Something You Can Take With You
An interview with DS & Durga

Words by Debra Riley Parr
Photos by DS & Durga


DRP: I first discovered your perfume in Chicago’s Merz Apothecary and was pulled in immediately by the poetic evocation of Boston Ivy, an Eau de Cologne composed of ivy, clover, oakmoss, and lime. What really grabbed me was the text describing the perfume: “A memory of Boston in the ‘80s. Where green moss & ivy grew next to I.R.A. graffiti and fresh clover was salted by the sea.” Wow! Can you illuminate your thinking on how scent evokes memories and places?

DS&D: Scent for us is a kind of second skin that you carry around, creating your own world. It’s a bit neo-Romantic in that way, a kind of rejection of the world, and the creating of another. Music has always been an inspiration too – the way vinyl LPs create an experience with the recording, but also the packaging and the liner notes. Fragrance is something you can take with you – it can be narrative and transforming.

How did you and Kavi get started?

Well, no one starts a perfume company! We began tincturing flowers and herbs and spices to make aftershaves for friends, but then we had the idea to start blending oils, resins and plant extracts. We were attracted, at least initially, to a kind of smokiness which comes through in many of the early scents; Cowboy Grass and Burning Barbershop, for example.

Do either of you have any training in this arena of scent making?

No, but we became pretty professional quickly. David studied film at Boston University and moved to New York in 2002 with an old band. Kavi’s background is in architecture and design. In 2007, we found an FDA facility in the Bronx to help with manufacturing and by 2008, our perfume was being sold in a few stores. 

Kavi, the DS & Durga packaging seems so specific and important to the identity of your perfumes. What inspires you?

I’m drawn to the masculine scents of the 1920s and 30s: basil absolutes, tonka bean – smells with an old man’s scent.

(Kavi): Our perfume is handcrafted and very personal to us, so we want the look to reflect that. Visual references are important to us, and the influence of old books about herbs and gardening is definitely there. In the DS & Durga line the references are to Americana and craft, with a nod to the past. Each bottle has a 17th century sketch from Gerard’s Herball – a simple marigold. But, while it may look old, we want it also to be fresh, contemporary, and new. In our latest line HYLNDS, the look is simpler, with more neutral colors: cream, black, and gold. The design has a more luxe feeling. In the niche fragrance market, packaging generally takes second seat to the juice – for us, obviously the perfume is important too, but we love making a visual break to show the distinctiveness of our lines.

Can you share your creative process? 

(David): We’re investigating things all the time. Always. I’m always taking notes. Sometimes an idea will come to me based on a raw material, other times while tracing the path of the history of perfume. I’m drawn to the masculine scents of the 1920s and 30s: basil absolutes, tonka bean – smells with an old man’s scent. I love playing around with accords – very musical, really. With our perfume Bowmakers for instance, we wanted an accord of a violin. I love the idea of leitmotifs as they work in the musical compositions of Wagner, for example.

In a recent collaboration with fashion designers Shipley & Halmos, your work strikes me as very funny. This isn’t something you see very much in the world of fragrance.

Yeah, that relates to our love of storytelling. And really, 90% of perfume copy is hysterical if you think about it. The copy for our scent Burning Barbershop for instance:

“A fire broke out in the Curling Bros. barbershop in Westlake N.Y. in 1891. All the shaving tonics with their lime, vanilla & lavender burned. A charred bottle was found half full. It smelled like this.”

A perfumer can mine out new ideas based on the abstraction of the real thing, just as a blues musician sticks to a few definite forms, but endlessly embellishes and abstracts it to his or her own liking.

The poems that appear in our HYLNDS line are knowingly ambitious, in the way they attempt to conjure a world. Some people may think it’s too much of a stretch to describe perfume in that much detail. But we really believe in the poetic explanation for the furthering and clarification of the art. The copy we balk at is the stuff that doesn’t mean anything, or suffers from a bad translation. For this collaboration with Shipley & Halmos’ pop up shop, we wanted it to be very much in the spirit of Canal Street knock-offs and fakes. The idea of luxury knock-offs you know, “the Frenchest cologne ever made by a non-Frenchman”, was the inspiration for this very limited edition. Shipley & Halmos really like our Italian Citrus cologne so we thought it would be really funny to knock-off one of our own scents. There are three versions: When a Mandarin Loves a Woman, Eve’s Saint L’Orange, and Tanng Sport. We tweaked Italian Citrus, which is more on the lemon spectrum, to make it more orange, bringing out the tangerine and mandarin notes. And I changed out some of the musks. Over dinner, we came up with typical marketing tropes from the fragrance world and pumped them up.

You mention musk as one of the elements you played around with in this collaboration. Is that one of your favorite materials?

Musk is one of the ultimate launching pads for perfumers. There’s a description of it by Philip Kraft in Aroma Chemicals IV: Musks that really inspires us:

“The term ‘musk’ is an abstraction from the complex odour impressions of natural musk refers to the warm, sensual, sweet-powdery tonality of the dry-down...The more one studies its character, the more contrasting, vibrant and oscillating it becomes: repulsive-attractive, chemical-warm, sweaty-balmy, acrid-waxy, earthy-powdery, fatty-chocolate-like, pungent-leather, resinous-spicy, fig-like, dry, nutty, and woody, just to give a few impressions.”

So, you see the complexity of working with even one supposed note. I say “supposed” since no one uses real deer musk tincture anymore, instead utilising a wide range of synthetics and natural plant derivatives to mimic it. While making or smelling perfume materials, we can leave behind our thoughts, “I want this to smell like roses at the beach,” and judgments (this smells good/bad), and delve directly into experiencing the magic of molecular combinations. There is a vast array of molecules hitting our receptors that trigger endless pictures, colors, memories, places, abstract feelings and impressions. Sometimes you can not describe what you are smelling because it is an abstraction. For instance, a strawberry scent very rarely has real strawberries in it. We know what orange flavored gum tastes like, but it doesn’t taste like an orange.  We’ve learned what orange gum tastes like in addition to real oranges and have learned to associate it with “orange”. A perfumer can mine out new ideas based on the abstraction of the real thing, just as a blues musician sticks to a few definite forms, but endlessly embellishes and abstracts it to his or her own liking. They say, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock-n-roll.” Maybe for perfumers they can say, “The musk deer had a baby and they named it organic chemistry.” Nerd alert.

What’s next for DS & Durga?

We’re really interested in the movement in perfume toward what we might call “radiance”, toward materials that are quiet but radiant, that are soft but propel. And of course, we love getting new materials like the fractionally distilled natural materials from Robertet – so exciting to work with! After collaborating on a project with the likes of Shipley & Halmos, the Glenlivet, or J. Crew, where we get caught up and swept away with how fun that is, we always need to pull back and focus on our own growth, our own projects.

Debra is Chair of the Fashion Studies Department at Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois. She is currently writing a book on scent in contemporary art and design practice. You can follow her on twitter @debraparr

This article appeared in ODOU issue 2
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