He is the national pride of Malaysian Chinese, and a legendary shoemaker established in the United Kingdom. Blending together the aesthetics of the West and the East into the art of shoemaking, the result is a desirable pair of Jimmy Choo couture shoes. Dulcie Wang spends some time with the maestro.
Every pair of shoes hand-sewn by Jimmy Choo is an object of desire — at least the late Princess Diana would agree. Born in Penang, Malaysia, in 1961 and fathered by a humble shoemaker who could not even afford his entire primary school education, Jimmy Choo certainly did not shoot easily to fame.
“When I was little, I learned to make shoes from my father every day,” Choo recalled. “I learnt the skills at an early age, but it had nothing to do with design. In the old days, hand-made shoes were just like affordable implements.”
The teenage Choo used to imagine the other side of the world as a glittering castle, and hoped to explore the vibes of the prosperous and romantic continent. In the early 1980s, the family sent Jimmy Choo abroad to London, where he studied to be a shoe designer. “Shoemaking was an inferior occupation in Penang, and I didn’t want to end up hiding in my workshop in the rest of my life,” said Choo. “So I went to the UK to be trained as a professional shoemaker. Those years changed my life, as I experienced the cultural variances between the two continents.”
Those years studying at Cordwainers Technical College (now known as the London College of Fashion) marked a new chapter in Choo’s life. “My father built my foundation by teaching me all sorts of shoemaking skills. At school I studied academic theories and acquired vocational knowledge, such as selecting leather and materials.”
According to Choo, the professors brought him closer to the beauty of shoes. “The marvellous part is that those tutors first established themselves as apprentices spending years in the factory following their masters. They were no academic theorists. We learned everything from selecting colours and fabrics to designing details; this showed me what ‘couture shoes’ meant.”
Recalling the turning point from a technical worker to a designer, Choo said: “Design is something you can’t learn from school.”
After he graduated in 1986, Choo opened a small studio in London. As a nobody his products were not well-received in the early years, albeit with elegant hand-sewn beading and seamless craftsmanship. Things started to look up for him in 1988 when an 8-page feature on British Vogue highlighted his adorable designs. With a unique West-meets-East style, the fame of Jimmy Choo rocketed and his name became a synonym of Oriental elegance. “I was lucky that the days in the low tide were short, and to Princess Diana’s patronage. With no fame I could not have established my ready-to-wear business.”
In 1996, Jimmy Choo co-founded Jimmy Choo Ltd. with Tamara Mellon, daughter of his good friend Tom Yeardye, to sell a range of high-end leather shoes. Choo sold his 50% stake of the company in 2001, cutting himself out from the renowned shoe brand he created. “I returned to London to run my bespoke shoes business, remaining loyal to handmade shoes.”
It was fallout that put an end to the partnership between Choo and Mellon, yet Jimmy Choo rolled his eyes and said: “I am a traditional Chinese man who believes that we have to remember where we came from. Without the ready-to-wear shoes, I know that Jimmy Choo is a nobody. But let’s let history fade away, I left because I am not a businessman; I am a designer.”
Jimmy Choo proclaimed that he makes only women’s shoes because he is very much fond of women and they are all his muses. “Men’s shoes are not as diverse as women’s. They inspire me a lot. Shoes mean something different to a woman,” he laughed.
According to the designer, he always brings two cameras with him, and photographs everything he finds interesting. “As inspiration comes, I sketch out the design. For the construction, I let my students do the job. I hope they will do better than I do, so I teach them everything I know.”As our conversation reached the heritage of handmade shoes, Jimmy Choo shared with us his new ambition: “I have been invited to host talks in different places, sharing my experience and spreading the knowledge of shoemaking and design,” Choo elaborated. “I may host a TV show about shoemaking, but my greatest hope is to set up a shoemaking school in Malaysia.”Of Hakka descent, Choo is devoted to Buddhism. “My Chinese name is Choo Yeang Keat. Everything from Chinese fabrics, culture to an amulet is a source of inspiration.” Now honoured as a Dato, Jimmy Choo was also conferred an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his services to the UK shoe and fashion industry. “When I returned to Malaysia, everyone on the street came to me and said: ‘You are our pride!’ I was so flattered.”When asked to summarise his key to success, Choo revealed, “I am a very simple man. Having lived in the UK for years didn’t take away my traditional beliefs. I believe that relationships are built on trust. We are to help each other. I give speeches for free just to promote British culture. I hope one day people will return the favour when I need it!”
Text & Interview: Dulcie Wang
Published in Issue 28 YOUTH, 2009