LONDON — Retail has long been a siren call for Samantha Cameron, and now Britain’s former first lady who built a career at Smythson is going for it, creating her own contemporary clothing brand that’s all about dressing fashion-hungry, time-poor women like herself.
“I’m a retailer — I love the 360 degrees of it — the marketing, selling, cash flow, customer service. Once you’ve got the bug, everything feels boring in comparison,” said Cameron, who last month unveiled Cefinn, a contemporary clothing collection that will bow in February and be sold on the brand’s new web site and at Selfridges and Net-a-porter.
Retail prices range from 100 pounds to 300 pounds, or $125 to $373.
During her Downing Street days, which began in 2010 and ended last July, she was busy laying the groundwork, studying pattern cutting with a friend. “It’s an incredible art — I’m not good enough at it, but it was important for me to understand the process,” Cameron said.
For those close to the striking, dark-haired Cameron — who looks like she’s stepped out of a Amedeo Modigliani painting — the launch of her own fashion line did not come as a surprise.
The creative and entrepreneurial Cameron, 45, had worked at Smythson, the Bond Street stationer and luxury accessories company, for much of her adult life, designing the windows while she was still at art college and eventually becoming a company executive. She would later become a creative consultant for the brand when her husband, David, became prime minister.
Given her background a move into accessories would have been natural, but it’s clothing she’s now after. “Accessories is Smythson — and I wanted to do something different and new,” said Cameron from her sunlit studio space in northwest London, not far from the family home, where she’s finally returning after six years at Downing Street. She said she plans to continue working at Smythson part time.
During her time as Britain’s first lady, Cameron was known for her laid-back approach to dressing and her mix of the high street and high-end. She was also an ambassador for the British Fashion Council — another role she’s not giving up — wearing designers including Erdem, Roksanda and Emilia Wickstead.
She regularly hosted a string of parties in the grand reception rooms at Downing Street and she never took herself too seriously. “Please drink, fill your glasses, there are no more speeches,” she said during one party during London Fashion Week in February 2013.
Cameron ended that particular evening bidding farewell to guests with her youngest child Florence, then a toddler, perched on her hip. Her other children, pajama-clad Arthur Elwen and Nancy, threaded their way through the dwindling crowd, dodging waiters carrying trays filled with empty glasses and making mischief.
It is that woman Cameron is looking to dress with Cefinn — the working mother who’s still on her feet at 8 p.m., smiling and socializing, whether she’s at Downing Street or in less exalted surroundings. She describes Cefinn as “very focused around the consumer” and answering a lot of different daily needs, at an accessible price point.
“These are hard-working, go-to day pieces — pencil skirts, A-line skirts, the sleeveless top you wear under a blazer, a peplum top. There’s a shift dress with a zip front that you can wear at the weekend with trainers and bare legs. You can dress them up and dress them down. It’s not about fancy clothes,” said Cameron, who on this day was wearing a Cefinn red and navy colorblock sweater with buttons dotted along the shoulder.
In keeping with her modern workwear approach, nearly everything is machine washable and built to travel and fabrics are wrinkle-free. Like many women, she looks lovingly at the silk clothes she already owns but finds that they “sit in the cupboard” because they’re high maintenance, and need to be dry cleaned.
Cameron is working instead with easier fabrics, such as poly viscose and acetate muslin. Manufacturing is mostly in Eastern Europe, while the knits are done in China. There are lots of practical touches: A classic shirt dress has snaps on the cuffs — in Britain they call them poppers — while the fly front “doesn’t gape when you sit down,” Cameron said.
She said the collection was a long-held dream, and she was ready to realize it just a few months after the family left Downing Street following her husband’s resignation in the wake of Britain’s landmark and controversial vote to leave the European Union. Her husband had staked his political career on the U.K. remaining in the EU, so was left with little choice but to resign both as prime minister and as a Member of Parliament after the upset vote for Brexit.
“I’d been wanting to do this from further back — before Dave was in politics — and the timing of the launch was organic, not planned. Things did get a bit busy” for a while, she said with a smile. “The key is to breathe deeply.”
It’s no wonder David called his wife “the love of my life” and told her, “you have kept me vaguely sane” as he and the family bid farewell to the public in a televised address last summer before formally resigning to Queen Elizabeth II.
The Camerons have always presented a united front and, to wit, the name Cefinn is an acronym of the children’s names, with a C for Cameron. “I wanted something that sounded British — and was personal,” she said.
Cameron’s crazy schedule did not end with the Brexit vote or even David’s resignation and the family’s move out of Downing Street and into temporary housing. In Britain, the outgoing prime minister has a few days to leave his or her home before the new one moves in.
This month, in addition to launching Cefinn, Cameron is moving everyone back to the family home in North Kensington and she’s hoping life will settle down in 2017. “It’s been busy — next year, we’ll get to a stage where Cefinn feels more planned. We still need to get to know the customer, tie down the offer and get the brand positioning and the fit right,” she said.
Although it’s too early for her to talk about sales projections, Cameron said she’d eventually like to move into different product categories. She is taking steady, deliberate steps. There are no plans to stage runway shows — she’ll be doing one-on-one appointments with buyers — and e-commerce will launch in February, only when the stock has arrived. There are no current plans for a brick-and-mortar shop. “This is too complicated a business not to get right,” she said.
So far Cameron has been funding the business herself, but has taken minority investment from Mark Esiri, whose Venrex Investment Management has also taken stakes in companies such as Charlotte Tilbury, Orlebar Brown, Astley Clarke and Lyst.com. Esiri was a former investor in Smythson and worked closely with Cameron between 2005 and 2009, when he was chairman of the business.
At Smythson, Cameron oversaw store and product design, window displays and created the popular Fashion Diary, which comes in a rainbow of colors. She collaborated with labels including Erdem, Giles and Holly Fulton on the annual bound book that has key dates and addresses for the major fashion cities.
“She’s very commercial and has an incredible eye, she knows how to build a team and has access to distribution — and she’s an artist. My business is about backing incredibly talented people who want to change some aspect of the world — or solve a specific problem,” Esiri said.
Esiri pointed out that Cameron grew up around entrepreneurs and that building a business was always a part of the conversation: Her mother, Annabel Astor, was formerly a jeweler on London’s Beauchamp Place and later cofounded Oka, the British home furnishings company. Cameron’s first cousin is Cath Kidston, founder of the eponymous label that was sold earlier this year to Baring Asia, with Gucci’s former boss William Flanz serving as chairman.
“We are able to share situations and are very proud of each other,” Kidston said. “We are quite similar in some ways and very focused when it comes to work.”
Kidston added that Cameron has creative genes on both sides of the family “but we share a grandmother and a great-aunt who were both very artistic. Our granny loved decorating houses and designing gardens, and also had an antique shop, so there was definitely a trading and designer gene in there. She took Sam and I under her wing.”
Cameron said business was always one of her aspirations. The Cefinn branding, instead, nods to her artistic side: It’s Bauhaus-inspired and the clothing labels themselves are textured. “I wanted something that felt intimate and real,” Cameron said.
Selfridges is stocking Cefinn in its Contemporary Studio, in the company of labels such as Claudie Pierlot, Self-Portrait and Shrimps. “Samantha Cameron is recognized for her elegant, easy sense of style and that’s exactly what this first collection delivers,” said Heather Gramston, Selfridges’ women’s wear buying manager.
Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-porter and Mr Porter, said Cameron has produced “a definitive collection of wearable wardrobe staples and transitional buy-now-wear-now looks that are super stylish, as well as functional and practical.” Loehnis said the fit is flattering and the attention to quality and detail is keen. “Any of the pieces could take you from the school run to a meeting and then to dinner,” she said.
Cameron had much time to research. She lived in the public eye, but unlike her friend U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama did not have to bother with any hovering Secret Service staff — although she did have some security. She was able to get on with life during her Downing Street years — juggling a newborn and two school-aged children. The couple’s eldest son, Ivan, died aged 6 in 2009, a year before Cameron became prime minister.
Although the world saw her in the spotlight, Cameron said state business was actually a very small part of her life. “I went about my day-to-day life very unhassled,” she said, once leaving the celebrations for the Queen’s Jubilee and taking the Underground to Heathrow to catch a flight to New York to visit Smythson’s stores.
“There were a lot of formal events with Dave, but they were not that often. I could get on with my life and my day-to-day didn’t really change — that’s what’s great about British politics. I was still nipping to John Lewis [the British department store] at lunch. People were incredibly respectful and treated me like normal. It was the same on holiday with the children – it was just the odd moment when we were snapped [by photographers].”
Asked whether she plans to stay in touch with Obama, Cameron said: “She’s an amazing lady, and I’d like to, now that we both have more time.” Of Obama’s soon-to-be successor, Melania Trump, Cameron had only nice words. “She has been very supportive of British brands — she continues to wear them and support them.”
As for starting a business in an uncertain time for Britain as it prepares to leave the EU, Cameron is looking on the bright side. “You’ve got to be optimistic.” She recalls the saying that when a business launches in uncertain times, it finds itself on sure footing when things change.
Asked what gives her the biggest buzz in launching Cefinn, she said it’s “creating a British brand from scratch. With other brands you’re taking on a lot of history.”
For Cameron, the end of 2016 will be all about retail, but not in a fashion sense. “‘Santa’s got to get busy,’ she said, talking about the next weeks. Over the holiday, instead, she’s going to unplug. “I think I’ll be sleeping 24 hours a day this Christmas.”