During her six years in the political limelight at Downing Street, Samantha Cameron inspired professional women across the country with her confident, elegant and modern approach to workwear. Since launching her label Cefinn 18 months ago, her pared-down, tailored classics with a twist have become a firm favourite at Wardrobe ICONS – and with working women everywhere.
As I sit down amid the throng of her bustling West London studio for a chat and a mug of tea, it dawns on me that there’s barely anyone more qualified to talk about the hazards of dressing appropriately for the office than our ex-PM’s wife, Samantha Cameron. Who cares that she was creative director of the British luxury leather goods company, Smythson, for over 14 years – this is a woman who mastered dressing for dinner with the Obamas as well as the school run! Cameron showed that power dressing was something you could have fun with, and now she’s quietly influencing the nation’s wardrobes with her fledgling label Cefinn. We talk about her obsession with finding the perfect crease-free fabric, how it’s all about designing dresses that can be worn with a heel and a trainer, and why she spends most of her time in her bra and knickers.
Did you always have a grand plan to work in fashion?
Not really. I studied fine art and worked in my college holidays for Smythson doing window dressing – I even designed the interiors for a few of their stores, but I never thought I’d end up working with them for so long!
What drew you to Smythson?
Put simply, I loved their product. But they were so out of touch. They had these little books that would say ‘telegraphic address’ rather than ‘telephone’, and leave space for only three digits. At the time they had no product team, no marketing department. We worked really well together; within a year they made me creative director and it grew from there.
What made you leave a company that you’d so lovingly nurtured?
I resigned just before my husband became prime minister. We hadn’t told anyone, because we didn’t want the press to put two and two together and make five and think that I resigned because we assumed we were going to win. I did it for personal reasons. My son died the previous year and I felt like I’d stopped doing a good job. I’d been working full time with three children, I was pregnant with my fourth and I had the most awful morning sickness – I think that’s what ultimately drove me into my boss’s office to resign.
At Smythson, you began collaborating with British designers such as Giles Deacon and Erdem – and you wore some beautiful designer clothes at Downing Street. What was your favourite outfit?
My favourite design was a long blue lace dress by Alessandra Rich that I wore to the state dinner in Washington; I just loved it. I think that was the time I felt most ‘me’, while looking appropriate for the occasion.
How did you choose the right outfits?
You always try to make it look as effortless as possible, but the truth was, it wasn’t. I was often trying to tick different boxes – trying to suit the occasion, be true to myself and support my husband or promote a charity or an event, so it was quite important to make a good photo – which I think people can understand now in an Instagram age. It did push me into getting out of my comfort zone with more colour and print. Occasionally I’d ask my husband his opinion and then choose to take it on, or ignore what he said!
Who are your favourite designers to wear?
When I was in Downing Street, I particularly loved wearing Roksanda, because she’s tall like me and again I think she’s quite graphic with a similar aesthetic to mine. I love Stella McCartney; I quite like androgynous trouser suits, tailoring and a shoulder pad. That slightly sporty aesthetic also still appeals to me after all those years wearing trainers and tracksuits and clubbing in London. It’s quite deep-rooted.
What was your style tribe growing up?
I was a Goth and then I was a London clubber, and although they are two very different aesthetics, those cultural references do stay with you. I still love a pointy black shoe and anything with a stripe detail.
Thinking about your own wardrobe, are you guilty of always buying the same thing?
My guilty repeat purchase is probably navy blue jumpers. I think I’m quite a minimal shopper in my old age. Maybe it’s getting older that makes me anxious about having too much stuff. That’s part of my design process – I want to be able to wear a dress with a pair of heels or some trainers, and I want something that’s really great quality so it’s going to last, and something that’s not going to go out of fashion tomorrow, because that’s how I feel about my own wardrobe. I don’t want it cluttered up with lots of stuff I’m never going to wear.
The inference is that women won’t be viewed as professional or intelligent enough if they look feminine, which is ridiculous
Social media, especially Instagram, is such a part of a fashion label’s life – how have you grappled with this new way of marketing?
I have a personal account and we have a brand account. I admit it’s something I’m struggling with, partly because I’m quite a private person and I’ve never been someone who’s naturally wanted to be photographed. It feels quite alien to me. When I was in politics you try to keep your private life quite private, particularly your children. The relationship with the press means that if they see you exposing your children or private life yourself, then they feel they have an instant right to do the same. So you become very, very closed about anything you do.
I don’t think it’s just you; most women our age feel a tad silly taking all these Instagram selfies.
The whole thing about Instagram is that it should be something you do in the moment and I feel I have to go through a process, by which time I’ve gone off the whole idea of posting. It’s a challenge, but on the other hand I think it’s important to see clothes on real women in lifestyle situations and I think it’s what we’ve all wanted from magazines and never really got.
Any tips for fellow working mums who are feeling overwhelmed?
There are moments when I think, ‘I can’t do this any more’ and my eldest daughter Nancy will say, ‘You’ve worked so hard at it. You can’t give up now.’ But you can’t do it all – I feel I’ve been a really terrible friend in the last 18 months, because you’ve got work and you’ve got your kids and so the friends and some of my siblings have had to take a back seat. I don’t have enough hours in the day.
How do you carve out even the smallest amount of time for yourself?
I get up really early to have a bit of space on my own before the kids get up. I have a bath in the mornings and that’s one of my ways of finding my ‘me time’. And I love doing Ashtanga yoga, I find the breathing really meditative. On the weekends I go running, twice if I can. I’m not a marathon runner but I like running on my own, outside, cross-country with no earphones – that is my sort of quiet, with the birds singing. It clears my head. My husband and kids know that when I’ve got to go for a run, I’ll be much nicer and I will shout at them a bit less.
What made you decide to create your own fashion label, especially with no real design training?
I’d wanted to be a fashion designer since my teens. My mum was an entrepreneur (founding the interiors brand Oka) and my aunt Sue worked for Jasper Conran at the time in the 80s when he was massive. I always wanted to have my own business and I knew I wanted to create a brand, but not luxury high fashion or high street. I very much wanted to do this wedge in the middle. For me it was about the price point, the aesthetic and the quality.
When you were dreaming of your label and your customer, what did you envision?
It was never about a fantasy; the way that fashion is conveyed in magazines. I wanted this to be about the reality of the customer – her day-to-day life and helping her in that. In a way, problem-solving for her.
Was this desire informed by your own struggle to find the perfect wardrobe staples for your life as a working mother?
Absolutely. After the age of 25, I didn’t want to wear anything too short and everything was so corporate. I was very inspired by that 1970s kind of Yves Saint Laurent longer-line silhouette and you could never buy anything that was chic and feminine at a mid-price point.
I notice you love block colours, but looking at the rail behind us in your studio, I’m spying a fair bit of pattern. What’s happening?
It’s rather exciting! We’ve just brought out our first print, which was inspired by the Swedish encaustic tiles that I was researching while doing up our house. After leaving Downing Street we’re back in west London around the corner from my studio. I’m probably more of a geometric person than I am a floral one.
You’ve only been going 18 months; are there already firm bestsellers? Do you repeat tried-and-tested designs?
I think most of us tend to stick to a formula. If we have a dress that sells well and is a shape that works for our customer, we’d much rather have that every season and then change the sleeve, collar, fabric or print. We have a pencil dress that just doesn’t suit me; I have a big bum and no boobs and the proportions are all wrong, it’s not a shape that I would ever wear. But it’s one of our bestselling dresses, so clearly for lots of women it’s what they feel good in. My job is to make it look modern and relevant and give it a little ‘something’.
Has being a fashion designer and having your own label lived up to your expectations?
It’s much harder than I ever thought it’d be. It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, if only they’d done that a little more like this or like that, I would have bought it! Why didn’t they?’ But that’s the design challenge and I enjoy that.
What’s your current design challenge?
Finding fabrics that I’m 100% happy with is still really challenging, because I want them to look and feel really luxurious but they’ve also got to come in at the right price. I want them not to crease, to be washable, not to bag at the knees, all that stuff. I don’t know whether it’s because of years and years of being photographed, but I want them to look as good at the end of the day as they did when you put them on.
I want a dress I can wear with a pair of heels or some trainers; that’s really great quality so it’s going to last; and that’s not going to go out of fashion tomorrow. I don’t want my wardrobe cluttered up with lots of stuff I’m never going to wear
What did you learn from having to stand before the world’s press? Is your label Cefinn a reaction to that – providing a suit of elegant armour for women in the workforce?
Yes! I certainly learnt what outfit would make a good photo op, and how an outfit is going to last a whole day. I want my customer to wear trainers with it and look really cool on her commute. To have a drink with her friends and not feel like she’s in some corporate office get-up or, if she’s got to rush to an event after work, she can put on a pair of heels and some jewellery and it’s almost black tie.
This interview is part of our back-to-work issue. What are your work staples?
Definitely be a pair of tailored trousers and a blazer. A midi or maxi dress, and I love a great knit that I could wear with a pair of trousers. I’m more of a knit person than a white shirt or T-shirt person.
What about bags?
I’m really boring, I always use the same ones and they’re both from Smythson. I have a sort of dump bag that I put all my papers and laptop in. It goes everywhere with me, and then I have a little cross-body bag that acts as a purse.
What do you wear to work every day?
I’m always changing outfits, because new samples are coming in. We do have a fit model, but I spend quite a lot of my day in my pants and bra trying on and testing toiles. I was relieved to read an article recently where Isabel Marant confessed that their whole team spent most of the day wandering around the office in their pants and bras when all the samples came in and I thought, ‘Thank God it’s not just me!’
Working in a creative industry, our officewear dilemmas are completely different from women who work in more corporate environments. Do you think we’re coming any closer to figuring out those complex dress codes?
I’ve been absolutely fascinated about how the working wardrobe works for them. Some women may feel they have to be pared-back, either because that’s what their bosses tell them they need to do or because the male comments they receive all day will be so boring and exhausting they end up wearing a simple kind of uniform that won’t get commented on. I try to add a few pieces each season that gives these women something that they feel is on-trend, exciting, chic, but also isn’t going to get her hauled into the office and told to tone it down, or engender lots of male comments. The inference is that women won’t be viewed as professional or intelligent enough if they look feminine, which is ridiculous.
You’ve volunteered in the past for a non-profit organisation that gives free clothes and job interview advice to unemployed women. Can you tell me a little bit more about your involvement?
Smart Works! It was amazing. I helped with the interview techniques, and then they’d get styled and would be given a outfit, bag and a pair of shoes. It was practical advice as well as giving them the confidence to believe in themselves. Women might have been out of the workplace because they’ve become mums or been a carer, or they might have been in prison or been unwell. Often their confidence levels were very low. Just by giving them some simple confidence-building around what they look like and their interview technique was incredibly effective.
It’s amazing how clothes can transform how you feel.
I know! I can definitely relate. If you’re having one of those days where you feel you’re wearing the wrong thing, or the wrong shoes, it can niggle you and ruin your day. It’s so silly but it does.
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