We chat to a re­fresh­ingly frank Sa­man­tha Cameron

It’s been a year of ma­jor change for Sa­man­tha Cameron and her hus­band, the for­mer PM. But with her fash­ion la­bel sell­ing well, the for­mer ‘first lady’ is per­fectly happy as a work­ing mum, she tells Lisa Arm­strong

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If the char­treuse-yel­low sofa in Sa­man­tha Cameron’s north Kens­ing­ton home looks vaguely fa­mil­iar, that’s be­cause it’s the char­treuse-yel­low sofa – the one from Down­ing Street, as bot­tom-tested by Michelle Obama. The one fea­tured in those pic­tures back in 2011 of the two first wives, in which we also glimpsed the mod­ishly cosy-meets-min­i­mal kitchen that the Camerons in­stalled at num­ber 11, along with some in­tensely an­a­lysed book­shelves (did those box sets really in­clude Des­per­ate Housewives?) and the keep­ing-it-real jars of Mar­mite.

The tail­wind of Amer­i­can White House pomp and glam­our in red-brick in­ner-

Lon­don is bizarre (‘Isn’t Michelle amaz­ing? In­cred­i­bly in­tel­li­gent and a fan­tas­tic speaker. And yes, I’d love to have her wear my la­bel, but I haven’t asked her’), but clas­sic Sam Cam, who, ever since I first met her more than a decade ago, has struck me as hav­ing the knack of seem­ing ex­traor­di­nar­ily grounded in ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances.

Maybe this is a hang­over from her days as a posh-trying-not-to-come-across-as-posh art stu­dent in Bris­tol, when she’d ap­par­ently re­fer to Sut­ton Park, her fa­ther, Sir Regi­nald Sh­effield’s es­tate in north York­shire, as ‘home in Scun­thorpe’. Not, she says, that she ever went so far, as sug­gested in some quar­ters, as to vote Labour. ‘But I didn’t always vote Con­ser­va­tive – some­times I went Green.’

Some might as­sume a pall of gloom lingers over the Camerons since the events of 23 June last year. But Sa­man­tha seems as sunny as her so­fas (there’s a twin at a 90-de­gree an­gle to the one we’re on, with tall, quasi­in­dus­trial glass doors open­ing on to their gar­den, with its Ja­panese-y trees. Pat­terned tiles (de­signed by her) dec­o­rate the ex­ter­nal walls of the base­ment bed­room they built for their first son, Ivan, when he was still alive.

There is none of the flum­mery in the Camerons’ street that you see out­side Tony Blair’s grand Ge­or­gian ter­race be­hind Hyde Park. I can’t see a sin­gle plain-clothes de­tec­tive. ‘That’s be­cause Dave’s away,’ she says. ‘ There’s still se­cu­rity when he’s around.’

So we sit on the yel­low sofa dis­cussing work-life tan­gles, Jo Whi­ley (who she’d also like to see wear­ing her la­bel, a quintessential Sam Cam choice) and Dave, with me not know­ing how to re­fer to him. How can you call some­one who was often mock­ingly re­ferred to by his crit­ics as Call-Me-Dave, Dave?

Any­way. The de­tails. Sam (she was never de­scribed as Call-Me-Sam; in fact, she emerged re­mark­ably un­scathed from her time in Down­ing Street, al­though she doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily see it that way) is wear­ing a bit of eye make-up, is un­tanned, has on a black zip-up Cefinn midi dress that’s snugly fit­ted over her slim torso (she some­times sub­scribes to the Mayr prin­ci­ples of chew­ing slowly, al­though she’s never been to its cen­tre in Aus­tria), and white Zara train­ers. Nancy, her 13-year-old, who has a sewing ma­chine and a pas­sion for making clothes, took is­sue with the train­ers. (‘She said, “Se­ri­ously, Mum, at your age?” I said, “I’ll have you know that the woman who made white train­ers cool is Phoebe Philo and she’s nearly my age.”’)

They don’t make for­mer PM’s wives the way they used to, al­though like a true Tory wife, this one dis­penses ex­cel­lent tea (lap­sang in this in­stance) as she tells me about the mas­sive purge she re­cently un­der­took. ‘I’m a good chucker outer, but there were preg­nancy clothes and other stuff I shouldn’t have hung on to. I found pants that were 20 years old. They had to go.’

The house is dis­tin­guished by qui­etly lux­u­ri­ous de­tails – Vit­soe 606 book­shelv­ing (thrillers jos­tle with po­lit­i­cal tomes), wide, dark wooden floors, a Quooker tap in the kitchen that dis­penses in­stant boil­ing wa­ter, pris­tine white walls. ‘Be­cause we still haven’t got round to putting any pic­tures up from when we moved out. My mother [Annabel, Vis­count­ess As­tor, co founder of Oka fur­ni­ture] once gave me a bril­liant tip to stop pic­tures going lop­sided, which is to hang them from two hooks on each side.’

Pic­tures or no, Chez Cameron is al­most im­plau­si­bly tidy for a house with three chil­dren and no army of staff. Then again, ‘Dave’s the messi­est of all us – well, Dave and Nancy.’ And Dave, as es­tab­lished, is away, al­though due back im­mi­nently as the fam­ily

‘I’m not the type to get stressed out. I com­part­men­talise a lot, which you have to do when you’re a work­ing mum’

are off to Corn­wall, then Por­tu­gal. ‘The same hol­i­day we’ve always taken,’ she laughs, ‘al­though the press likes to make up we’ve be­come ex­otic jet-set­ters these days.’

If the Camerons seem al­most para­nor­mally un­trau­ma­tised by the past 12 months, that could be be­cause they read less me­dia than they used to. In No 11 (they lived in the flat that Tony and Cherie Blair chose to in­habit dur­ing their ten­ure. It was, she says, ‘lovely, not gloomy at all. It’s like a house within a house, huge and with amaz­ing ar­chi­tec­ture’), ‘ You’d get a brief on ev­ery­thing that was in all the news­pa­pers at 6am from some poor per­son in Con­ser­va­tive Cen­tral Of­fice who must have worked through the night. Now we don’t have all the pa­pers in the house.’ But it’s more likely down to the fe­lic­i­tous mar­riage of two cast-iron op­ti­mists. ‘Dave is def­i­nitely a glass half-full per­son. He’s not one to sit and dwell. It’s been a big change for the whole fam­ily, but the kids don’t seem to have no­ticed much. They’re quite un­com­pli­cated so far, al­though we’ve got the teenage years ahead.’

Sa­man­tha Cameron is suf­fi­ciently op­ti­mistic to have launched a fash­ion brand just as re­tail spend­ing was start­ing to slow and in­dus­try an­a­lysts were in­creas­ingly ask­ing whether we’d reached ‘peak stuff ’. She’d been prepar­ing to launch Cefinn for sev­eral years, tak­ing pat­tern-cut­ting lessons while still in Down­ing Street. (Its name is an amal­gam of her chil­dren’s ini­tials and their last name, plus an ex­tra N be­cause Cefin was al­ready reg­is­tered). ‘The idea was to launch it while Dave was still prime min­is­ter. It would have been tricky, but I thought,

I can’t wait un­til I’m 50 to do this.’

Sales on Net-a-porter.com and at Sel­fridges, two Ivy League re­tail­ers, have been en­cour­ag­ing, in­clud­ing a sell­out at Sel­fridges, con­firm­ing what she had long sus­pected in Down­ing Street. ‘There’s def­i­nitely a mar­ket for sleek, fash­ion-con­scious af­ford­able of­fice wear that takes you on to din­ner.’ But the past seven months haven’t been with­out chal­lenges, even for an op­ti­mist, not least be­cause (oh, the irony) post-Brexit, the ex­change rate has played havoc with her mar­gins.

‘All the clichés are true. You work much harder when it’s your business. I’m not the type to get stressed out. I com­part­men­talise a lot, which you have to do when you’re a work­ing mum. But you can’t switch off. It didn’t help that we moved house twice in six months af­ter leav­ing Down­ing Street (first to the ‘£17m man­sion’ in Holland Park, lent to them by friends, then back to the home in north Kens­ing­ton they’d lived in be­fore po­lit­i­cal life took over.

‘There are a lot of sleep­less nights – and a lot of quite dull stuff like VAT re­turns and pack­ing or­ders into boxes.’

Pic­tur­ing the for­mer PM’s wife wrapping one of Cefinn’s hop­sack midi skirts into a card­board box is an­other of those sur­real jolts. ‘But it’s true. It was such a tiny team to start with. I had to do ev­ery­thing.’ She had in­vest­ment, in­ter alia, from Ven­rex, the ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists who also put money into Smyth­son, her erst­while em­ploy­ers, and Char­lotte Til­bury. But Sam Cam by her own ac­count, isn’t a nat­u­ral risk-taker. She runs a tight ship and doesn’t like amass­ing debt. ‘There were plenty of teary morn­ing talks to my mother.’ I get the im­pres­sion that achiev­ing qual­ity as high as she wants while keep­ing prices ac­ces­si­ble is a strug­gle. ‘Ab­so­lutely, but I don’t want to do this if I can’t keep the prices rea­son­able. It’s get­ting eas­ier now, but even so, this au­tumn’s col­lec­tion al­most nearly didn’t hap­pen.’

Sorry? This is a rev­e­la­tion most de­sign­ers would keep pri­vate. ‘There was so much

work just set­ting up the op­er­a­tion that we al­most fell at the first hur­dle and didn’t have time to get a sec­ond col­lec­tion de­signed. But it’s done. It’s smaller than the first, and we were quite late. But it will be in the shops and I think we’re get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter.

‘Ev­ery­one said we wouldn’t be able to get the trousers right in the first sea­son be­cause they’re no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult, but we’ve had great feed­back. The dresses sold really well too, and the blouses. Short wasn’t a suc­cess – some women are still work­ing in very con­ser­va­tive of­fices where they get pulled aside if they’re seen to be draw­ing at­ten­tion to them­selves. It mustn’t be re­motely fem­i­nine. I want to help them, but I don’t want to be too safe. So I think it’s about con­stantly re­fin­ing the shapes, making ev­ery­thing as flat­ter­ing as can be, and dis­creet de­tail­ing… the kind of touches that make you feel fash­ion­able but ac­cept­able.’

Her per­sonal style, be­hind the scenes at least, hasn’t changed much post-Down­ing Street. ‘I still wear a lot of navy, black and grey – we’re work­ing on our greys for win­ter; a char­coal for trousers and softer greys for the top. It’s the big stuff that’s changed.’ No more of those for­mal pub­lic events to dress for – to her re­lief, I think. Now, she says, it’s grab a pair of state­ment ear­rings (she dis­ap­pears to find me a hand-painted pair she picked up in Lan­zarote), a sleek Smyth­son bag (‘I’m a crea­ture of habit’) and heels and go. ‘I loved wear­ing Bri­tish de­sign­ers but it was nerve-rack­ing always won­der­ing whether you were going to mess things up.’

She never really did mess up, which was note­wor­thy given that some­times she could seem quite guile­less, even with jour­nal­ists. I don’t know whether it’s be­cause her sis­ter, Emily Sh­effield, is a jour­nal­ist, but she seemed rea­son­ably re­laxed around the press, which meant they gave her a rel­a­tively easy time. ‘Really? I always thought I was so guarded. By na­ture I’m very opin­ion­ated – so ar­gu­men­ta­tive, es­pe­cially when it comes to pol­i­tics. Ask my friends. But I sup­pose be­ing the el­dest child of di­vorced par­ents, you learn when to keep quiet.’

Even­tu­ally, she be­gan to sus­pect that her ret­i­cence to say much would be mis­con­strued. ‘I wor­ried ev­ery­one would think I was this weird Step­ford wife be­cause I never spoke about any­thing. But the tini­est thing you said would be in­ter­preted as you telling your hus­band, “let’s in­vade Syria” [an al­lu­sion to the time she visited a refugee camp in Le­banon and was ac­cused of trying to in­flu­ence for­eign pol­icy to, well, in­vade Syria]. There was def­i­nitely a level of para­noia in Down­ing Street about that kind of thing, and it wasn’t my place to be­come the news.’

Given her sen­si­tiv­ity, Toe-Gate – in which our pro­tag­o­nist posted a selfie of her and her hus­band’s (no­tably im­mac­u­late-look­ing) toes, taken in bed, on a wed­ding-an­niver­sary hol­i­day at a rel­a­tive’s snazzy house in Spain three weeks be­fore the elec­tion – was sur­pris­ing. ‘Oh God, I was still quite a novice on In­sta­gram. I got a bit ex­cited about the mo­ment, and I think I thought I was putting it on a fam­ily What­sApp group. Then I started get­ting all these mes­sages from our fam­ily say­ing, “What’s going on with the toes?”’

She was sur­prised by the ker­fuf­fle (‘what elec­tion?’ was the gen­eral, ex­as­per­ated, tone). That’s quite sur­pris­ing in it­self. Maybe she doesn’t re­alise the extent to which the Camerons are still con­sid­ered pub­lic prop­erty. To some de­gree they will always be – a fate she’s trying to sub­vert by making a suc­cess of her own business, and by her hol­i­days-as-usual pol­icy. ‘If it’s not warm we’ll just have to go for it, swim in the rain and all. I was telling friends, who were going to Corn­wall for the first time, that you’ve got to not be up­set if it’s not sunny.’ Spo­ken like a pro­fes­sional op­ti­mist.

Left David and Sa­man­tha Cameron at West­min­ster Abbey, July 2016

Be­low The two First Ladies, Michelle Obama and Sa­man­tha Cameron, meet at No 11 Down­ing Street in 2011

Above Sa­man­tha Cameron in Os­man Youse­fzada, with Vic­to­ria Beck­ham at the Bri­tish Fash­ion Awards, 2010

Above Wear­ing an own-de­sign Cefinn dress, with So­phie El­lis-Bex­ter and Alexa Chung, for the 2017 Por­trait Gala at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery in March

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