Niche Fragrance Magazine

Donna Karan Signature

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Of all the Donna Karan reissues I own, Signature feels like the most “me”. This surprises me because I would have thought it would be Black Cashmere, based on my tastes and preferences – but Black Cashmere, while indeed beautiful, just feels like a sheerer version of other perfumes I own, like Idole de Lubin, and its sisters, Chaos and Wenge.

Signature, on the other hand, doesn’t smell like any other perfume I know.

But if it doesn’t smell like any other perfume, it does recall the smell of an entire decade – specifically, the 90’s. Whenever I wear it, I get images of MAC’s Spice lipliner, bottles of Dewberry and White Musk from The Body Shop, and black bodies that fasten down at the crotch (also invented by Donna Karan, I believe).

Signature has the same sort of deliberately low-key, stripped-down effect espoused by scents such as CK One or L’Eau d’Issey, where you could almost smell them reacting against the excess of “Working Girl” chypres of the eighties (Knowing and Paloma Picasso) and the density of power orientals like Coco and Opium. If there was a new shape in the air, it was Signature in its architectural “phallus” bottle designed to jut into the air like a New York skyscraper. Donna Karan said she wanted her signature fragrance to smell of red suede, Casablanca lilies, and the nape of her husband’s neck (the great, late Stephan Weiss, a designer who also designed the original “Swan” bottle). To me, despite the plethora of notes, it smells as sleek and as streamlined as Kate Moss naked on that couch for Calvin Klein.

Signature is basically a fruity-floral built on a sturdy oriental suede base. But it’s not in the least bit girly or frivolous. The opening notes give you a taste of a furry umeboshi plum and an overload of Egyptian jasmine which skips through a gasoline-tinged moment to settle on a fruity smell pitched uncomfortably close to red grape-flavored bubblegum. Jasmine often smells like fuel and bubblegum to me, and this is a very smooth interpretation of that type of jasmine. I could do with more roughness, more of that raspy indole I love so much in my other jasmines – something to catch against all that rubbery smoothness. But the 90’s aesthetic was all about reducing a look to clean lines, and it’s the case here too – nothing is allowed in to break up the smoothness of that line.

A mid-section of creamy Casblanca lilies and roses comes in to soften the “purple” fruit and jasmine accords in the opening, and there’s a point at which the whole mixture smells quite soapy and muted. It’s an awkward moment, but it’s rescued by what feels like a quite dark, oily patchouli, slightly smokey resins, and the lightly sugary wenge woods that Donna Karan seems to favor in all her fragrances. There is also tonka and amber (as befits any oriental worth its salt) but for me, the fragrance never loses that oily jasmine and fruit suede character with which it set out. And that’s a good thing – there are far too many sugary amber and tonka bases out there masquerading as complete niche perfumes these days. This isn’t one of them.

The dry down is my favorite part of the fragrance, and luckily it goes on forever, so I get to enjoy it in full – a satiny smooth suede replete with dark, smoky woods and that sexy patchouli. Surprisingly for an oriental suede, there doesn’t seem to be any vanilla, so I’d argue that men could wear this as well. Overall, this is a very grown-up kind of oriental, the kind that you need a little life experience for it to fit to your skin. And if you remember the 90’s, then this is very much of its time and worth sampling for that alone.

Photo credit: Mario Sorrenti – Kate Moss naked on couch, for Calvin Klein Obsession for Men campaign. 1992. Archival pigment print. Available to view at

My name is Claire, I’m a 39-year old mother of two, and I am a freelance writer and consultant. I love perfume, any perfume, practically all of ’em. Other interests such as writing, reading, and painting fall tragically behind the perfume. It’s a hobby that tends to be all-consuming (of both my time and my money).

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