Fancy foot work
FASHION:Jimmy Choo – fashion icon for millions, beloved by princesses and celebrities, has come a long way from his father’s cobbler shop in Penang in Malaysia, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor
JIMMY CHOO is a man who is extravagantly polite, ever-concerned that his guest is being properly looked after. But, equally, Jimmy Choo, who talks of himself constantly in the third person, is a man who knows his worth.
“Jimmy Choo is very down-to-earth, always willing to learn, always willing to listen to people. People stop me to take pictures. Why? Because they respect me for what I have done for society.
“You see Jimmy Choo all over the world. I have carried on for a long time. Not many people can carry on a couture shop for 25 years. Why? Because it is very tough,” he tells me proudly, but, nevertheless, with surprisingly little conceit.
Today, Choo’s name is a global brand, displayed on the premier shopping streets of the world. But the ready-to-wear, extremely expensive brand no longer has anything to do with him, since he sold his half-share in the business that made his name.
“People still think I am associated with the ready-to-wear. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t me, but I created the ground, the foundation. They took over, but the name is still Jimmy Choo,” he says. Instead, he now runs Jimmy Choo Couture from Connaught Street in London, which makes just “seven, or eight pairs” of hand-crafted shoes every week for the richest, most famous people in the world.
Choo, the son of a shoe-maker in Penang, Malaysia, was brought into the family business when he was 11. “When I first started, my father wouldn’t let me make a shoe. Instead, he said: ‘Sit and watch, sit and watch.’ For months and months, I did that.
“Patience is needed to do it right. A good eye is needed to make good things,” he says. “In the old days, I saw my father designing shoes, making shoes and the women came by and took them and said, ‘Oh, thank you, Mr Choo, your shoes are so comfortable and so long lasting’.
“The best thing is comfort, looking great and elegant. You must know the foundations. If the platform is not strong, it won’t work. I have the eye, I can tell at a glance whether something is right, or not.”
Choo came to London in the early 1980s to study at the Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney, which is now part of the London College of Fashion, graduating with honours in 1983.
In 1986, he opened a workshop in Hackney in a disused hospital building, and he came to international prominence when his beautiful creations were featured in an eight-page spread in Vogue magazine two years later.
By 1990, he had become a favourite of Princess Diana, the global fashion icon of her age. “We were very close; we worked for her for seven years. Every time we saw her in Kensington Palace, she was very kind.
“In the beginning, she didn’t . She wore all of my designs. She said: ‘I will leave it to you, Jimmy. You have been trained.’ We knew the shape of her feet and how the design should be,” he recounts.
The relationship with Diana was crucial. “It is important if somebody endorses your brand, your name and everything. But, I think that the design and quality talk for themselves.
“You must have good foundations, good design, good production, then somebody will promote your shoe. If my design was no good in those days, she wouldn’t have kept coming back to me.”
Still based in Hackney, making 20 pairs of hand-crafted shoes every week, Choo began his path to global fame after he formed an alliance with former Vogueaccessories editor Tamara Mellon, who matched his creativity with business acumen.
Eventually, the two formed a partnership to start the ready-to-wear shoe company, still producing expensive, but no longer individually-designed shoes, beginning in a boutique in Motcomb Street in fashionable Knightsbridge.
Two years later, Mellon took the brand to New York and then to Los Angeles, where it became a favourite of actresses such as Julia Roberts, Renée Zellweger and others, but, even more importantly, it became inextricably linked with the television drama series, Sex and the City.
By 2001, the company had a stellar list of retail clients, including Harrods and Harvey Nichols in London and Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman in the US, but relations between Choo and Mellon had soured.
In April 2001, Choo sold his 50 per cent stake in the ready-to-wear business to Robert Bensoussan of Equinox Luxury Holdings for £10m – a cheap price for a share in a business that is today worth £500m, according to some business analysts.
Today, Choo is diplomatic about the breach, which led to serious tensions with his wife’s niece, Sandra Choi, who took the side of Mellon in a saga that for years fascinated the fashion trade. With the passage of the years, tempers appear to have eased among some of those involved.
“We say hello. If I need advice I will talk to them. They are very kind to me. They will co-operate with me. Once I sold I don’t interfere with it. No, it doesn’t cause confusion. Jimmy Choo Couture is a special name. Jimmy Choo always does a good thing,” he says.
Malaysian-Chinese, Choo is a Buddhist and faith matters to him, deciding much of his life’s path, even down to where he set up his base in Connaught Street after he parted ways with Mellon.
In the mid-1990s, a healer, Eddie Wong, brought him tidings from “the lady-god” Kali Ma – a Hindu and not a Buddhist goddess. “I am a Buddhist. This lady-god said, ‘Jimmy, you will be somebody in the future’. That is what she told me. She told me before about the Indonesian tsunami, for instance. She told me that I would be a star. She told me everything. You have to believe. In India, they call her Kali Ma, a very powerful lady-god.
“Eddie Wong came and asked me where would be good for me. I looked at lots of places, but they wanted Connaught Street. I said, ‘Why?’ They didn’t tell me why. Afterwards they told me that Connaught Street had very good karma,” he says.
He shares an interest in healing with Riverdance star and Lord of the Dancecreator Michael Flatley, who has been “a close friend for many years” and who invited him to his recent London show in the O2 Arena.
“I am a Buddhist. If you meet somebody and you like someone, then they become a friend. He invited me to Ireland to his castle, a castle!” he says with emphasis, if not correctly. “ ‘Jimmy, you must come to my castle,’ he says. There is a link together, we clicked.”
Waving his arms in the air to imitate Flatley’s skills, Choo continues: “He changed Irish dance to become a modern dance. Before him, Irish dance was restricted. He put movement into it. It became like t’ai chi.
“There are so many dancers in Ireland, but nobody can be like him. He got sick one time, couldn’t walk. He had a virus. All the doctors, money, pills couldn’t help. He has a healer, who follows him everywhere. No tablets, no injections, nothing.”
Today, Choo spends much of his time promoting the quality of education available to foreign students in the UK, although he bemoans the lack of craftsmanship that marks much of modern industry.
“Nowadays, children are not interested at all. A lot of the generation have their own views. They want to be travelling, meeting their friends, they like to see something. Later on, when they finish studying, they come back.
“In the old days, things were different. In my generation, the father and mother said, ‘Come on, sit down and learn how to create a shoe.’ You know why? They had to run a business. They knew how to make a living.
“My father and mother taught me that whatever you have to do in life, you have to work hard. When I started working for other people I didn’t go home when I wanted to go home, I went home when the boss went home.
“I started at 11 years of age. I learned how to put the shoe together from my mother. It wasn’t a duty, it was a pleasure. I enjoyed making the shoe. I said to myself, ‘Look at these people, lawyers and accountants. They are all making a good living.’
“But shoes can also give a good living, depending on how good you are at it. Look at Church’s in Northampton . They are making millions of pounds. Shoe-making has given me a lot of money.
“Why does the British Council want me to do things for them? Because they want the whole world to know that Jimmy Choo made himself because he came to the UK. We gave him the education and knowledge, but he fought for himself.
“I love the UK. People love me, the press loves me. The press gave me a lot of encouragement. Without the press in the UK, I would not be the Jimmy Choo of today. The British Council has brought me to New Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing and Japan to talk about myself before 1,000 people.”
The UK is, he believes, the centre of world-class fashion design, but it must do more manufacturing. “We must let people know that we have skills. We want foreign students to come here to learn. UK has no more factories. They go somewhere else.
“We must do more together, we must pull like a family, to be united, to make our country. One day, I want to be somebody special, to care about our country because I love the UK. If I hadn’t started studying here in London, I wouldn’t be Jimmy Choo at all,” he goes on.
Choo trains a small number of select students in Connaught Street. “Couture is not big business. We make a few pairs a week, maybe eight pairs. Because we have the reputation over 25 years, the regular customer always comes back.
“I am not saying that I want big money. If I have enough money to pay for my staff, my family, that’s enough. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get wages. I don’t care, as long as we can get good production and train good students.”
However, he says he does not know who will be the next Jimmy Choo, although he insists that his successor, whoever it will be, will first have to learn that one has to be “willing to give first, not to receive . . . The young people have to work hard. The shoe has to be ready by the next day. That is the lesson that I learned from my parents. There is no tomorrow. That is why I am very hard on people who work for me.
“That’s my attitude. It is work above everything else. Afterwards, we go for dinner. If you need help with the family, I will help you, but work is work,” he says.
“John Rocha is a very close friend. He’s a very talented man, he’s very patient, and he wouldn’t get angry, not like me. He is very calm. When I see something wrong with my shoe, I go ‘Aaaarrrrggh’,” Choo says, with a laugh.
Besides training a new generation and promoting his work in the UK, Choo also finds time to promote Malaysia’s tourist industry. “Why has my government chosen me as an ambassador? Because I love my country, because I know how to make people feel comfortable.”
Wealthy and famous, Choo could long since have retired to enjoy his fortune, but such inactivity would be alien to his nature. “I could retire and go to the beach. But I would get bored after a week, and, probably, have nightmares about shoes,” he says, chuckling with laughter.
“People say to me, ‘Jimmy, you are comfortable, you have got everything. You don’t have to worry about finance. You can stay in whatever country you want to.’ And that is true. I have money and knowledge.
“But if I sit back that means that I have failed myself. In life, you must be thinking new things all the time. That is why I have a headache, because I am thinking new things all the time. I am thinking about new designs, new ideas.
“I look at my staff, my shoe-designers, to see what they have done. Did he do it right? Did he not do it right? Every year I change myself. Why? I should be relaxed. I have houses everywhere, but I still want to work, because I love what I do.”