Samantha Cameron: David’s red boxes are back, but I’m still busy designing dresses

Sam Cameron and Jess Collett in the milliner's studio
Samantha Cameron's new collaboration with milliner Jess Collett (left) is a collection of occasion wear with hats of all varieties - Andrew Crowley

If you’ve ever felt that frisson of excitement mixed with slight dread that comes when an invitation to a big event drops on the door mat, spare a thought for Samantha Cameron. “With my husband’s previous role, I had to go to lots of royal events, so I had to get into wearing hats,” she tells me, having just removed a delicately exuberant creation featuring a burst of fuschia silk flower blossoms from her head. “I actually love hats and the glamour of them, but it can be a bit intimidating.”

We’re gathered in the milliner Jess Collett’s hat-crammed Notting Hill studio where Cameron, the founder and creative director of womenswear label Cefinn, and Collett have been modelling looks from their new collaboration, a collection of occasion wear with hats of all varieties.

The idea for the collaboration came after working together on Cameron’s Coronation outfit last year. She wore a red and white dress of her own design with a delicate swirling floral pattern and frilled edges. Both “local Ladbroke Grove girls,” the now Lady Cameron (since husband David’s surprise elevation to the House of Lords and appointment as Foreign Secretary last November) turned to Collett to solve her hat dilemma. “The starting point was thinking what dress am I going to feel comfortable wearing that I think is appropriate for the event? Never having been to a Coronation, there weren’t a lot of guidelines,” Cameron confides.

“I’m quite particular about hats because I’ve got a fringe and a small head,” she says. “But I knew Jess would come up with something unique, fresh and just very stylish.” Indeed the simple red and white saucer with striped ribbon detail helped to see Cameron hailed as one of the day’s best-dressed guests.

Samantha and David Cameron arriving at the Coronation in 2023
Samantha and David Cameron arriving at the Coronation in 2023 - Andrew Milligan/Getty

Another of the day’s style winners was the Princess of Wales. When Cameron saw the Princess and her family walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey, she wasn’t the only member of the congregation to be mesmerised by her combination of ceremonial robes, Alexander McQueen gown and a delicate floral headpiece crafted from silver bullion and crystal. Princess Charlotte wore a miniature version of the headdress design. “I was so excited, they looked unbelievably chic, especially as a mother and daughter,” she says of the royals’ coordinated looks.

What made it even more exhilarating was the fact that the Princesses’ headpieces had also been designed by Collett. “I can’t remember whether I thought ‘oh, I’ve seen something a bit like that around your studio,’ though I don’t mean the actual one, obviously,” she says, turning to Collett, “you were so discreet!”

Jess Collett models a hat in her studio
Jess Collett has become an in-demand milliner for big occasions - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

“I was watching on telly and I saw Sam first,” laughs Collett. We speak before the Princess – whose touching thank you letter to Collett is proudly displayed in her studio – has revealed that she is being treated for cancer, but both women express their hope that she is recovering well from the major surgery she underwent in January.

Cameron confesses that she hasn’t always found wearing a hat easy (indeed, she’d swerved the whole process for William and Catherine’s wedding in 2011, making headlines for wearing a brooch in her hair instead). “Jess made me feel really comfortable, it’s just finding the right one for you,” she emphasises. Besides feeling like she’d reached a high point in her personal hat evolution with her Coronation choice, Cameron was getting lots of customer requests about finding millinery to go with her Cefinn occasion wear.

Cameron made headlines for wearing a brooch in her hair instead of a hat to William and Catherine's wedding in 2011
Cameron made headlines for wearing a brooch in her hair instead of a hat to William and Catherine's wedding in 2011 - Joanne Davidson/Shutterstock

So now, for £1,600, Cefinn’s customers can recreate Cameron’s exact look themselves for this summer’s event season. Cameron and Collett have included the hat in their 10-piece range, but you needn’t go quite as dramatic (or expensive) as the Coronation number; there are three pretty plaited hairbands, a cream trilby, a neat “button” adorned with flowers and some slightly more understated saucers, with prices starting at £340.

A plaited hairband from the Cefinn x Jess Collett Millinern collection
A plaited hairband from the Cefinn x Jess Collett Millinern collection

It’s clear why Collett was the woman for the job. She pours out a wealth of useful tips for anyone who’s a little hat-wary. “If you’re choosing a hat and you don’t know which one to choose, it’s really good to take a picture of yourself with them on because when you look in a photograph, for some reason, it’s easier to see how you look,” she says, which is sage advice given how many of us now post our wedding or event looks on social media anyway, something she believes has led to a hat resurgence. “There are certain shapes that suit lots of people,” she adds. “If you wanted a small hat, the button shape suits pretty much everybody. If you were wanting a sun hat, I’d go for the Panama shape.”

Collett recommends the Panama shape for a sun hat
Collett recommends the Panama shape for a sun hat

Besides being the wife of Lord Cameron, Samantha has always been an accomplished fashion businesswoman. She was the creative director of British accessories label Smythson from 1997 until May 2010, moving to a consultancy role when her husband became prime minister. During the No 10 years, she studied design, before launching Cefinn in 2017. The label began offering the kind of versatile workwear that Cameron had always searched for but never found during her busy life juggling her career and motherhood.

Now, she explains, “the business has pivoted. We still do that everyday stuff and things that you’d wear to the office or at the weekend and that’s the core of the brand. But the winter and the summer season [covering Christmas party season and summer events] have become our biggest seasons. For whatever reason, the way I design has just done really well for us. We have women ringing up from February saying ‘when is your summer collection coming out because I’m planning this event or that event’.”

Some fashion insiders may have decreed the death of the floral dress, but for Cameron they’re still a huge bestseller. “Obviously there’s been much discussion about florals and are they in or out. But this summer so far and last summer, they are our best-selling prints by far. I feel very confident that whatever might be said, people really do like a floral print. We’re already selling a lot.”

Samantha Cameron wearing a hat from the new collection
Cameron wearing a Cefinn floral dress and a hat from the new collection - Andrew Crowley

She’s a convert to them herself – even if she describes her style as “naturally quite graphic and minimal” – looking as elegant as ever in the three versions she wears during our shoot and interview (after the photos, she changes into the black version of the Ophelia bias-cut maxi dress which looks as great with the slider sandals she slips on as the other styles did with a beloved old pair of Zara snakeskin heels). She tries to include either black or white in every floral print she creates to make them easier to accessorise. Although she’s also keen to point out that, “if you’re not a dress person, I think the hats look amazing with a really smart trouser suit. It looks so chic, very Bianca Jagger.”

It’s clear that Cameron is absorbed in every detail of her business, seemingly undistracted by her husband’s recent return to the political fray. “Day-to-day life hasn’t really changed,” she insists. “He’s travelling a lot and he’s up very early, the red boxes are back,” she concedes, with perhaps the faintest hint of an eye-roll. It must help that their three children Nancy, 20, Arthur, 18 and Florence, 13 (their eldest son, Ivan, who suffered from cystic fibrosis and epilepsy, sadly died in 2009 aged six) are now older – after our interview, she’s off to check how Arthur has got on packing his bag for a weekend away visiting her sister Flora, who is married to Theo Rycroft, the deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Paris. She hasn’t yet managed a party to celebrate her 50th birthday which was in 2021 but she’s off to Capri for her 53rd next month.

Her time on the world stage has given her unique training in the trials and tribulations of event dressing. Her favourite look was the lace Alessandra Rich gown she wore for a State Dinner at the White House alongside Michelle Obama who was in teal Marchesa – together, the duo created the glory days of First Lady fashion on both sides of the pond.

The Camerons and Obamas
First Lady fashion: The Camerons and Obamas pictured before a State Dinner at the White House - Stephen J. Boitano/Getty

One of the major anxieties around event style is conforming to dress codes, both spoken and unspoken. “The only rule I know is that you have to have a base of 10 centimetres at Royal Ascot in the Royal Enclosure, all our hats cover that. People do get very worried,” reassures Collett, who has seen a huge “Coronation effect” on her business, recently taking her designs to America.

“I don’t think there should be a code. I think it’s whatever suits you and what feels comfortable, that’s what I would want personally,” says Cameron with the cool confidence that armed her for six years of having her outfits judged by the world’s press. “I suppose you just wouldn’t want to block someone’s view.”

Nowadays, she may be more absorbed in design while her husband is occupied with diplomacy, but the soft power skills Cameron excelled at in Downing Street remain. “Those amazing events like the Coronation, Royal Ascot or royal weddings, we do it better than anywhere else in the world. It’s one of our strengths, that pageantry, the dressing-up.” And now she’s got the perfect hats for the occasion.