Samantha Cameron's fashion past drives luxury label Smythson's future

Smythson sees great things in Asia as the luxury British label sets up its first store in Hong Kong. Jing Zhang catches up with the brand's creative consultant Samantha Cameron

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 10:23am

At the launch of Smythson's boutique in Hong Kong, many were surprised to learn that before her husband became prime minister, Samantha Cameron was credited with turning around the century-old brand as creative director - making it fun and stylish.

Crucially, she expanded the handbags and women's range, and helped make stationery - the luxury kind; cooler and sexier. It doesn't hurt that the Queen is a loyal customer.

When I arrived, we honed the aesthetic. I went very much back into the archives.
Samantha Cameron

"It's that minimal, discreet aesthetic. We are playing with all these colours and amazing materials, but doing it in a restrained way," says Cameron, Smythson's creative consultant, ahead of the launch at Pacific Place - marking the brand's first store in Asia. "I think that's where some of the Britishness comes out."

As the wife of Prime Minister David Cameron, she knows the importance of discretion more than most.

On her first trip to Hong Kong for the opening, Samantha Cameron is chatty, relaxed and chic as ever, sitting at Cafe Grey with Smythson chief executive Andy Janowski.

At the cocktail party later that evening, she is again the main attraction in her fitted navy cap-sleeve dress, gold statement necklace and Smythson clutch.

"I joined [Smythson] around 1996. I've always been a fan of the brand so it was great to go in and 'have a fiddle'," she says, laughing. "I think it's been great but it's been an evolution rather than a revolution.

"When I arrived, we honed the aesthetic. We did a lot with colour and certainly expanded the women's products, relaunching handbags, as they'd always been a strong part of [founder] Frank Smythson's original collection. I wentvery much back into the archives."

Cameron was creative director until 2010 (when she learned she was pregnant) then moved into the consultant role, overseeing image, branding and new store design concepts.

The most recent global expansion of the famous Bond Street stationers came last year on its 125th anniversary. During an eventful 2012 in Britain, she and her team started revamping the stores, launched a website and improved e-commerce, catalogues and videos - thus modernising the label.

The great Georgian halls of London houses inspired the new store design: a pale palette setting off inlaid zigzag marble flooring. "I love greys and whites. Colour looks so fabulous against the pattern," she says. "We worked with British architect Tom Bartlett, whom I know very well."

Janowksi, who joined the firm last May from Burberry, says: "Smythson is the iconic British luxury leather goods brand, so in everything we do it's important to share that message. And now we are shipping all over the world every day."

New languages are launching on the website soon, with Chinese coming next year. Janowski's vision is to increase points of sale across the world with more retail, wholesale presence and e-commerce.

"There is an ever-growing discerning and sophisticated Asian customer looking for this kind of level of brand with intelligent design," says Cameron. Although it has been available in Harvey Nichols Hong Kong for some time, the stand-alone store is sure to attract new fans.

With its famous Nile blue paper boxes, lightweight Panama diaries (the first portable diary invented in 1908 by its founder) and personalised stationery, the British brand has strong selling points. It is one of few companies to hold three Royal Warrants, which are awarded "for excellent service, discretion - a very important part of the brand - and obviously quality", says Cameron.

Fresh blood in the company has also revitalised the team. Rory O'Hanlon, the new design director, is launching bold lines. With new key players in the team, Janowski's mission is to take the brand global.

It's not always easy to translate historical brands into a contemporary platform, especially an international one. No doubt Cameron's fame has helped things along. She is often seen dressed in the creations of young British designers such as Jonathan Saunders or Roksanda Ilincic. She is a powerful champion of British fashion - and a fitting spokeswoman for the Smythson lifestyle.

Much like her "first lady" contemporaries, Michelle Obama or Peng Liyuan, Cameron has emerged as a serious soft-power asset for her country's style.

But she is also quick to stress that Frank Smythson was quite radical and a "modern man of his time".

"Inventing the very first portable diary, he was very much about what it was for the client to move around and travel," she says. "Everything we've done is think about what's relevant today, both in the aesthetics and practicality, and what's going to be relevant tomorrow."

Inspired by the hat, the Panama diaries, made from a flexible cross-grain leather, can be fitted, even scrunched and folded, comfortably into a breast pocket. Before that, it was heavy paper-bound diaries on desks. Now O'Hanlon has applied this signature style to other items, launching a line of leather goods using the Panama material.

A quick glance at the oh-so-cool new branding, it's clear that the company wants to bring an edge to its inherent sophistication.

"In terms of British fashion, we've done a lot of collaboration with designers like Erdem, Giles Deacon and Jonathan Saunders," she says.

Saunders' latest Smythson collaboration featuring men's briefcases was shown in his menswear show last month.

"We're very much part of the British fashion community, but we are also very much an iconic British luxury brand," Janowski says, citing pieces inspired by the archives. The iconic Eliot bags, priced from £1,000 (HK$11,600) to £18,000, were inspired by the Bond Street bag developed more than 100 years ago. At present, the bag is Cameron's favourite.

"There is a part of Smythson that is timeless, that is not part of fashion," Janwoski says. "It's more about an appreciation of understated elegance, really a connoisseur label."

"But we're not a kind of pastiche brand," adds Cameron. "It's not about being in a costume drama; its all about being relevant to now."

The hidden interior functions and streamlined sophistication means Smythson bags are a far cry from the seasonal "it" bags that have invaded the luxury fashion landscape. The brand's agenda of conveying its craftsmanship, quality and beautiful materials to a broader, younger and more international clientele is clever. And timing couldn't be better with 2012's resurgence of "Cool Britiannia".

"Its been fantastic that Britain has been [experiencing this]," Cameron says. "Whether it's the royal wedding, or the Olympics, or our fantastic fashion designers, its great to be part of that."

Bags and diaries aside, famous vintage items such as the cheeky little black books are still client favourites.

"It's the sense of wit that is uniquely British," says Janowski.

Traditional British craft (all items are still made in Britain), functionality and that effortless, modern appeal is the name of the Smythson game. Of course, Cameron and Janowski are not shy in driving this point home.

"I think that's the point of the brand," she says.

"I think that's why we're very successful lately," Janowski adds. "Let's face it, it's what today's customers want - richness of heritage but also that playfulness."

An archive piece originally called the Letter Bag has been reinterpreted just for the Pacific Place opening and is exclusive to Hong Kong. A limited-edition item, there are just 18 pieces of the purple buffalo version and eight in stunning red python.