MY LIFE, MY STYLE
Samantha Cameron at home in Oxfordshire
Driving to meet Samantha Cameron in the Cotswolds, I try to imagine what an exprime minister’s country house is like. Palatial, hi-spec, minimalist? In the end, it turns out to be much more low-key, a quintessentially English cottage, complete with roses climbing the façade, a flourishing vegetable patch and a trampoline in the garden. The armed guards and security cameras that encircle the property are the only clue to the identity of its occupants.
Samantha is sitting in the creamcoloured living-room, surrounded by piles of magazines and books (including the Enid Blyton parody Five on Brexit Island). Slim and elegant, she is dressed in a navy and maroon midi-dress from her six-month-old fashion label Cefinn, and offers a warm welcome of tea and macaroons. In one corner is her husband’s desk, alongside his portrait by Jonathan Yeo and an Alison Jackson print showing a lookalike ‘Tony Blair’ placing a bet on the election. Elsewhere in the room is a touching collection of family photos, including the Camerons’ four children Elwen, Florence, Nancy and the eldest, Ivan, who suffered from a rare form of epilepsy and cerebral palsy, and died in 2009 when he was just six years old.
Clutching a monogrammed teal diary from Smythson, where she was creative director from 2006 to 2010 – ‘I go absolutely nowhere without it’ – Samantha takes me on a tour of the house they have owned for 16 years since David became MP for Witney. We start in the gloriously untidy kitchen, where the radio is playing indie rock from BBC 6 Music. A placard that reads ‘Calm down dear it’s only a recession’ leans up against the window behind the sink, and an old Parliament Square road sign (which looks like the genuine article) is collecting dust in the corner. ‘To be honest the house is slightly falling down,’ Samantha says. ‘The windows are rotting, the roof needs replacing, but it’s lovely and it’s where we brought each of our children home
from the hospital. It’s our family nest.’
At lunchtime, her husband appears in a faded blue polo shirt and declares that he has been fixing the hot water. ‘How’s everyone getting on? Have you been in my internationally acclaimed shed yet? ’ he asks, laughing. Over homemade omelettes, the talk is of the family’s plans for the weekend – ‘I’m taking Elwen to the cricket on the village green,’ David says, drinking coffee from a ‘Leader of the opposition’ mug. After the ups and downs of the past year, moving out of Downing Street and launching a fashion label, the couple seem content in this rural haven.
Samantha was born in London in 1971, the daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield and Annabel Jones. When the couple divorced in 1974, Annabel married again to William Astor, nephew of her own stepfather Michael Astor, and the family moved to Ginge Manor in Oxfordshire. ‘I had an idyllic childhood where I rode every day after school,’ Samantha says. ‘My best friend was the farmer’s daughter. We ran wild exploring the local woods and streams, and we loved building camps out of hay bales – dangerous but sort of irresistible.’
By her teens, she was making her own clothes. ‘I used to get things from Kensington Market and customise them,’ she says. ‘Paula Yates was a big inspiration at the time – I admired how she just did fashion her own way.’ Retail is in Samantha’s genes: her mother was a jewellery designer who started her first business at 19 and subsequently co-founded the furniture company Oka. Cath Kidston, the home-furnishings designer, is Samantha’s cousin, and her aunt Sue Jones (a co-founder of Oka) worked for Jasper Conran. ‘I wanted to be an artist or a designer from an early age,’ she says. ‘In fact, my earliest memory is having the most terrible tantrum aged three when I insisted on wearing a beach dress to nursery school in the middle of winter, when it was snowing outside.’
She went on to study at Marlborough College ‘because of its seminal art department and the fact that they offered business studies’, before completing a degree in fine art at Bristol Polytechnic. ‘But within a year or so of leaving college I realised I didn’t
want to be a painter,’ she says. ‘It’s such a personal thing and you have to have a very strong ego.’ Instead, she took on a variety of jobs, including working as a window-dresser for the stationery and leather company Smythson. She ended up staying for 20 years, moving up the ranks as accessory designer and then as creative director. ‘It was a British heritage brand that I loved, but with the emergence of labels such as Prada on the scene, I felt like it was about to get left behind,’ she says. Samantha was integral to the launch of the company’s handbag collection and is credited with its transformation into a key player in the luxury market. The ‘Nancy’ bag was named after her daughter.
In 2010, pregnant with Florence, and with her husband running for premiership, Samantha resigned from the creative-director role and went down to working two days a week. ‘It was also after my son had died, so I just felt that I needed some space,’ she says. With more time on her hands she started to take weekly pattern-cutting lessons in the Downing Street dining-room. ‘I bought a basic sewing machine and then an overlocker and a dressmaker’s dummy, and over a couple of years I shouted and screamed at the sewing machine and spent my time trying to hone those skills.’
After testing her designs out on her friends and family, Samantha launched her label this year under the name Cefinn, a blend of the
first and last letters of her surname and her children’s initials.
The 40-piece collection, including sleeveless wool tops in a sophisticated palette of navy, maroon, blood orange, khaki and black, and midi-skirts with a red trim and kick hem, was an immediate hit and is now stocked by Selfridges and NetA-Porter. Priced between £150 and £450, the range sits somewhere in the middle of Samantha’s own wardrobe of elegant, classic pieces; for day-to-day items she shops on the high street at COS, & Other Stories, Joseph, Zara and Whistles, and for evening, she loves British designers such as Erdem and Emilia Wickstead. ‘When Emilia was starting her business and I was pregnant with Florence, she kindly adapted some of her dresses for me – I couldn’t have got through the election without her. And I met Erdem really early on in his career – he’s a genius with fabric. He’s extraordinary at what he does.’
During her time in Downing Street, Samantha was appointed an ambassador for the British Fashion Council and was praised for championing homegrown designers. ‘Having worked in the fashion industry it very much felt like a world I already knew – I can talk confidently about it,’ she says. One of her favourite outfits was a full-length blue lace dress by Alessandra Rich that she wore to a state dinner with the Obamas in Washington, a savvy move that introduced the small UK label to a global audience. ‘Michelle is brilliant,’ she says of the former First Lady, ‘because she’s so confident and she’s got such dignity and intelligence but she embraces fashion and isn’t scared of her femininity.’ But perhaps most memorable of all was the bold navy and orange dress by Roksanda Ilincic that Samantha wore as her family departed Number 10 for the last time. ‘I’d actually bought it for winning the election because it was upbeat, along with another for losing, but I ended up wearing the wrong one,’ she says. It’s almost as if she knew there was a bright future yet to come…
Top: Samantha Cameron in the garden of her country house, wearing textured voile blouse, £210, Cefinn. Jewellery (throughout), her own
Right: a painting created by Samantha while at art college. Below: vintage
pieces in the bedroom
Clockwise from right: wearing chiffon dress,
£1,960, Erdem. Textured voile dress, £295, Cefinn, hanging
in the bedroom. Family photographs
On the steps of her husband’s shepherd’s hut, in wool, cashmere and textured voile dress,
Textured voile dress,