One year since the launch of her fashion line, Samantha Cameron discusses what inspired her to start crafting timeless clothing for the modern woman
As I enter the lift of the building that houses Samantha Cameron’s west London studio, I am plunged into complete darkness. Unsettled, it is with a sense of relief when I arrive on the third floor, where I can’t help but be struck by my unmistakably modest surroundings. Considering Cameron’s profile, I envisaged her studio as a vast, sleek, shiny space, complete with row upon row of staff clacking away on Apple iMac computers. Instead, while there can be no doubt that Cameron is ludicrously well connected and holds irrefutable clout within the fashion world (her sister, Emily Sheffield, is the former deputy editor of British Vogue), the office feels like any other start-up, cluttered yet dynamic and energised, with a steady staff of eight.
Cameron herself is without airs and graces. Wearing the sleeveless wool midi dress from her own collection, she is the best advertisement for her business, exuding the effortless elegance that is the spirit of her brand. Evidently determined and passionate, with genuine warmth, it is clear from her reticence during our photo shoot that while her husband’s role as prime minister thrust her and her family into the spotlight, she is not a person who naturally yearns for that sort of attention.
Yet, during her six years at No. 10, Cameron, along with her fellow first lady Michelle Obama – dubbed by the media as ‘first ladies of fashion’ – was admired the world over for her sense of style, regularly making headlines for her appearances in designs by the likes of Emilia Wickstead and Roksanda. “I’m not sure I would’ve got through my years at Downing Street without them,” she confides.
It is then not wholly surprising that Cameron has made the move into fashion, founding her own brand, Cefinn (the word being a loose acronym of her children’s names), in February of this year. Bridging the gap between luxury and high street, work wear and weekend wear, the range has been well received and is currently stocked at Selfridges and Net-a-Porter. Cameron herself is quick to point out that Cefinn is not luxury, instead describing it as a “contemporary price point brand”. She expands: “During my working life, I have found it hard to find clothes that were suitable to wear in a corporate situation but that also had a fashion element. I found that what was available was either inappropriate for office wear, or too conservative for my tastes, so it was about finding a middle ground between the two.”
Her fondness for fashion existed long before she entered Downing Street, with Cameron citing her “mother’s September issues of Vogue” as her first sources of inspiration. “I remember just loving all the colours and fabrics: the velvets, the corduroys and the satins – all very 1970s.” As a child she already had particular ideas about what she wanted to wear, recalling a toddler tantrum when she wasn’t permitted to wear a beach dress to nursery school in the winter: “It’s one of my earliest memories,” she laughs.
Thankfully, Cameron’s approach to fashion is now a touch more practical. Formerly creative director at luxury accessories label Smythson, where she spent 12 years creating products that fused fashion with function – “everything we made there was useful, and we take that approach with the clothes here: the majority of the collection is washable and there’s nothing that’s difficult to wear in terms of underwear” – she scaled back her working hours after her husband was elected as prime minister, which allowed time for the birth of Cefinn.
Having been taught how to pattern cut by a professional, she consequently spent the next five years covertly churning out sample after sample on her sewing machine in the dining room at No. 10. I wonder how important it was to her that she understood this practical side of the business. “Really important,” she asserts. “Because when you put seams and darts in a garment you’re effectively turning a flat piece of fabric into a 3-D item of clothing that will fit someone, and fit for me is everything – you’re never going to look good in something if it doesn’t fit you properly.”
I ask Cameron to highlight her favourite pieces from the collection – “the fantastic boxy fit jacket with its shoulder pads, I love a shoulder pad” – and as she rifles through the rail I notice the prevalence of high necklines and low hems, very much in keeping with this season’s more conservative fashion mood. Is she revelling in this new trend? “I love it. I was a teenager in the ’80s and into the gothic look, so there’s always a part of me that loves a maxi skirt.”
While the clothing is minimal, Cameron explains that it is the details that bring the collection to life, highlighting “fashion forward” additions such as the metal poppers. And indeed, the detailing is where Cefinn really excels; sports luxe zips on pussy-bow blouses and scarlet piping on shift dresses add personality to pieces throughout the collection. Ultimately, Cameron says, “you don’t want the clothes to wear you, you want them to give you confidence, and for me, it’s just those little details that can make a piece really seductive.”
Versatility is also key. “The Cefinn woman is busy, so when we’re designing the clothes we really think about how you can dress an item up or down; dresses can be paired with a nice leather boot or a high heel for an evening event, or a smart white trainer for the school run.”
Cameron descends from a line of women who embody this do-it-all attitude, including her mother, Annabel Astor, who founded a jewellery brand in the early ’70s and, more recently, the luxury furniture retailer Oka. Her grandmother on her father’s side was a successful property developer, while her first cousin is Cath Kidston, founder of the eponymous Canary Wharf-based interiors and lifestyle empire. Does she feel that business is in her DNA? “Definitely, I think we have a merchant nature in our genes. My mother always worked; she had her own business from the age of 17 and she always instilled in us the importance of standing on our own two feet.” Now, she recognises the enterprising spirit emerging in her daughters, who are “always setting up little shops outside the house selling daffodils or homemade lemonade”.
Her mother’s advice has clearly held her in good stead, as has her long-standing mantra to trust your gut. “I remember speaking to Linda Bennett (founder of L.K.Bennett) a few years ago about wanting to do this, and she said, ‘you’ll work with lots of people who will give you feedback and advice, which is important to listen to, but at the end of the day, trust your own instincts because it’s your brand, your product and your customer’.”
Cameron is a huge advocate of British fashion, acting as ambassador for the British Fashion Council and judging on the panel for the Vogue Fashion Fund (which supports up-and-coming talent) alongside fellow designer and businesswoman Victoria Beckham – whom she describes as “funny and incredibly confident. She’s learned the business from scratch like me, and she really knows what she’s talking about”. She has equally high praise for Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet. “Natalie is a force to be reckoned with and is really inspiring in terms of her energy and vision; you always feel with her that the sky is the limit.”
There can be no doubt that Cameron is a grafter. Her day begins at 5.45am – “I like to have a bit of time on my own to have a bath and do some exercise before the children leave for school” – and she finds herself “often answering emails in the evening”. But she makes time to relax, which usually involves catching up on the latest TV with her three children, Nancy, Elwen and Florence. “Last night I came in after a shoot and snuggled up with the kids to watch Bake Off. I’m also really into Rellik at the moment – I love a police drama.”
Looking ahead, Cameron speaks of plans to incorporate pattern into her designs – “we’re working on in-house prints at the moment” – alongside expanding Cefinn’s distribution – “for S/S18 we’ll be available in Matches, Fenwick and Farfetch” – but I wonder if she is planning to make a return to accessories. “I would love to, but we still have a lot of work to do in terms of tightening up production and the range over the next couple of years.” And while a physical store is not in the brand’s immediate future, she’s considering pop-ups “in the next year or so”.
Ever courteous, once our interview is complete she shows me to the door, sending me on my way with an endless stream of apologies for the malfunctioning lift.