World at his Feet

After 5 years, I was reunited with old friend Jimmy Choo. What I love about Jimmy is that he is one of the most down to earth designers I have ever met. He is also working really hard to preserve the craft of shoemaking, something that many designers in today’s world don’t take the time out to do. Below is the interview which appeared in the South China Morning Post newspaper on February 25, 2011.

The name Jimmy Choo is synonymous with elegant, stylish shoes. But when we meet at the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel on his recent holiday in Hong Kong, it’s not what’s on his feet that’s drawing attention (although, admittedly, he is looking dapper in a black tailored suit and polished leather slip-ons). What catches my eye is the buttery soft black leather bag slung across his torso. It’s a classic design, but what makes the bag pop is the dyed exotic skin pocket on the front with a bold, gold clasp.

“You like it?” he says with a smile. “I made it for a friend and everyone wants one. I guess I can always go into handbags when I get bored of shoes!”

It’s been six years since we last met and it’s clear that shoes aren’t the only thing on Choo’s mind. Since selling his label to Tamara Mellon more than 10 years ago, Choo’s name continues to make the pages of Vogue because he has become a celebrity in his own right. Although he is no longer associated with the ready-to-wear collection, Choo’s bespoke business is thriving and he counts royalty and the rich and famous among his customers. He is even often seen dining with celebrities such as Jay-Z and Beyonce (“I went to her concert, it was fantastic,” he says).

But fanfare aside, Choo reveals that he has more interesting pursuits to talk about. Last year he was appointed tourism ambassador by his home country, Malaysia, a job he takes very seriously. One of his first coups was convincing supermodel Elle Macpherson to shoot a few episodes of Britain’s Next Top Model in Kuala Lumpur last year. It was a success and the press went wild, capturing photos of Choo arm in arm with the leggy blonde.

“I’ve been a shoe designer for so long that people ask me what else I can do. Being a tourism ambassador was a great opportunity because I love my country. I was so thrilled when they filmed the show in KL. I felt I did something useful,” he says.

Also taking up a lot of his free time these days is his newly acquired role of educator. For the past 12 years Choo has been travelling with the British Council across the globe, lecturing on design, creating a business and education (he will be in Hong Kong in this role next month).

“People ask me why I do all these jobs. I don’t get paid but I volunteer and learn a lot. I meet good people and it gives me good experience. That’s the money people never talk about,” he says.

As a visiting professor at the University of Arts in London, he recently opened up teaching schools in London and Guangzhou, the latter of which he visits several times a year. He is also contemplating opening a school in Malaysia.

“We set up Guangzhou with a Hong Kong-based partner. She had a vision and wanted to do something good, so we started with a few students and the numbers have grown,” he explains.

“Sometimes, students who are interested in fashion aren’t ready to go to international schools so early. The purpose of this school is to give them some experience, so they do their foundation course first. People have grand notions of being a designer, so the school gives them a foundation to grow from and then they can choose what they want to do. We have teachers from Central Saint Martin’s and the University of Art in London who come to train the students and, in exchange, we are linked to both schools as well.”

Having a school on the mainland gives Choo an interesting perspective on the talent that is emerging there. While he says the Chinese still have a lot to learn in terms of creativity, their skills are getting better and better.

“For me, there is something special there. The difference about people in China is that they are excited to learn. Like with me, why do I go and talk to people? I don’t get paid, I don’t need the money, but I do it because I want to impart some of my knowledge to the younger generation. It’s all about the learning experience. They are learning until they are the best.

“Of course, manufacturing costs in China are getting higher – although they are not as expensive as in London – but the quality is getting better and better. In the old days people would get their goods made in China, go home and tear out the label. Now it’s different. Chinese students are studying overseas, they have more international experience and are bringing it back to China,” he says.

While travelling and teaching keeps Choo on his toes, he still leaves time for his first passion: shoemaking. He may not make every pair of shoes from start to finish like in the old days, but he still has the same workshop on London’s Connaught Street along with a great team, including several pattern cutters from Malaysia and some of his relatives. Demand for his bespoke creations is still high, even though he charges upwards of GBP650 (HK$8,100) for a pair of basic pumps.

“Buying a custom-made pair of shoes is such a different experience – the Choo shoe is not just a shoe; it’s made to fit and it’s about comfort. It’s so different to a shoe you see in the magazine, which looks great but when you put it on it doesn’t feel so good.

“A lot of women come to me complaining that they never have the right fit, but after we make a pair for them they are happy and that means a lot to me. For me, if I can’t make it great, then I won’t do it. It’s not about the money; it’s about the service. Most customers love to come in and feel like they are part of the team.”

Choo hopes to continue working in the business while continuing his mission to educate and perhaps dabble in other things such as television. And looking back on his exciting life, he has no regrets.

“Life changes all the time, so I never know what I will do in the future. People ask me if I feel weird seeing my name on products I’ve not designed, but I don’t really notice. It looks like [the owners] are doing a good job, that’s all that matters. Besides, people think I am doing good, right? It’s all good for me, I still have the name. In Malaysia, they have included me in history books and that’s a very proud feeling.

“You know, if I wasn’t a shoe designer I would be a healer. I guess some women say my shoes make them feel good, so maybe I already am one. A shoe healer – that’s it! Maybe it’s a good title for my television show.”

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