Indie Perfume Brand DedCool Is Rebelling Against the Old-School Rules of Fragrance

It's vegan, genderless and sustainably minded.
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DedCool's new Milk Eau de Parfum.

DedCool's new Milk Eau de Parfum.

Bottle up all of beauty's buzziest buzzwords — unisex, vegan, non-toxic, sustainable — and you'd get a decanter of DedCool Milk Eau de Parfum (in a fully recyclable box).

DedCool, for the uninitiated, is the three-year-old indie fragrance brand from 25-year-old founder Carina Chaz, and Milk is both its oldest and newest scent. Oldest in that it serves as the foundation for every fragrance in the company's catalogue (it's the "secret sauce," as Chaz puts it); newest in that it makes its debut as a full-size solo offering on Friday. Milk is hard to describe: There's that clean, showered-in-the-forest thing happening, with a bit of warmth and an unexpected softness, but before you can put your finger on what, exactly, it reminds you of, it's gone — melting into its wearer's natural oils — mysteriously there and not there and very, very cool.

I'd say Milk was the next Santal 33, if Santal 33 wasn't so… basic? Ubiquitous? Recognizable? "By no means do we want people to walk into an elevator and smell that fragrance cloud," Chaz tells Fashionista. That would be too obvious, of course, and passé, and DedCool is nothing if not a rebellion against the old-school rules of fragrance. You know, scents that market along the lines of the gender binary, the sometimes sketchy and literally secret ingredients, the stuffy "noses."

"Growing up, Barneys was the place I would go to discover fragrance, but the way fragrance was sold was very gender-specific, and I personally wanted to wear more 'masculine' fragrances," the founder says of the inspiration for DedCool. "Coming from a background of health and beauty" — her parents started natural personal care company LaNatura in 1987 — "I was never able to wear those traditional fragrances at the Barneys counter." The scents that did meet her safety standards "were the ones sold at Whole Foods," and those didn't speak to her style.

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In 2015, Chaz created the conscious, cool perfume she couldn't find anywhere else; perfume made with gender-neutral notes and "non-toxic" ingredients, with edgy branding and eco-friendly packaging. Three years later, DedCool was the first clean fragrance brand in Barneys. (Maybe the last.)

"Fragrance is 100% male-dominated — every nose, every fragrance house," Chaz shares. "I was a 21-year-old female founder and not a lot of people took me seriously. Now I'm seeing the product on Instagram on every top shelf." The line has been picked up by more than 150 retailers worldwide, although Chaz notes, "We have now really pushed our efforts into direct-to-consumer."

Ahead, the founder shares more about DedCool’s latest launch (Milk is a "layering" scent), the brand's sustainable production practices (its beloved Chazsticks are wind-powered) and why outside funding is not in her future.

You are famously one of the youngest brand founders in the beauty space. How did you get your start?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I come from a background of health, wellness and beauty. I'll give you the backstory: My mom was actually born on a farm in Italy, and she raised me in that regard — she was holistic, natural and started her company in 1987. It's called LaNatura. My parents owned manufacturing facilities, so growing up, I was really submerged in the manufacturing and have done every job from cutting, to labeling to product development. So when I was about was six or seven years old, I would hassle them about creating fun, juicy lip balm products [Editor's note: Those later became DedCool Chazsticks] and from there it really spun into doing little R&D-like panels with my friends, and kind of being involved in their creative process. They called me their youngest creative director.

As my mom's company began to pick up, I was encouraged to take over the brand eventually but never had an interest in body or skin-care, per se; it was always more so an interest in fragrance. I have always been intrigued by the idea of fragrance identity — who you are and how you represent yourself through scent. My desire to wear more 'masculine' scents was a way of expressing myself in the category.

In 2010, I formulated Fragrance 01 "Taunt" which was sold under the LaNatura brand. The fragrance received attention from a big film, "The Twilight Saga," in hopes to purchase the scent for their movie. I respectfully declined but still wanted to help, so I offered to formulate a new scent for them. This is where I learned my craft and the art of making fragrance.

In 2012, I decided to go to business school for a year and study art and business entrepreneurship, then came back to Los Angeles to finish university, where I graduated with an art and business entrepreneurship degree. When I officially launched DedCool in 2016, it came as more of a passion project and I had no plans on creating an actual business, but it eventually took off with the help of our Instagram channel. I used a very start-up and grassroots approach for the business model and worked on the brand on my own for several years to get it to where it is today. We’re now in a position where we are expanding not only with new product offerings and categories and building a platform based on health and sustainability education.

What did you see missing in the fragrance space that you thought you could speak to with DedCool?

The missing puzzle piece to me was that there were no cool 'clean' fragrance brands. As a young conscious consumer, there were no viable options that spoke to the consumer in a way that felt like they could be a part of a culture or movement. The only offerings seemed to be essential oils.

You describe DedCool as "non-toxic," which is a word that really has no definition. How does the brand define it, and how is that different from more traditional fragrance brands?

We fully disclose our ingredients on our boxes, which you don't have to do in the United States — but we do it because we are proud and we want people to know. DedCool is all about education. It's kind of sad, because at this point in time the fragrance world is very behind. 'Clean' fragrance is something very new — and 'clean' doesn't mean 100% natural. DedCool fragrances are not 100% natural. The base is 100% natural, but we source synthetics. 

A lot of brands are now coining the term 'safe synthetics,' which is what DedCool is. We want that complexity of a fragrance, we want to create a beautiful wear, as opposed to 100% essential oils — which, not to mention, essential oils in a high concentration are not always safe to use on your skin. But we do use essential oils in a safe manner, and we do use natural and natural-identical ingredients. We do not use animal by-products, we use a natural-identical approach to safe synthetics and we formulate with zero phthalates or BHT.

Offering vegan scents is also really important to the brand, right?

Yes, musk is an ingredient that many fragrance brands use, and it's usually derived from animals. Traditional fragrances contain animal products and some of the most well-known brands test on animals. Customers really have to do their research now to find out what they're putting on their skin and we're finding that more and more consumers want to be informed. DedCool does not use animal-derived musk ingredients.

Carina Chaz.

Carina Chaz.

How do you define a 'unisex' fragrance? The concept of a 'female' or 'male' cologne is totally made up, really. It seems silly to label one note a 'man's' note or vice versa.

I remember having this argument [with Barney's] like, 'Okay, where will my fragrance be featured, the female fragrance bar or the male fragrance bar?' Because I'm a woman, they always said, 'Oh, you'll be on the female side.' But DedCool scents are actually more on the spectrum of 'masculine.' It was a challenge. The idea for DedCool was to create scents for myself and to share with others. As a female, I desired a more masculine wear and wanted to break down the gender construct of beauty, especially for fragrance.

I'm curious how you incorporate sustainability into the brand — is it in ingredient sourcing? Packaging? Shipping?

Sustainability is a big priority for us. In our [fragrance] composition, we have a higher concentrated fragrance. So traditionally, when you talk about fragrance, you talk about an EDP which is a parfum, and an EDT which is a toilette. Toilette has about 5 to 10% of fragrance and is mixed with water and alcohol. And when you look at DedCool, we don't use any water in our fragrances. Water is a filler. You see fragrances on the shelf for $300 and you know that there are very minimal ingredients and mostly water in there. The idea of continuing to apply fragrance is what these massive fragrance houses are interested in because, of course, the more you spray, the more you buy. We don't use any water — we use about 30% of fragrance concentrate, double the amount of any traditional EDP, so it lasts longer.

What do you use instead of water for the other 70%?

We have organic extracts and alcohol.

Let's go back to sustainability.

Using nature-identical ingredients is a lot more sustainable than pure essential oils. It takes a lot of water to harvest essential oils.

Everything is made in the U.S. in-house, and with that we can monitor and make sure there's really no waste when it comes to our fragrance. We use glass bottles, the box is 100% recyclable and we use as minimal paper as possible. Our samples comes in little glass vials of fragrance rather than plastic cheapies you can throw away. Our labels for our Chazsticks are 100% wind-powered. Our fragrances are biodegradable — a lot of people don’t know that fragrance is a pollutant, so once you spray it, if it's toxic, it goes out to the world. We have a big sustainability push with our next product category in March, which I'm really excited about.

Milk just launched, but the blend is something you've been working with for years. How did you first come up with it as the base for all of your scents?

When I was formulating the first two fragrances in 2010, I secretly created a blend of bergamot, white musk and amber and I remember I loved this combination so much, it’s what led me to fall in love with the art of making fragrance. I decided to give it a name, Milk. Back then I had the idea of formulating it to be a black-colored scent so we actually printed 250 bottles for it, but could never seem to get the coloring right. Those Milk bottles sat in a box for years until now.

Milk is present in all of our fragrances but some of course have a higher percentage, and some just have a dash. It really just depends on a scent formulation and how it works with the Milk fragrance. It is a very light, wearable scent, but at the same time it kind of blends with your skin. That's really the beauty of it.

What inspired the decision to release Milk on its own?

We began getting questions from consumers asking what the scent was that tied all of the fragrances together. This is where we had that Aha! moment. I decided to launch the Milk roll-on as a test and it did really well. Fast-forward to now, we finally decided to let the secret out and give consumers what they wanted — bottle Milk up into its own Eau De Parfum once and for all.

And you call it a "layering scent," right?

Milk can be used all on its own or as a layering component to what you're already wearing. I will personally wear a scent for six to nine months then change it — I'm a scent loyalist and don't change them day-to-day, but I'll layer what I’m wearing with Milk for a bit of a different scent to not smell like anyone else. I've been wearing the Milk alone for the past two to three months. Originally, I was spraying scent and then using the Milk as a roll-on over the scent, and it created a drier version of whatever scent it was. Right now I'm wearing the Madonna (Lilly) and Milk, that's kind of my go-to.

As a founder, what's been your proudest moment since the launch of DedCool?

I measure success with customer response, and seeing the brand grow organically. Barneys was a goal for me as all the 'greats' showcase their fragrance range there — Barneys is an institution for niche fragrance discovery.

On the business side of things, is DedCool self-funded? Are you open to the possibility of accepting funding to expand the business?

DedCool is completely self-funded and at this point in time I'm strictly going to be self-funded. As time progresses, people are going to be more interested in where products are made and where they're coming from and when you think about it, you have no idea where some fragrances are being produced. But when you go on the DedCool Instagram, you see every day I'm posting videos of what we're doing in the lab and what I'm creating. I think having control and really not going so mainstream is important. Investment opportunities have been presented to the brand but we don’t plan on taking funding right now. I want to focus on the brand vision, stay self-funded and grow with longevity.

You're in 150 sites and stores, but have your own direct-to-consumer site, too. How do you prioritize retail partnerships versus DTC selling?

At the end of 2019 we noticed a shift in retail. When we launched I didn't have a website and started contacting green beauty stores to sell on consignment. After the brand took off, we expanded DedCool's fragrance offerings and started to land bigger name retailers. Barneys had been a long-time goal and we launched with them in 2018. 

We also landed other big names such as Riley Rose, Free People, Urban Outfitters and Fred Segal and had a big wholesale push. Right now, we're re-focusing on DTC and will be relaunching our online shop in February, including a fragrance quiz, risk-free trials and will send you home with a sample to test and a full refund if you try the sample and don't like it. We're happy about moving more to DTC because of the creative freedom and education platform, and a bit sad because retail is an experience that seems to slowly be disappearing.

What does the future of DedCool look like?

We have a new release coming soon, a new product category. Tease alert — the product will come in a can and we'll use 100% aluminum as opposed to traditional plastic outer packaging. I feel strongly about what DedCool puts out into the world and getting the customer on board to practice more sustainably with us.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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