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
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