The Smell Of Success? D.S. & Durga Has A Fragrance For That
Mr David and Ms Kavi Moltz photographed against David’s lab wall at D.S. & Durga HQ in Brooklyn, New York, 2021. Photograph by Mr Bill Gentle, courtesy of D.S. & Durga
“It’s a foregone conclusion to us that perfume is an art form,” says Mr David Seth Moltz. “We’re not trying to push that agenda. It’s just true.”
Moltz is the perfumer behind Brooklyn-based brand D.S. & Durga. He’s also one half of the brand, the D.S. His wife, Ms Kavi Moltz, is the other, the Durga, and she sorts out the branding. As far as they’re concerned, perfume’s place in the world is overdue a review.
“People are realising that perfume is an art form like music and literature and poetry and film,” says David. “I can say the same amount of things in a perfume as you can in a book or a painting or music. It’s just a different set of variables.”
Founded in 2007, D.S. & Durga has been established for a relatively short time, but is already a rip-roaring success in the fragrance world. Well, sort of. “We’re a success in the sense of the American dream kind of thing,” says David. “But we’re nowhere yet. Your next-door neighbour does not know who we are.”
There’s still time for that. It all came about by chance. Kavi was an architect and David a musician. They met “really randomly on the street” and began dating, before beginning to collaborate creatively. “We were going to all these vintage book shops and picked up a bunch of Victorian beauty manuals on how to make your own lotions and potions and tonics,” says Kavi.
They began by “just exploring and having fun” by making scented bathroom tonics for friends, which were surprisingly popular. “From there, we thought we could take it a little more seriously and looked into it and focused on perfume more,” she says.
Kavi worked on the marketing and branding side, while David taught himself perfume. This, it should be said, is rare. In the guarded, clandestine world of perfume, long dominated by the luxury French brands, upstarts don’t usually hang around.
“People are realising that perfume is an art form like music and literature and poetry and film”
The couple are quick to point out that, although they might have taken an unconventional path to create their fragrance brand, they definitely don’t see themselves as disrupters. “We’re respectful and we honour the canon of perfume that came before us,” says David. “Just like the Rolling Stones named their band after Muddy Waters, they weren’t like, ‘Screw the blues. We’re going to do it better.’ They were just really inspired. We don’t want to tear anything down.”
The brand’s best-selling product is I Don’t Know What, a reference to “je ne sais quoi”, which David says he got from a Dr Evil line in an Austin Powers movie (“It has what the French call a certain ‘I don’t know what’”). It’s not billed as a fragrance, but as a fragrance enhancer, intended to be sprayed in combination with a fragrance to give it an extra layer. It’s made from Iso E Super, a synthetic molecule with a slightly woody, masculine note that’s hard to define, but is a popular ingredient in perfume.
“You can’t put your finger on anything in that fragrance,” says David. “Natural perfume doesn’t have oomph or structure, so I thought what if I made a fragrance that’s empty, that’s just all of the enhancing molecules that we use to give the scent structure? So, if I have a beautiful oud and spray that over it, now I have the world’s best oud fragrance.” It can also be worn on its own.
During the pandemic, appreciating our immediate surroundings became more important. The idea chimed with D.S. & Durga’s ethos of fragrance as armchair travel. “To use an aromatic cliché, during the pandemic, people had to wake up and smell the roses, to the fact that there are little joys right outside my doorstep,” says David. “I don’t have to get on a plane to go to Bali. There are these invisible worlds that you can go inside of and explore. It helps you understand the world a little bit more. You can see the story and what’s behind it and hear the music behind it.”
He means that literally. Every D.S. & Durga fragrance comes with a playlist designed to take you into the fragrance’s universe. Radio Bombay, a sandalwood fragrance with metallic hints of hot copper, has an energetic playlist full of transportive Indian music from Mukesh and Ms Asha Bhosle, while Debaser – a scent David says is like “the wild shrill of Black Francis coming through the radio in the August heat” – is soundtracked with tunes by Pixies.
“We put so much heart and soul into creating a story – a whole world – around the fragrance only for someone to smell it and judge it in one second”
For some, all this world-building stuff is just background noise. “I think the typical consumer cares much more about the final product than what went into it,” says Kavi. “We joke that we put so much heart and soul into creating a story – a whole world – around the fragrance only for someone to smell it and judge it in one second. Which is valid because that’s what you’re left with, so who cares about the 99 per cent of what it took to get to that point? The rare consumer would appreciate that, though, which is what resonates with us.”
Still, says David, there’s a place for their perfume and, as appreciation of it grows, so does the brand. “People are realising it’s not sustainable running around like rats every day,” he says. “Good fragrance can be a part of a nice, slow life.”