Brooklyn Against the World
D.S. and Durga’s high points, reviewed.
If Paris is the beating heart of perfume, New York, New York is (at least) the faulty cataracts. Not everything that comes out of the Big Apple is good, but it has always foreseen something new. And indeed, for better or worse, its current culture of perfume production often dictates the latest innovations in the field. There are many perfumers who have managed to catch the current wave of viral, internet-savvy, slightly off-kilter narrative perfumery, but none seem as particularly committed to capturing the spirit and ethos of their home as Brooklyn-based D.S. and Durga.
Formed from the partnership between husband-and-wife power couple David and Kavi Moltz, their perfume manages to combine the many-but-one unified minimalist brand philosophy of overpriced art school mainstays Byredo with a more down-to-earth, narrative approach to creating perfume often found in smaller indie houses. When D.S. and Durga’s perfume falls short, it does so because of an obligation to its growing mainstream audience; but when it hits, it really bangs.
Perhaps my favorite fragrance I’ve yet to smell by the house — Mississippi Medicine — has flown decisively under the radar of TikTok influencers, and even somewhat blurs beneath the branding of D.S. and Durga themselves. Billed as a somehow “badass” masculine scent, what I actually smell is far more genderless, gentle, and evocative than they or anyone else would have you believe. Intensely smoky, it opens with nuances of dry, church-like frankincense, fresh-cut cedarwood, and a boiled sort of vegetable accord. It quickly dries down into a more meditative incense, and clings to the skin with surprisingly tame projection.
There are a number of diversions taken here from the wider genre of perfume that smells like smoke. First: the inclusion of aldehydes is, in my eyes, genius. It adds a waxy, buttery, and sparkly element to the frankincense, one also seen in Comme des Garçons’ bestselling Avignon. Second: while the smoke does at first lay on loud and harsh, it quickly settles into a more historic wood. People online have likened it to a haunted church, but to me, this smells of the familiar, worn-down buildings that populate the American South. David Moltz writes that the central notes of cedar, frankincense, and cypress root were inspired by the ritual materials of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: an esoteric realm of Native American spirituality archived across the deep South — focused on cosmology, social organization, and warfare. Moltz refers to it as a “death cult,” as it was often historically termed, but what I see represented in Mississippi Medicine is more the mystical spirit of its axis mundi made of cedar: the moment when the pale between worlds grows thin, and the materials of the land become endowed with an electric magic. Less sinister — and more like home.
Crossing the Mason-Dixon line (where we will firmly remain for the rest of these reviews), the tame floral Rose Atlantic conjures up preppy fantasies of summers spent sailing in New England, or of drinking rosewater cocktails on a boat overlooking the Long Island Sound. The composition here is the intersection of a marine accord (that will be further explored in more of Moltz’ work) and a lactonic, sort of musky rose. I will be the first to admit that rose soliflores do not often catch my eye. While I do think most people’s criticisms of the queen of flowers — too old, too stuffy — are downright offensive, I think that rose is best suited to take a supporting role to other, more inventive accords or counterpoints. Here is one such example: while there is rose as it would smell in nature within Rose Atlantic, it wears on skin far more Atlantic than rose. The salt does not flesh out the rose, but rather, challenges it.
Here is perhaps what I find most enchanting about the world both David and Kavi Moltz have created through the D.S. and Durga brand: via these oppositions just slightly left of comfortable to the average nose — brine and rose petals, for example — the mind is lead towards recalling not the singular source of a smell, but stories, scenes, and memories. David Moltz recalls in what he calls “liner notes” to Rose Atlantic a specific memory of his own: “It’s hot but the sea breeze brings in cool salted air by the late afternoon. The cloudless sky looks east over the Atlantic. Seagulls hang high over cutters, Sloops, and Scoonahs (real spelling Schooner). The borders of the beachhead are covered in bushes of single-petaled rosa rugosa.”
At the risk of veering too heavily into literary analysis, I want to gently imply that the style of Moltz’ writing also implies a certain philosophy towards how he creates perfume. There are only a few real sentences here. Vernacular language is important: short bursts of “if you know, you know” — the establishment of place not via explicatory description, but personal recollection. You get a sense he is only half-writing to you; that D.S. and Durga makes perfume for themselves, first and foremost. Rose Atlantic is one such exercise. A gatekept recollection of childhood happiness, perhaps — but a compelling take on the marine genre via the lens of a watery rose, absolutely.
Perhaps even more so tied to the poetics of beachside memory is the aptly named Rockaway Beach. Once a summer exclusive, it seems to be slowly creeping into the permanent collection, at least for now. This is another key facet to Moltz’ perfume practice that helps recall a more indie, need-to-know sentiment: perfumes come in and out of production, fleeting and oftentimes inaccessible. There are indeed a number of ‘Studio Juices’ as Moltz calls them (Lilac City, First Light 5 Boroughs) I am dying to smell — but part of their allure, to me, is nested within their exclusivity.
However, I was luckily able to get my hands on Rockaway Beach, and what I smell places it firmly within a niche genre of perfume I’d call l’eau de crème solaire: perfume that smells like sunscreen. This, I think, is inherently tied to memory. There is not truly a reason to make a cosmetic product that intentionally recalls the scent of another cosmetic product if not for some semi-universal grasp toward memories of that secondary product’s usage. Think of it as the difference between something like Guerlain’s Terracotta, a perfume that recalls the central coconut-vanilla-frangipani accord of the pasty white gel, but does not directly imitate it, and Comme Des Garçons’ collaboration with Californian fashion house ERL, bluntly named sunscreen. There is much to be said about fragrance as pantomime — perfume recalling back into itself on a set of trick mirrors, beauty products abstracted into simulacra of hairspray, lipstick (…for brevity’s sake, I will stop there.)
This is all to say: it does not surprise me that Rockaway Beach, with notes of suntan lotion, skin, and salt — recalls a very specific moment, real or imagined. That specific moment is this: Queens during the summer. Teenage abandon, sweat, loud music, and the smell of your skin after a swim so long your fingers turn to prunes. What I smell is primarily the marine accord from Rose Atlantic isolated, draped in plastic menagerie, and moved across the peninsula from the genteel harbor to the wide-open shore. The predominant accord is salty, almost tart, but in time it dries down to a somewhat impressive wear-time of salty skin and chemical musk. I see it almost as a spiritual sister to Seattle-based perfumer Filigree & Shadow’s Björk-inspired notget — they both set themselves apart from other “beachtime” perfumes by the inclusion of unsightly smells of the sea: the complicated, fishy, and oftentimes odorous accords that recall poignant memories of real summer, and not the projected fantasy of an ideal one. Wear this to the beach right now, or as a Proustian exercise in sentimentality during the long months of January.
Here is a perfume that does not recall memory, but rather, entices the imagination. Bistro Waters, a newer release from the house, riffs off the ancient eau de cologne structure played out in other releases like the dashing Italian Citrus and the greatly over-exaggerated Greatest Cologne of All Time. Where Italian Citrus leans candy and TGCoAT aromatic, Bistro Waters puts a vegetable veil over an orange, and settles it upon a bed of edible moss. This might be termed a gastro-gourmand — a perfume that does not recall dessert, but dinner. The image Moltz paints is of a bustling New York restaurant, a fresh plate of vegetables, perhaps a pasta, brought out in haste. What sticks out to me the most is a green pepper accord, somewhat similar to Diptyque’s Italian aperitif Venise, bisected with basil, spices, and an aqueous citrus drink. So-spicy, savory, and worth putting down your credit card to book an annoyingly exclusive Manhattan reservation for.
When D.S. and Durga’s ‘fumes (as Moltz likes to call them) do leave their hometown of New York, I get the sense they always travel as tourists. Jazmin Yuactan is their white floral, and, par for the course, they do it a little differently than you would expect. A watery, fresh, candied jasmine, Jazmin recalls the Yucatan region of Mexico not just by name. There is some infuriating and addicting accord that between snake plants and cloves evokes the smell of corn tortillas. I have talked with multiple friends about this, just to make sure we all weren’t imagining it, and most seem to at least somewhat understand. There is something dry and powdery here, almost doughy. It doesn’t show up in the notes, but I feel as if somehow the sweeter thralls of orange blossom are at play. This might be the least indolic version of its eponymous flower I have ever smelled in my life. There is nothing at all about how jasmine is rendered here that feels thick or heady. It is instead more of a steamed bloom related in my mind to Jo Malone’s Orange Blossom cologne. Almost honeysuckle, citrus, sort of humid, and kind of confectionary, Jazmin Yucatan is a curious thing indeed.
Before I go — I want to devote time to talking about the house's most earnest and unknown set of current releases. Their “gold label” premium line of small-batch perfumes made with higher quality and less readily available ingredients are named after the familiar aliases of the two founders themselves. I am inherently drawn to familial pairing and romance alike in perfume, and find the idea of releasing a self-titled line of perfume to be the pinnacle of the houses’ interest in both self-referential affect and the poetics of the LP. The first of the two, D.S. is designed to conjure the traditional methods of Indian perfumery. Styled after the attar – a means of co-distilling botanical ingredients in sandalwood essence – D.S. skims through the genres of oud, leather, and wood, and arrives authentically at the intersection of identity and aroma.
I think of D.S. in concert with one of David and Kavi’s first-ever collaborations, My Indian Childhood, and furthermore, of Japanese perfumer Satori Osawa’s intentionally difficult answers to traditional imperial traditions of “oriental” perfumes. Intentionally composed challenges to decisively orientalist standards of scent is an extremely promising avenue for contemporary fragrance, and one I would like to see explored far more frequently. D.S. does not necessarily accomplish this, but rather by gesturing like MIC to specific interactions and intersections with Indian perfumery proper, does do interesting work of bridging the gap between niche American perfume and historic practices of scent creation. Part of me wishes D.S. was a little weirder, a little more challenging — but, on the other hand, I do very much respect exercising one’s perfume chops by imitating ancient techniques. D.S. is primarily the intersection of saffron, agarwood, and sandalwood, but I do often feel that a dry, tart oud presents itself most fervently. References in liner notes to gardenia and ylang-ylang could be dialed up a bit, and claims to top-shelf Sri Lankan Holyfield Sandalwood oil might be given a bit more space to breathe. True oud connoisseurs would clearly never look to D.S. and Durga to supply their pungent dreams, so I wonder if the purpose of “introduction to critically re-imagined post-colonial neo-oriental perfumery” might be too tall of a bill to foot. True to form, maybe he just wanted to use the ingredients at his disposal.
Its floral counterpart, Durga, has been kept squarely in the back of all sales shelves I have seen it placed on — and if this article accomplishes nothing, I should hope its purpose would be to free this milky-narcotic white floral masterpiece from obscurity and place it among widely-circulated names like Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower and Hiram Green’s Moon Bloom. Opening with an instantly attention-grabbing blast of herbal chrysanthemum, Durga’s conceit is the juiciness of fresh melon set against bubblegum tuberose. A fine-quality orris is used deftly here to support the smooth and buttery aspects of the central white flower. Where D.S. stumbles in revealing the true nature of its high-quality ingredients (and justifying its incredibly high price point at $380 for 50ml) there is no question in my mind (or my nose) that Durga contains an overabundance of high-quality tuberose absolute.
The smell is unmistakable and almost obscene. Most clearly referenced in Carnal Flower, there is a reason, of course, that Malle purports in thick French that “the woman who wears [it] is saying come, kiss me!” Of course, Durga is not merely another tuberose-melon-eucalyptus Carnal Flower clone. What sets it apart is the crucial presence of chrysanthemum. It replaces eucalyptus in this now-notorious combination, lending a somewhat musty, prickly, and off-putting accord to this generally enchanting lineup. I can hear the tiniest, faintest echoes of Serge Lutens haunting funerary masterpiece De Profundis in what chrysanthemum accomplishes and unsettles here. It clings to the skin for a full day, and in the meantime, gives you tendrils of titular tuberose to last in your memory for weeks. If I had all the money in the world, Durga would be my signature perfume from the house.
Alas, we all have luckyscent carts to fill and less importantly bills to pay, so I will settle for my treasured sample sale bottle of Mississippi Medicine, and look forward to my next trip to the city that never sleeps. 🌀