woody one, though the hot desert sands were a constant thread through both versions.
Regardless of quantity, Akowa’s main contours and development are consistent from the end of the 2nd hour onwards. When the 3rd hour rolls around, the orange blossoms vie for attention, and the scent grows sweeter. There is consistently a weird synthetic note that runs through the base, smelling like a mix of an amber-woody aromachemical, something metallic, and the bug-spray, insect repellent note that often emanates from synthetic versions of white florals like orange blossom. The floral bouquet is weird in and of itself. In addition to the vaguely floral orange marmalade, on both occasions that I tested Akowa, the 3rd hour consistently wafted a strong scent that was exactly like plumeria or frangipani on my skin, complete with its cloying sweetness and very tropical aroma. I loathe plumeria because it always makes me feel queasy and nauseous, just as it does here.
Matters aren’t helped by the vanilla’s gradual awakening in the base. Small flickers of it were first noticeable at the 90-minute mark, but the 3rd hour sees it reach the top where it oozes like a heavy, thick custard. The problem is that it merges with the syrupy orange blossoms to consistently create an orange-vanilla creamsicle accord on my skin. On one arm, the accord is quickly joined by a fine dusting of cocoa powder by the middle of the 3rd hour; on the other, the cocoa takes longer to appear in a distinct way. On both arms, the end result is always intensely sweet.
So, to sum up, we now have a mix of: custardy orange-vanilla creamsicles; “plumeria” that wafts a lush, intensely cloying, island tropicality; the hot sands of the African desert; the gnarled roots of a heavily bitter herb; it’s even more bitter grainy powder; spiciness with a subtle biting heat; rooty vetiver; dusty leatheriness from very tannic figs; and a lingering touch of herbal soapy cream that smells like a more herbal version of Nivea and Noxema mixed together. And all of this is given a truly alien vibe by some secret African ingredient whose full dimensions I cannot even begin to describe. I just… can’t wrap my head around it.
One thing I do know for certain is that the secret ingredient’s enigmatic appeal wears thin when the floral notes surge to the forefront. It’s not merely the fact that plumeria makes me nauseous; it’s the growing sweetness of the scent. By the middle of 3rd hour, we’ve gone several stages beyond syrup, thanks to the power of the vanilla custard. It’s a dense treacle of floral custard and sugary goo that blankets me with such heavy thickness that it feels quite suffocating. What screws with my mind is that, at the same time, it’s intensely bitter, acrid, dusty, and herbal. In that sense, Akowa shares a similarity to the dense, herbal, vanilla-frosted cake in O’Driu‘s Eva Kant, only Akowa is even sweeter and beset by an alien African rootiness.
By the end of the 4th hour, Akowa’s bouquet is a full-on hybrid of the floral oriental and gourmand genres. The fragrance has lost much of its woody, soapy, and vetiver overtones, though it is still very dusty, bitter, dry, and herbals with a strong undertone of leatheriness in the base. Up top, the dark chocolate has arrives in force, blanketing the vanilla custard to create a floral, choco-vanilla-orange creamiscle that is flecked by tropical “plumeria,” then slathered with bitter, dusty herbaceousness. The fragrance feels lighter, less dense and thick, at least relative to what it had been earlier.
There is also an oddly acrid and metallic quality to the scent. It may be related to the woody, harsh, slightly disinfectant-like dryness from the amber-woody aromachemical that consistently rises up from the base about 4.75 hours into Akowa’s development. It bears an industrial vibe above all else, almost like a metallic and dusty warehouse, if that makes any sense. It is simply yet another layer of oddness in a fragrance that already has too many peculiar, discordant combinations. I mean, honestly, what the hell is going on?! There is too, too much blasting away, as though the perfumers sought to check-mark different boxes of styles, and all of it is done without finesse or balance. My grumpiness is not helped by growing queasiness from the tropical island florals and that suffocating vanilla custard.
I think Akowa’s middle stage is the most difficult and unbearable, because the fragrance does improve. Eventually. The drydown is actually decent and moderately enjoyable, but it takes a long time to get there. First, we have to go through the chocolate phase. Now, I happen to love chocolate and cocoa notes in perfumery (far more than vanilla), but Akowa is still an extremely strange mix of genres. Midway during the 5th hour, the chocolate gradually takes over from the vanilla as the orange syrup’s dominant partner, though the vanilla remains in more subtle form at the edges.
By the start of the 7th hour, Akowa has turned into a dry, herbal, chocolate-tropical-floral oriental that is infused with woodiness, quietly layered with vanilla, then lacquered with a paste of African roots, ground herbs, desert sands, and vetiver. It’s so odd, but at least the herbal Noxema soapy cream, the cloying “plumeria,” and the dusty, tannic, fig leather are no longer a major part of the mix.
Akowa’s notes turn blurrier and start to overlap by the 8th hour, and the fragrance slowly shifts its focus back to the woody side. The African mystery ingredient is always the clearest, most distinct, and dominant note. The vetiver and cocoa powder are pronounced up close, but everything else feels increasingly amorphous and shapeless. There is some sweetness but no clear vanilla custard or orange, and the scent no longer feels gourmand. Increasingly, Akowa is turning back to the herbal, woody bouquet of its opening hour, minus the soapiness or the orange (blossom) marmalade.
What I really like is the impact of the mystery note’s bitterness on the chocolate on one arm. There, and only there, Akowa has become a full-on cocoa woody scent with a strong coffee-like tonality. It’s as though the dark bitterness has given the cocoa the aroma of roasted expresso beans. It’s gorgeous, and I wish it were a strong, long-lasting, and major part of the fragrance as a whole.
Instead, Akowa is typically a bitter, herbal, woody, spicy, rooty fragrance during this 4th stage. There is some chocolate that smells like dark, unsweetened cocoa powder, but it stays at the edges. To my relief, the lurid, bombastic, and garish floralcy has been completely replaced by vetiver that is woody and occasionally earthy. The spicy, rooty woodiness of the overall scent is actually quite nice and has a very unique aroma, thanks to that mystery note.
Akowa stays on this route until the 11th hour when the 5th stage begins. Now, the amber emerges from the base, and does a wonderful job of rounding out, taming, and softening the herbal bitterness. It also adds a more balanced, golden sort of sweetness that feels more natural. Akowa is now a soft, golden woody scent laced with spicy rootiness, a touch of vetiver, and a sliver of vaguely herbal earthiness. I mean it quite sincerely when I say it’s genuinely enjoyable. In fact, I wish the amber had arrived sooner to remedy some of Akowa’s issues, and that it stayed longer. Unfortunately, this phase doesn’t last.
The amber departs during Akowa’s drydown and final stage which generally begins in the middle of the 13th hour. Its place is taken by clean white musk, which blurs out all the remaining notes, and turns the fragrance into a simple woody musk, albeit one that is still dominated by the bitter, herbal roots of that mystery ingredient. Over time, even that distinctive aroma fades, and Akowa turns into a simple bouquet of slightly powdery woodiness infused with clean musk. In its final moments, all that is left is a semi-powdery, semi-dry, abstract woody softness.
Akowa has enormous longevity, good projection, and generally loud, big sillage that takes a while to turn soft. Using several spritzes equal to 2 good, solid sprays from an actual bottle, Akowa lasted just a hair under 19 hours on my perfume-consuming skin, although it clung on as the merest wisp after the 14th hour. The opening projection was 5 inches with about half a foot of sillage, but scent trail grew as the perfume developed. After 30 minutes, Akowa trailed about 8 inches, then more as the syrupy sweetness and tropical floral notes grew stronger. Actual projection was about 3-4 inches after 2.25 hours. Akowa only turned into a skin scent after 7.5 hours, though it was easy to detect up close without any effort at all until the end of the 10th hour. Akowa only became fully discreet around the 12th hour, but I was astonished by its longevity when I sniffed at my arms up close. In terms of body and density, Akowa feels more like an extrait, but its sillage belies that category.
Akowa is too new to have any comments on its Fragrantica page at this time. However, there are 5 or 6 votes for longevity and sillage, and I was interested to see that they are all over the map. To the extent that there is any majority, 2 votes rate it “long lasting” in the longevity category, and 2 votes opt for “heavy” for sillage. There are no reviews for Akowa on its Basenotes entry page and I’ve found no blog reviews to provide you with comparative analysis, so you’re stuck with me for now.
Quite obviously, I find Akowa to be peculiar, different, complex, and distinctive, but I didn’t really like the scent as a whole, despite my utter fascination with the African mystery note. While I did enjoy some parts of Akowa, others were unpleasant to the point of being repellent, luridly over-the-top, garish, and bombastic. The fragrance was blended beautifully to reflect different facets at different times, and yet Akowa also felt as though there was no editing at all. On occasion, I was beset by mental images of the perfumers tossing everything but the kitchen sink at the wall, much like spaghetti, to see what stuck. Akowa is simply all over the place and, while I love fragrances with many stages and complexity, there is simply too much going on here, usually simultaneously.
In all honesty, I’m not sure Akowa is a wearable scent. Usually, unwearable fragrances are strongly artistic and/or avant-garde creations like, for example, some of Serge Lutens’ bell jar exclusives but, here, it’s the multiple competing genres and strangeness that are the problem. Even putting aside the otherworldly alien nature of that African mystery ingredient, Akowa’s heft, density, and loudness don’t make it the most versatile scent. While some fragrances like that — for example, those from Slumberhouse — are wearable as occasional indulgences into richness, Akowa is still plagued by its all-over-the-map confusion. What sort of fragrance is it exactly? You can’t simply categorize it as an African desert or herbal rooty fragrance, because all the other competing (and often discordant) elements are too noticeable or loud. There were times when I smelt my arm, and I didn’t know what the hell was going. I mean, deserts and desserts and tropical islands and Nivea/Noxema and…and…. I threw up my hands.
Yet, for all that, I truly and quite sincerely admire Akowa to no end. It is utterly unique, wildly creative, and completely unashamed to make a statement. It’s bold, probably intentionally in your face, and smells like absolutely nothing else out there. The first, initial encounter with that mystery note is absolutely compelling. I was riveted by the alienness of Akowa, and almost couldn’t get enough of it in the first 30 minutes. In a world where more and more fragrances smell as though they might as well have been created on a factory line, where “distinctiveness” is a subjective concept that is only relative to the just how generic the other fragrance is, Akowa is objectively “distinctive” and unique. How can you not applaud and admire that? What an utterly daring risk Micallef took to feature this note so prominently from start to finish. They went all in, accords blazing at full force, and practically saying, “to hell with every day wearability, we’re going to do something challenging whose uniqueness will shock you out of your comfort zone.”
And they fully succeeded at that. This is truly a different sort of smell, one that I’ve never encountered before. I doubt most of you will have either, which does make Akowa worth a test sniff, even if it’s only for that alien distinctiveness. My issue is simply with the execution on a technical level: the discordancy of the ensuing mix; the confused swelter of inapposite notes that aren’t well edited to go together; and the bombastic loudness of the scent.
Still, I cannot help but applaud the inventiveness and the originality. Akowa is precisely what niche perfumery is supposed to be, but rarely is. I think it is far better to attempt something completely new and fail than to put out the same old, generic fragrance and pretend it’s different through ridiculously over-the-top marketing stories that bear little reality to the actual scent in question. In my opinion, Micallef deserves major kudos for what they attempted to do. I may not like or be able to wear Akowa, but it is one of the most original, unique things I’ve ever tried. Bravo.
Disclosure: My sample was provided courtesy of Luckyscent. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.