A few weeks before heading to the west London HQ of Cefinn to meet creative director Samantha Cameron, I find myself at Sadler’s Wells theatre, wearing the Janice, the brand’s sleeveless funnel-neck jumper in ribbed navy wool. As the woman at the end of the row stands up to let me pass, we both realise we’re wearing the same top. “I’m obsessed,” she says. “It’s smart but also comfortable, really versatile and I can wear it under a coat without my sleeves bunching up.” She tells me she has it in five (of its 12) colours. I have to admit I see her point.

Cameron launched Cefinn in 2017, a year after her husband David stepped down as prime minister; while he had been unwittingly teeing up the country for Brexit, she had reportedly been pattern-cutting at her Downing Street dining table in the hopes of fulfilling a long-held dream. A sidestep from her 13-year tenure as creative director of Bond Street stationers Smythson, where she made her name elevating the brand’s leather accessories, Cefinn was launched as a workwear label, intended for the kind of multitasking woman – juggling job, motherhood and formal events – she very much was herself.

Since then, the Janice (£150) – and its sister variant, the Janie – has been a fulcrum of the brand’s success. Part of the 2020 knitwear launch, it sold out immediately, garnering a waiting list of more than 500, then selling out a further four times until it became part of the brand’s core collection. The Janice has appeared most often in a customer’s first order, and is the brand’s highest-selling product for the past three years.

Cefinn cashmere-blend Janice jumper, £180
Cefinn cashmere-blend Janice jumper, £180 © Sam Wright

“The Janice can be so many things,” says Cameron, a glossy and uniquely British confluence of confidence and self-deprecation, when we meet in Cefinn’s pristine low-ceilinged and whitewashed showroom. She speaks quickly, her tone sing-songy before landing on a word. She is wearing the Franklin, a tiered black maxi dress with red polkadots, and knee-high black boots. “You can still show off a pretty sleeve,” she says of the Janice. “It’s not bulky under a jacket. It’s elegant, it’s comfortable, it suits lots of different body shapes and it covers your bum.”

Made of a non-mulesing merino wool that’s spill-resistant and machine-washable, the sweater also distils a thoughtfulness about how women want to dress. “I started Cefinn to make it easy for women in those moments when they might be stressed about looking great,” says Cameron. “Whether that’s starting a new job, or a big meeting, or an event. I wanted to create those really reliable but glamorous and fabulous pieces that make you feel your best self. Pieces that, from a technical point of view, also work really hard – that you can put in the wash, hang up and are good to go the next day. That you don’t have to take to the dry cleaner but which are super-stylish and feminine.”

Cameron wears Cefinn Seymour shirt, £170
Cameron wears Cefinn Seymour shirt, £170 © Sam Wright

The formula seems to be working. With a 23 per cent increase in customers in 2023 and demand in December up 47 per cent year on year, following a 10 per cent increase in average order value the year before, the brand looks on course to build upon its 2022 highs, which saw revenues hit £3.8mn. It has also drawn a £1.5mn round of investment to fund its expansion.

“Part of the secret of Cefinn is that it’s chic but safe,” says Sara Parker Bowles, fashion editor and founder of styling consultancy Wardrobe Revivals. “Most of my clients ask me to help them create a working wardrobe that means they’re dressed appropriately but still enables them to look stylish and feel like themselves. What makes a brilliant, hard-working piece for women like this is something that has the potential to elevate an outfit but still look effortless. Add to this a degree of neutrality – probably of colour, to make it classic – with maybe a little fashion twist, and this is what Samantha Cameron gets right. She is her own best advert.”

Cameron’s own clothes have been subject to close scrutiny throughout the years. “I didn’t want to dress in a sort of suited and booted, corporate kind of City way,” she says of her wardrobe at Downing Street. “It just wasn’t my style.” Roksanda and Erdem were more her beat.

Cameron wears a Cefinn Elspeth maxi dress, £320, and cashmere-blend Janice jumper, £180. Boots, her own 
Cameron wears a Cefinn Elspeth maxi dress, £320, and cashmere-blend Janice jumper, £180. Boots, her own  © Sam Wright

There’s an almost imperceptible slump in her poise when I ask if David stepping back into politics to be foreign secretary last November has meant she has to think differently about brand strategy. “Part of the politics thing [means] you’re always thinking, ‘Am I doing or saying something that, you know, will be [mis]interpreted?’” she concedes politely, but “there’s nothing different that I’m doing now... literally nothing’s changed”. (Not even her address, despite speculation about moving into the foreign secretary’s official house.)

And while Cameron stepped back from Smythson when David became PM, now there’s no need for them to have an either/or arrangement. “Now my children are that much older [Nancy, 20, Elwen, soon to be 18, and Florence, 13],” she says of the career/home balance, “I think we can both have full-time roles.” What about a spike in sales because of the extra column inches? “Other things – such as a big celebrity wearing a piece – would have a much bigger impact,” she deflects. The Janice has been worn by the Princess of Wales, and when TV presenter Gabby Logan was seen in the sequinned Jacquetta dress last Christmas, it prompted a sell-out run. “We had women ringing us up going, ‘You’ve got to get me one of those dresses.’”

The Princess of Wales wearing Cefinn’s sleeveless Janie jumper in October 2023
The Princess of Wales wearing Cefinn’s sleeveless Janie jumper in October 2023 © Getty Images

Cameron herself posts very intermittently on her personal Instagram account. “It’s difficult when you come from politics,” she says. “Both you and your children are very sensitive... It doesn’t come naturally to me, the personal stuff.” The Cefinn account offers a different outlet. “We now do little films of me going through the new collection, and I really enjoy doing that. Because it’s not posing, it feels much more natural.”

Cameron’s business sense was well-honed from childhood: she watched her mother, Annabel, Lady Astor, co-found Oka, the successful interiors company. (She sold the business in 2018 for a reported £40mn.) Many people compare Cameron to her mother, in that they share the same clear-eyed business acumen. Also, Cameron’s first cousin is Cath Kidston, who sold a majority stake in her eponymous homewares company in 2010, when the company was valued at £100mn. Cameron is unequivocal about the work that must be done. “Being a small business, you have to do a bit of everything in terms of marketing, because it’s about touchpoints. So your customer will see you on Instagram, they’ll get a lookbook from you in the post, they’ll get an email from you.” The latter is what really generates the most business, she says. “You have to keep reminding people that you exist.”

There’s a frustration in fashion that women ‘can’t find more of what they want’
There’s a frustration in fashion that women ‘can’t find more of what they want’ © Sam Wright

She doesn’t particularly analyse her position in the market but feels part of a movement of women taking fashion into their own hands. “It’s probably a combination of several things. A frustration that they can’t find more of what they want. A love of fashion and colour and fabric and texture.” And lastly: “The internet has made it much easier for women to start small businesses. You don’t have to be a super-massive brand to be a fashion designer any more.”

The scrutiny over her wardrobe, together with her time at Smythson, has made Cameron meticulous about creating pieces “that won’t let you down”. Her clothes won’t gape at the bust (many pieces look like they have a button-down front, but are in fact sewn shut and have a hidden zip at the side), or ride up the thigh when you sit down. “Cefinn offers stylish staples for a working wardrobe,” says Thandi Maqubela, a legal director who moonlights as a fashion influencer. “It’s not overtly trend-led yet still manages to be stylish in a classic way.”

In the future, Cameron says she’d like to be able to open a shop – in Marylebone, or on Elizabeth Street or the King’s Road. But there are no immediate plans for another investment round or dramatic expansion, just sustained, stable growth. “I’m insanely meticulous about everything,” says Cameron. “There’s always doubt in my mind about whether it will be successful, but there’s never a doubt that I should give it a go.”

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