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05.12.10

Move Over, Michelle

Samantha Cameron, the wife of Britain’s new prime minister, is already a fashion icon with her mix of high and low—and proving a political asset like Mrs. Obama and Carla Bruni. Olivia Cole on Sam Cam’s political fashions.

After stepping into the flashbulb glare outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday night, Samantha Cameron, wife of the newly elected British prime minister, for the last time returned home to spend the night at the couple’s solar-powered house in Notting Hill. Despite being almost too dark to see anything, the cameras and TV crews were assembled here, too: “She’s struggling to open the gate…with her bag,” narrated one Sky news commentator, “it’s rather a big bag.”

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Samantha Cameron’s Style

Wake up, boys! It’s an It Bag. If British politics has become presidential, as of today Samantha Cameron is our first lady and Britain’s key ambassador for fashion. As creative director of British luxury brand Smythson, she’s better qualified than most political spouses to sustain the level of global style scrutiny now her due. As David Cameron quipped in a 2008 party conference speech: “I admire entrepreneurs. I should—I go to bed with one every night.” Was it coincidence or Tory loyalty that this spring, as the campaign got under way, the brand for the first time unveiled a deep blue “Cerulean” collection of accessories?

After three years in the limelight, PR executive and departing first lady Sarah Brown has only recently got together a fashion forward wardrobe (Erdem, Issa, and Osman are her favorite designers). “Sam Cam,” as she is known here, has a head start. Even pregnant, she is 5' 11"  with a gazelle-like figure, has already invented an It Bag (the £750 [$1,096] “Nancy Bag,” christened after the couple’s daughter), and has her little sister, the deputy editor of British Vogue, on hand should she need any further pointers. For all her posh vibe, she already has a place in the affections of the tabloids. Her pregnancy was heralded in the Sun with the headline “Wham Bam Sam Cam.” Whereas by some accounts life and fashion guru Carole Caplin practically showered with the Blairs, Sam Cam, thus far, has reportedly even declined the services of a stylist.

Sam Cam, for all her English rose look, has also been admired for her on-trend black nail polish: a hangover, it’s said, from her days as a cool, slightly Gothic fine-art student at Bristol Polytechnic in the early ’90s.

The company of which she is creative director (for the time being at least) is Smythson, the once-staid Bond Street stationer’s established in 1887. The holder of three Royal Warrants, in Sam Cam’s hands, it’s been revamped into a classic sexy British brand (on the Mulberry or Burberry model) that now specializes in accessories as well as sexy stationery: A little black book, any takers? Once it was Winston Churchill who wrote on their stationery but now it’s Gwyneth Paltrow and even Carrie Bradshaw. For £5.95 a letter, you can have your initials embossed in gold on your wares. Cameron has been at the company for 14 years and is credited for its explosion in value. In December last year, it was sold to Greenwill, part of the Italian Tivoli group, for £18 million. (At the moment, Mrs. Cameron has no plans to resign from her role. Even during the campaign, she has still worked in the office for part of the week.)

Entrepreneurs, it has to be said, fit better with the Big Society vision though, than luxury. Witness the column inches when Sarah Brown wore £300-plus Jimmy Choos. Samantha Cameron’s favorite shoes, it seems, are her gray Zara wedges (£29) seen at the last party conference, and indeed, as the couple arrived in Downing Street on Tuesday. They might just be a pair of High Street shoes but ever since the politicians’ wives have become part of the picture in British politics, there’s been a double-edged relationship with high fashion. The fashion press judge and the press at large add up the cost… and then complain if our leaders' wives don’t look as good as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who wears, naturellement, head-to-toe Dior.

Zara wedges or not, deep down, Samantha is instinctively a high fashion girl. She sat in the front row at the autumn 2009 Burberry show looking entirely in place and at formal events is most often seen in Erdem prints or simple block-color Philip Lim dresses. Sykes (by Joanna Sykes) has been a simple British label perfectly suited to her pared-down style. Dutifully, she throws into the mix a more economical TopShop jacket or a pair of Converse.

It’s only in the latter part of Brown’s tenure that Sarah Brown had gone all out, ignoring the sniping and, in the manner of Michelle Obama, using her role to patronize up-and-coming London-based, if not London born and bred, designers like Issa (by Brazilian Daniella Helayel), Erdem, and Osman. During London Fashion Week, Sam Cam appeared at the reception of shadow culture ministers Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey in an Erdem top and High Street suit and if she continues with this trend will be almost impossibly well placed to raise the profile of the British fashion industry. She’s also on the money as a committed ethical shopper: She’s into vintage, bikes, and old jewelry and Louise Galvin’s carbon-neutral hair products. She once told me that she’s a firm believer in “unsexy things like blankets and insulation.” Don’t expect the heating at No. 10 to go on until mid-November no matter how much the political temperature plummets outside.

While an unfortunate barefoot shot at a temple inspired a spate of mean stories about Mrs. Brown’s lack of a pedicure, Sam Cam, for all her English rose look, has also been admired for her on-trend black nail polish: a hangover, it’s said, from her days as a cool, slightly Gothic fine-art student at Bristol Polytechnic in the early '90s. With either very good, or very bad timing, during the campaign, a set of elegant photos emerged in “an attic” showing a 25-year-old Samantha modelling a friend’s collection, complete with a lot of leg and a kitten on her chest.

Ironically, Sam Cam’s one fashion faux pas arose from looking good—perhaps too good—in a blue and white polka dot Marks & Spencer dress which she wore to the last Tory party conference. Sarah Brown had only just begun to wear proper heels and Erdem creations (with outfit costs running close, all in, to a thousand pounds) and Conservative press officers were keen to pass this £65 item off as something that the arty but irredeemably privileged Mrs. Cameron (the daughter of a Baronet) had just pulled off the rack at middle England’s favorite shop.

Embarrassingly, when press officers were pressed, it turned out Sam had liked a dress that had appeared in M&S but the store had sold out of the limited edition. According to reports, Executive Chairman Sir Stuart Rose (possibly in line for a peerage under a Tory government) ran into her at a party. They chatted about how much she loved the dress and he then moved heaven and earth to get one... less £65 purchase than a special sartorial mission. Only a size 14, two sizes too big for her perfect size 10, could be found, so an in-store tailor did the rest. No wonder that cut was so great! And so much for off the peg… it put a whole new spin on “My M&S,” the company’s ad slogan.

If anything, far from needing party apparatchiks to help with blue sky polka dot thinking, Sam Cam in fact is probably better left to her own devices. As an ambassador for British fashion and classically English style, you couldn’t do better.

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Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.

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