Samantha Cameron tells Tempus about the lifelong passion for business that led to the launch of her fashion label, Cefinn

By Juliet Herd | 22 May 2020 | Style, Design

From PM's wife to fashion entrepreneur, Samantha Cameron reveals her stylish ambitions

img tempus

Download your complimentary copy of Tempus Magazine issue 67 now 

You can get a fairly good idea of who the Cefinn woman is by looking at the “Cefinn Siren” profiles on the fashion brand’s website – a mix of fashion stylists, interior designers, creative directors and entrepreneurs. All stylish, multitasking urban professional women. A lot like Samantha Cameron, in fact, who founded the London-based label in 2017 with the aim of creating the kind of effortless yet elegant wardrobe that complements a multitasking, urban lifestyle.

“I saw a gap in the market for smarter daywear that had a fashion edge, was a quality product and could see you through a busy day and out for dinner after work,” explains Cameron (right), who was formerly the creative director of luxury goods company Smythson. “I’ve always been a creative, working in an office environment, and I worked during [my pregnacies] and after my four children were born.”

In her rather unique case, there was another factor to take into account. As the wife of ex-prime minister David Cameron, she was aware that whatever she wore during her six years in her ‘first lady’ role would be photographed and heavily scrutinised. “I had to look professional for work and also dress for events, whether they were international, political or charitable, and with the pressure of being photographed, you think a lot more about what you’re wearing and how it performs. I wanted well-made clothes that were cut well and fitted beautifully.”

Fittingly, the astute style maven started her business from the dining room of the family’s apartment at 11 Downing Street, crafting the name Cefinn from an acronym of the surname Cameron and the initials of the couple’s children – Elwen, Florence, Ivan and Nancy. But the launch of her label had less to do with the public position she found herself in than her own sense of ambition. With creativity in her DNA and an entrepreneurial streak running through her family, Cameron, now 48, always knew she would one day build her own brand. Her businesswoman mother Annabel Astor co-founded the successful home furnishings design company OKA and four of her siblings run their own businesses. “As a teenager, my mum was a jewellery designer before setting up another business, so I was always inspired to create one of my own,” she says. 

To that end, she took business studies at A-levels but then veered somewhat off course by studying fine art at Camberwell College of Arts, followed by painting at Bristol polytechnic. It was after leaving Smythson in 2011 that she decided to revisit her childhood dream and began working on a viability project while in Downing Street.

PRESSURE AND POLITICS 

Cameron has admitted in the past that her name helped with publicity for Cefinn and made raising money a bit easier – backers include former Smythson chairman Mark Esiri, Tory party donor David Brownlow and Chinese entrepreneur Wendy Yu – but there was also extra pressure that came from being in the public eye. “It felt there was a huge pressure for it to be a success from the start rather than being able to launch a bit more organically and make mistakes unnoticed,” she says.

“Getting through the first couple of years as a start-up is definitely challenging. I have never worked harder and you need lots of support from mentors and patience from friends and family. There were many days when I’d be answering emails at 4am and juggling fundraising and legal issues at the same time as designing a website and sorting out the IT and printer ink. There were many ups and downs and it’s been a big learning curve. We still have a long way to go but it is very satisfying when it begins to all fall into place.” >>

Related: Rolls-Royce’s colour and trim designer shares the secrets of elegant automotive interiors

img tempus

The firm lost £561,795 in its first year but secured £2.5m in funding in 2018, which, in today’s volatile retail market, must be considered encouraging. Now, Cameron’s distinctive minimalist designs in signature no-fuss luxury fabrics are favoured by the likes of actresses Gillian Anderson and Donna Air and US First Lady Melania Trump. The brand is available » online and in stores including Harvey Nichols and Fenwick with plans to eventually open a permanent base (for the moment, it focuses on pop-ups) as well as expand internationally. 

“The launch recently of our two Chelsea pop-ups has been an exciting learning curve. We’d love to open up our own store soon, however, we’re still trying to work out the best location,” she says.

DRESS TO IMPRESS

For Cameron, Cefinn’s USP has three key components: price point, quality and knowing exactly who her customer is. Like her, the “Cefinn woman is busy and independent. She doesn’t have time to spend hours thinking about what she’s going to wear in the morning. However, she wants to look effortlessly chic and elegant with minimal fuss.”

She also went on a journey to find the perfect fabric for her core collection – called techni-voile, it is known for being a low maintenance, crease-resistant fabric and has become something of a signature. “No dry-cleaning, no ironing, no stress,” is how she sums it up. “It was incredibly important for me to cater for busy women who want to look chic but don’t have the time for dry cleaning; the washability factor is a big USP and is often what pushes people over the line to purchase.”

It’s the feedback she receives from satisfied customers that makes her realise she’s on the right track. “We get amazing emails from our customers repeating back to us what we’re trying to achieve in terms of how the clothing makes you feel, and that’s really what keeps you going,” Cameron says. Statuesque and sporty, she’s certainly Cefinn’s best brand ambassador. She says she tends to wear dresses more than her former uniform of trouser suits as finds them more comfortable these days. “As you get older, your body shape slightly changes,” she acknowledges. 

While her own style is “pared back” with a graphic approach, she says she’s introducing more print and the collections have expanded to include suiting, knitwear and shirting. Her inspiration comes from an eclectic mix of sources, including the Bauhaus movement – “that combination of mass manufacturing and design” – catwalk shows and the style of friends, colleagues and family: “I have four stylish sisters,” she points out.

She equates fashion with empowerment. “I strongly believe that how you dress can give you confidence,” says Cameron, who has volunteered in the past for charity Smart Works, which offers free clothes and job interview advice to unemployed women. “I feel that dressing for work has gone through a real shift in the past few years; the perception of dress codes has changed, and women are able to express themselves by dressing up rather than just blending in. You’ve got to feel great in what you wear.”

On the issue of sustainability, Cameron admits the subject is “a hard one to grapple with; there are no easy answers”. She stresses that “Cefinn is all about classic staples that will stand the test of time both from a design and quality perspective”. 

“Ultimately, the investment in technology at the start of the process will be what makes the difference,” she adds. “We’re starting to see this happen as well as a shift in people’s attitudes towards sustainability, but it will take a while before real change happens.”

Cameron says now is the time for young entrepreneurs to make their mark – particularly in the world of British fashion. Her advice? “Get out of the office and ask for advice – people are always very generous. Be polite and kind, don’t be scared to fail and constantly challenge yourself.” 

Read more from Tempus 67: download your free issue now