David Moltz didn’t know a thing about perfume or business, let alone combining the two to create a perfume business when he started D.S. & Durga with his then-girlfriend and now wife, Kavi Ahuja Moltz, in the second half of 2007.
The couple would spend weekends inside dusty, dimly lit second-hand bookstores in the countryside, flicking through archaic, dogeared manuals on plants, herbs and creams; tomes you’d expect to find tucked under the arm of Professor Severus Snape when he trundled around Hogwarts.
In a time before YouTube became an unofficial short course provider, and before almost any book in the world was available at a click of a button, the couple transformed their apartments in Bushwick and Manhattan into test labs, finetuning concoctions and tinkering with branding and designs.
They started out gifting fragrances to friends that Christmas and then began selling their handcrafted products the following February. It wasn’t long before D.S. & Durga (D.S is the initials of David’s first and middle names and Durga means Hindu goddess and is the nickname he gave Kavi) scents were on the shelves of iconic New York stores Freemans, In God We Trust and Earnest Sewn.
Back then, David was a broke musician who was waiting tables to make ends meet, while Kavi was just beginning her career as an architect, logging long hours in a Manhattan firm. They weren’t planning to build one of the coolest niche fragrance brands in the market. But they have.
“In the beginning, we knew nothing about what we were doing. We knew nothing about business; we knew nothing about perfume; we knew nothing about the perfume business,” Moltz told Man of Style from his New York home this month.
“We started going away a lot on weekend jaunts and finding these old bookstores with manuals on herbs and outdated recipes. I had always been fascinated and really interested in plants and the plants that were growing out of the cracks around me.
“I was a waiter in a restaurant and I was in bands. I thought for sure I was just going to be a musician. I thought everything else was just whatever. Kavi would work architecture hours until eight or nine at night and then we would go have dinner. I would wake up and make the stuff in her kitchen or go to Bushwick and make it there and apply the labels she printed at her work. It was crazy the fact that you could sell this thing that you’d made – it was your literal blood, sweat and tears – it was… just insane.
“I didn’t know what it was going towards and I was messing around with a lot of stuff, making tonics and aftershaves and that sort of stuff. It was very D.I.Y Brooklyn. Everyone was doing something cool and making stuff at the time. I remember thinking if we could sell one bottle of perfume every day we could live off this for real. I remember thinking how crazy that would be. There was a website called Thrillist and they did a profile on us at the time and suddenly everyone knew about it and we were able to quit our jobs.”
When American retailer Anthropologie placed a purchase order for $54,000 not long after that Thrillist article, it may as well have been for $54 million. Moltz had been part of a band that got hot for five minutes in Boston years earlier, but this altered the course of his life.
Now more than a decade later, D.S. & Durga have grown from a husband and wife team to a company of 21 staff members. They only had one employee for the first five years, forcing them to learn everything from logistics to accounting, but since taking on investment in 2018, they now have a president with expertise in the beauty sector and a clear vision.
But while D.S. & Durga have blossomed from a side project to a global brand – they are stocked in 27 countries across the globe, including South Korea, Lebanon, Iceland and Mexico – David is still the nose, creating all the perfumes and the storytelling that accompany the scents, and Kavi is still in charge of design and branding.
Moltz didn’t learn perfumery in Paris or Grasse – or any school for that matter – he taught himself the ancient art through an obsessive approach to trial and error. When we speak via Zoom, he is currently testing seven different versions of a new scent, walking around with three that day to figure out what ages best across the day. He won’t tell me what it is, but we can expect to smell it in 2021.
“The way I learned is I am an obsessive person when it comes to something that I like. I will get in and read as much information as possible and start experimenting and playing around with it. It has happened many times in my life where I have gone to the end of it; this is just the deepest rabbit hole of them all,” he said.
“I bought as many materials as possible, wrote everything done. There weren’t any websites back then that could help you that much. There were old outdated books that were interesting. They would say things like take a pound of dog fat, add three drops of clove. And I would look at taking something fatty and adding musk and just base it on the words.
“I think I could teach myself to paint or sculpt or any kind of artform because I can arrange media to say a specific thing or statement. Fragrance is just one that is very esoteric to people. You could read a million books on playing the guitar, but you have to pick it up and start playing it and write down everything you do and study it and figure it out.”
If you are familiar with D.S. & Durga scents, you will know storytelling is a big part of the brand. Moltz is constantly scribbling down names in notepads and forming narratives around them like a novelist. Travel and nostalgia are two major themes, leading to unforgettable names like Cowboy Grass, Radio Bombay, Burning Barbershop, White Peacock Lily and I Don’t Know What.
“I’m trying to make it an immersive experience that you can go in and explore by yourself. There is no difference between a poem that implies these things in your mind; I get the same effect from tea or fine tobacco or any of these things where there is so many things going on that imply larger narratives,” he said.
“Music and perfume are both invisible and you can transverse that world. Everything is running together in that way. The story is a key trying to help you get in there and check it all out in the most concise manner. I always wonder why someone will make a perfume about California and put vanilla in it. To me, things should link up.”
D.S. & Durga have found creative ways to pivot during a year that has ravaged America and every corner of the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic. They transformed a vintage ice cream truck into the Fume Truck, taking their scents to the five boroughs of New York City. They have sold candles, air fresheners and hand sanitisers and enjoyed exponential digital growth, even opening a second store in November. But just like everyone else, David and Kavi’s lives have been turned upside down this year, not just at work but at home.
“Our whole life has been rocked this year. We had a really personal issue right before COVID happened – a health thing with our son – so that has coloured the whole experience. It is already the hardest thing that anyone born has had to deal with, and then two days after lockdown this thing happened so it is so intertwined and hard to pull apart for us,” he said.
“But like anything else, this is life and you either learn through wisdom or suffering. those are the keys to overcoming challenges. We have food, we’re under a roof so we shouldn’t complain. I know people whose relatives have passed away. There are plenty of people far worse off than anyone else. Let’s hope 2021 is much better for all of us.”
And with that, the man who built a niche perfume house from scratch with his wife leaves us thinking about what is around the next corner.