How Samantha Cameron pulled her fashion brand through a pandemic

Fashion designer, mother and our one-time first lady, Samantha Cameron knows all about pressure. And just as well, she tells Hattie Crisell, as it helped her pull her fashion brand through a pandemic

Samantha in her West London home

It would be quite understandable if, on the day that Samantha Cameron’s husband faces two select committees, she isn’t in the mood to conduct an interview about fashion. But if she seems a little flustered when she joins me – with David Cameron due to be quizzed on the Greensill lobbying scandal in two hours’ time – she doesn’t take long to shake it off. ‘Sorry, it’s been rather a busy day,’ she says simply; I imagine ‘eye-wateringly stressful’ might be a more accurate way of putting it.

The woman we call Sam Cam has a reputation for being nice, and she is; later, she will end our chat by apologising that she hasn’t asked me more about myself. But it’s probably more salient to note that she’s made of tough stuff – life in Downing Street would have been a struggle if she wasn’t. Questions about David are off-limits today, but when we discuss her other recent challenges – trying to run a fashion business during a pandemic, and then with the added complications of Brexit – I tell her that she strikes me as someone who is calm in a crisis. At this, she laughs. ‘I’m 50 now, I’ve been working in business for a long time and I’ve got three children – so I think I’ve learnt that getting in a panic doesn’t necessarily help,’ she says.

Samantha and husband David with, from left, their son Arthur and daughters Nancy and Florence, leaving Downing Street for the last time, July 2016. Photograph: Getty Images

She’s speaking to me from the house she shares with David, Nancy, 17, Arthur, 15, and Florence, ten, in West London. When she disappears briefly to fetch a snack – raspberries – I peer through the small window offered by Zoom and study what I can see of the room. It’s lined with chic industrial-style bookshelves, carrying everything from Philippa Gregory novels to the 2012 economics title Why Nations Fail. At the edge of the screen, I get a tantalising glimpse of what might be a set of prime ministerial nesting dolls: it looks like two of them are painted with the faces of Samantha’s husband and his successor Theresa May, but just as I’m almost falling off my chair with nosiness, my interviewee returns.

She doesn’t work from home much any more, she explains: she goes into Cefinn HQ about four days a week, and is relieved to be back in the mix after lockdown. ‘I’ve really missed working in an office,’ she says. ‘I love the whole social aspect and the buzz of it – it made me realise that it’s one of the reasons why I like working.’

Considering that the raison d’être of Cefinn, which she launched in 2017, is to provide busy women with a smart but easy work wardrobe, it could have been catastrophic for her when the pandemic hit and we were all confined to our homes. She had to furlough staff, unsurprisingly, but today she is upbeat about the recovery: ‘Luckily, quite a few of the people that we furloughed we were able to bring back into the business, so that was great.’

Nevertheless, the early weeks of the first lockdown were a scramble to secure the business, each day packed with virtual meetings with staff and suppliers. ‘For me, working from home didn’t feel very different, in the sense that I was still having to get up and get dressed and look professional online, and we were very busy,’ she says. ‘We were still at a point in time where some of the summer stuff hadn’t been delivered yet – so we worked very hard with the factories to cut back on our orders. There were lots of costs that we had to look at reducing – not having any idea how long it was going to go on for, and really wondering what it was that the customer was going to want.’

In the early days of the brand, Cefinn had specialised in sleek dresses costing, on average, £260 each – not quite designer prices, but certainly at the top end of the high street. The collection, which also included suits, walked a line: it was conservative with a small c, but not stuffily corporate. Even so, some of those clothes would feel like overkill for a woman working at her kitchen table, perhaps breaking off to do home-schooling shifts. As it turned out, it was Cefinn’s more casual knitwear line, as well as shirts, that kept the business turning over during lockdown.

Princess Eugenie wearing Cefinn

Browsing the website now, my eye is caught by an elegant, blouson-sleeved cardigan (see below) that comes in a rainbow of colours. ‘That was one of the items that we reordered and reordered during the period, because it did incredibly well,’ nods Samantha. In December, a sleeveless layering jumper (£140, see opposite) sold out in 48 hours, then acquired a waiting list of over 500 keen customers, and sold out twice more during the third lockdown. These were clothes that felt presentable enough for high-flyers in online meetings, but not too fussy to wear at home.

Now that the world is reopening, Samantha’s watching carefully to see how office style will evolve. ‘I’m sure that smart knitwear, shirts and blouses will definitely be a bigger part of people’s working wardrobe than, say, a suit,’ she says. ‘And I think it was moving in that direction already. People are often commuting a long way. They might be taking their children to school en route to work, and you don’t want to be doing that in a tight suit and heels every morning.’

There’s still much uncertainty, and if the pandemic has tested fashion businesses, then Brexit has pushed many to the brink. Customs charges have made it much harder for small brands to sell to the EU – previously the UK’s largest export market for clothes, accounting for 74 per cent of foreign sales. ‘The dual impact of Brexit and Covid has been challenging,’ says Samantha. ‘Most of our customers are in the UK or the US, so they haven’t been affected, but we do have a small customer base in Europe, and that is definitely less profitable than it was.’ Yet she’s hopeful that things are getting better. ‘To begin with, even couriers and freight forwarders didn’t really understand the impact of new tariffs or paperwork, but over time it’s got slightly smoother. It’s all very technical, and I think that’s what’s hard for a small company; it can be quite difficult to get to the bottom of the impact quickly.’

As former creative director of the accessories brand Smythson (from 1997 to 2010), Samantha’s not new to business – but over the past year in particular, she’s learnt that it’s crucial to accept support. ‘I really have to rely on the talent and expertise of the rest of my team,’ she says. ‘And ask for advice. Contrary to what people might think of the fashion industry, everyone’s very supportive of each other. Certainly during the pandemic, that was true; there were quite a few people who I rang in the first weeks saying, “Oh my god, what are you doing about this, and how are you handling that?”’ She praises the designer Anya Hindmarch in particular: ‘She’s just an amazingly energetic person, who’s so generous with her time, her advice and her experience.’

Gillian Anderson wearing Cefinn

For design ideas, Samantha studies what her friends and family are wearing just as much as she studies fashion magazines. Her teenage daughter Nancy is increasingly stylish. ‘She’s very creative and she’s been making her own clothes since she was about ten – I’ve got an amazing picture of her in the kitchen, having created the most glamorous little outfit out of some ribbon and a piece of old fabric,’ she says. ‘She does a lot of vintage shopping, and whenever we go to any new town, she’ll be trying to find the charity shop. She’s definitely bought some pieces that I’ve taken inspiration from, and there are a few of my clothes that she borrows.’

In Samantha’s own teenage years, she recalls ‘trying to look like someone out of Fame’. Though she enjoyed a gorgeous designer wardrobe in Downing Street, she always loved the high street, too.

‘I’ve got a lot of Zara shoes. I love Arket and & Other Stories, and I used to buy a lot of knitwear from Cos.’ She now lives mostly in samples for Cefinn, putting them to the test herself.

When I ask if she plans her outfits, she laughs. ‘No, I’m certainly not a planner! I wish I was the kind of person who laid out their outfits the night before. I think that’s why I wanted to create a brand that’s almost a capsule wardrobe. When you’re trying to get the children off to school and you’ve got a big meeting, and you’ve changed four times in a panic that you’re not looking right… As a designer, that was my challenge – how do you create more of those pieces that are really easy to fling on in the morning and style with the rest of your wardrobe?’ Designing prints that can be worn with black tights is part of that, she explains. And the majority of the fabrics she uses for Cefinn are washable, which I agree is clever – my dry-clean-only clothes are rarely worn, because they’re such a faff. She nods: ‘There’s always that day when you’ve suddenly got to go to a party, and it’s the one thing you want to wear – and there it is, in a crumpled heap in the corner, waiting to be taken to the dry-cleaner.’

Dry-cleaning is also bad for the environment, she points out, and making Cefinn more sustainable is one of her priorities over the next few years. ‘We’ve got organic cotton in the collection now and quite a lot of recycled polyester coming in for next season, so progress is being made. A few years ago it would have been impossible to find anything like that – we’re all having to put constant pressure on our suppliers to invest in it.’

Mostly, her hope for the future is that life as we used to know it will return: ‘That people are safe and well enough, that they rediscover the joy of going out and socialising, and then obviously the fun of dressing up,’ she says. ‘One of the sadnesses for me is I’ve got seven younger brothers and sisters, and over 20 nieces and nephews now – and not being able to see them all together in 18 months has been really tough. You can’t re-create that on Zoom.’

Indeed, she had to resign herself to a low-key celebration for her 50th birthday in April. ‘It’s our 25th wedding anniversary as well in a couple of weeks’ time,’ she adds. But now’s not the time for a party. ‘I’ll save it,’ she says. ‘It will keep me 49 for another year.’

Our top five forever pieces

YOU’s fashion editor Sophie Dearden picks the Cefinn buys that will last a lifetime

Cardigan, £190, Cefinn

The deep V and sleeve detail keep this modern.

Dress, £350, Cefinn

The A-line cut is beautifully flattering.

Shirt, £170, Cefinn

Collarless shirts are timeless. Buy this now and wear endlessly!

Jumpsuit, £370, Cefinn

The ultimate smart yet easy throw-on.

Sleeveless jumper, £140, Cefinn

The perfect layering jumper: great with mid-length skirts.