“As you can see,” Steve Duross says as he haphazardly dumps some sweet-smelling oil into a pot on his stove, “everything is measured perfectly.” But in the time since I entered the second-floor soap kitchen above his duross & langel storefront on 13th and Sansom, he has yet to pull out any kind of measuring device—unless, of course, we’re supposed to count his hands.
A wry joke, sure, but given Duross’ quick rise to prominence among not only Philadelphia business owners, but the grooming product industry at large, it might be smart to do just that. Because, as Duross seems to have proven time and time again through his life, just because we as outside observers don’t see the measurement—the path—doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
“Well,” he adds, “it’s not rocket science we’re talking about here—it’s soap and water.”
Given all the lotions, potions, bar soap, beard balm, scrubs, and various sundry other cleansers and moisturizers awaiting us downstairs, though, it might appear to be that way. But, then, meticulous, expert craftsmanship can be tricky like that.
“I really should have Proctor & Gamble’s advertising budget, I swear,” he says.
To say that Duross is passionate about soap would be an insult to the quality of the man’s devotion to the topic, and, indeed, that devotion more or less has been life-long. His starting duross & langel out of the living room of his South Philly home back in 2004 likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise—much less the massive growth from their initial offering of three shower gels, some soap, and a moisturizer to the seemingly endless list of SKUs sitting in the front of his Midtown Village shop today.
Duross, however, has long counted himself among grooming industry players, having gotten his start as a hairdresser after opening Atlas Hair Company out of the same home that housed duross & langel’s beginnings back in 1990. The salon idea, which Duross says he got into after buying a pair of clippers from K-mart and cutting his own hair over a couple beers, suited him—so well, in fact, that shortly after starting up Atlas, he was approached to instruct stylists in cutting men’s hair by grooming giant American Crew. Which also suited him. For a while.
“In my time there, we went from five products to more than 160,” Duross says. “And I came to feel like I had done everything I could do with hair.”
But in working at American Crew and testing products for salon use, Duross found something else where he realized he had done virtually nothing yet: soaps and moisturizers, the actual products he had been using to ply his trade. And thus began the journey that Duross currently finds himself unfolding—one that not even he foresaw, despite those high-test powers of perception we were discussing earlier.
The progeny of that realization ultimately would become the ill-fated Philadelphia Soap Company, which Duross started in 1999 with several partners and what he calls a “screw it, I can do this” attitude after years of using expensive, short-lived bars. As it turns out, the group could do it, but only for a short while before “unrealistic expectations,” in Duross’ words, forced him to sell his shares prior to the business’ closing.
“I lost my place to influence the company’s vision,” he says. “I have to have the final say, but I’m willing to be persuaded.”
Ultimately, Duross was persuaded to open up his current endeavor with partner James Langel in 2004. The focus then, as now, was to provided customers with small-batch grooming products made sustainably from natural, locally sourced ingredients. But while the goal has remained the same, the batch size has increased from about 25 pounds in a day to more than 2,500. And, naturally, it’s been refined—almost accidentally, to hear Duross tell it—over time.
“We used to be a lot more rustic,” he says. “But we’re more polished now, which is something I never intended. So we maintain our soul by keeping everything hand made.”
The non-Duross side of the brand name came to fade out over time, with co-founder Langel going on to pursue a career as senior business intelligence analyst with IKEA out in Conshohocken (with hopes to become the company’s first American CFO at IKEA Global).
Duross, however, stuck around to develop a slew of products, move the company to its current 2,200 square-foot digs in the Gayborhood (and another in Haddonfield) in 2007, and bring on a number of what he views as irreplaceable employees to help out—some of whom have even gone on to become partners within the company. That element, Duross says, is a large factor in the loyalty he seeks from his employees.
“Everyone together can run the store,” Duross says. “But individually, nothing can happen.”
That sense of teamwork has served the d&l team well, even earning the store comparisons to national chains like Lush. Which, of course, Duross hates.
“We are not similar to them,” he says. “We don’t add a lot to our products, and instead tout the high-quality base ingredients. I care about that formula, not what it smells like—that’s just personal aesthetic.”
They are, as a result, the anti-Lush: small batches, an abhorrence towards mass production, very little gimmicky marketing, and a focus on locally sourced goods wrapped minimally in sustainable packaging that are, in fact, affordable and approachable. Store manager Sarah even joined the team after working at Lush, and she now counts herself as a partner.
But, still, that doesn’t stop a good bit of healthy skepticism from entering the store alongside new customers. Often, Duross says, he’ll get questions along the lines of “does it really work,” which, 10 years down the road, still bother the store’s founder. However, as I experienced first hand in his production kitchen, it takes a certain eye to see the measurements he’s been working with over the past decade.
“My name is on it, it’s on the floor—of course it works,” he says. “But I’m kind of a dick like that. Maybe I’m just best left in the kitchen.”
If you're interested in checking out duross & langel for yourself, head down to their Midtown VIllage store or browse over to their official site. All of duross & langel's products are handmade right above their storefront in the kitchen upstairs, which you can check out April 22 when the store hosts its next "How to Tuesday" event.