The secret to Samantha Cameron's successful style

Samantha Cameron sporting a skirt by Christopher Kane at a London Fashion Week reception she hosted at Downing Street in 2011 with Claudia Schiffer
Samantha Cameron sporting a skirt by Christopher Kane at a London Fashion Week reception she hosted at Downing Street in 2011 with Claudia Schiffer

Vanity Fair’s annual International Best Dressed List is a thing of many peculiar splendours. Like all Best Dressed Lists, it provokes howls of scorn each year, much sucking of teeth, and a great deal of everyone on both sides of the Atlantic pretending they don’t care one iota about it.

But we do care. In particular, that Samantha Cameron is not merely on it, but at the top, cited for her “conservative charm”. 

Some US readers will approve – conservatism is the back-bone of American style and Vanity Fair, in particular, is known for prizing the safe over the experimental. 

Some will be mystified: not having a clue who British Prime Ministers are, let alone their wives, is another hallmark of many Americans. 

Many Britons will be gratified. Here is a woman who navigates her way past the modern Scylla of needing to be fashionable and the Carybdis of doing so age appropriately, with knee-length dignity – and on a reasonable budget.

Yes reasonable. Agreed, Mrs Cameron is often seen in Preen, Peter Pilotto, Emilia Wickstead, Jonathan Saunders, Osman, Erdem and Alexander McQueen (interesting, by the way, how often McQueen is name-checked in this current list by both the women and men featured on it; Charlize Theron, Eddie Redmayne, Jemma Kidd, Francesca Amfitheatrof, FKA Twigs. Considering the giant brands and budgets McQueen’s up against, that’s a feat not to be underestimated). 

These are not cheap labels. However as an Ambassador to the British Fashion Council, Sam Cam has inside access to the a pool of talent, most of whom are happy to lend her clothes in return for precisely the kind of exposure they’ll be receiving in the afterglow of this list. 

Lend is a key word. Whether nor not you buy the idea of Samantha Cameron, Creative Consultant of Smythson, daughter of Sir Reginald Sheffield, as Every Woman, on an Every Woman’s budget, she is smart with her money. She really does shop on the high street, is no stranger to Zara (she “loves, loves Zara”) and knows her way around Cos, Reiss and Uniqlo, which she highly recommended to me for its cashmere. Having met her on many occasions, she is always polished, elegant and just fashion-forward enough to inspire, without frightening the horses.

Samantha Cameron alongside Michelle Obama at a 2012 State dinner

Her main hunting ground however, is upper end high street – Russell & Bromley for shoes, Jigsaw and those lines which, in American would be termed “bridge”, such as Whistles and Joseph. She once told me she buys all her trousers from the latter, although I later spotted a picture of her in a pair by McQueen. Oh well. We get the gist. At around £200 a pair (considerably less in their sample sales) Joseph’s are hardly excessively priced and may be considered a wise investment, since they’re known for their excellent cut and longevity and in a dark colour can be worn repeatedly without accusations of slovenliness being lobbed at her.

The Sam Cam wardrobe is essentially a manifesto of judicious prudence, rather than of austerity. Naturally there are show ponies sprinkled through these repeat-view basics. Whatever the twitter trolls might say, on the whole the British public would like our First Lady to be able to hold her own when meeting Michelle Obama, Queen Letizia of Spain or – every First Lady’s nightmare – finding herself being photographed next to Carla Bruni, and understands that this requires a certain amount of investment, both in time and financially.

Did I just write First Lady? Technically, of course, Samantha Cameron isn’t. She has no official title, official budget or help with her wardrobe, despite finding herself, as the Prime Minister’s wife, on the international stage and ipso facto representing her country. Unofficially, Isabel Spearman, a former fashion PR and family friend, offered sterling help in the Downing Street office, shopping and scouting for Sam Cam when the latter couldn’t get out herself.

Spearman recently left to set up her own business and there’s a new assistant, but Samantha Cameron is well equipped to style herself. I’ve sat on the same panel as her interviewing candidates for the British Fashion Council/Vogue fashion £200,000 fund, and she can spot a winner. She was an early supporter of Emilia Wickstead and has a knack for spotting emerging talent such as Matthew Williamson, Jonathan Saunders and Giles Deacon, all of whom she then persuaded to collaborate on Smythson’s diaries. It’s an open secret that she’d like to set up her own fashion business eventually. Entrepreneurialism is in her blood – her mother set up a jewellery company at 17 and later went on to found Ok, the luxury furniture store.

Cameron in Erdem at the 2012 British Fashion Awards

Sam Cam studied art at Bristol Poly (now the University of the West of England) and seems to have a natural flair for colour. Eye-catching mixes are an article of her sartorial faith. She even managed to track down a shade of Tory blue that’s rather pretty rather than strident, as showcased by the £99 Hobbs dress she wore to cheerlead her husband at last October’s party conference.

Another tenet of Cam-servatism is a scrupulous attention to detail. She knows about fabrics and if something doesn’t fit, she has it altered, which makes those high street bargains look much more expensive than they are. As for her services to the belt industry - indefatigable. And wise: not only do they accentuate her waist, they always add gloss to a high street buy. Sleek professionalism rather than corporate uniformity is her stated aim; mission largely accomplished. 

It’s that VF reference to conservative charm that’s most striking though. Her boho credentials were certainly somewhat overstated in the media in the early days – a teeny dolphin tattoo on her ankle and a student flat in the St Paul’s area of Bristol, do not a Trotskyite make. 

Still, although she wisely never tries to “rock” an edgy shoe (they invariably look unflattering in photos and date very quickly) in the broad context of political wives, she is quite out-there in her fashion choices. 

I’m not just thinking of some of the more outré outfits, such as the high necked lace Alessandra Rich column she borrowed a few years ago, or the Roksanda colour swirls she can carry off (tall and skinny; it helps). I mean the fact that she has never felt she should hide her enjoyment of fashion. 

These days, a passing interest in fashion is relatively common place among first wives and even ministers – Theresa May seems to go out of her way to stress her fondness for clothes (her luxury on Desert Island Discs was a Vogue subscription) as a means of softening her image. But a decade ago, Sam Cam’s fashion flair and, for that matter, her job in a luxury goods business, were seen as potential election hazards.

Yet she has rather cleverly used fashion to make her family seem more contemporary than their social background might otherwise have done, and taken advantage of the spotlight to promote one of Britain’s most successful creative fields. 

All this without histrionics or vast outlay. On balance, that is rather charming.