If you’re looking for an Asian tale of rags to riches, then you can’t do much better than the story of Jimmy Choo, poor cobbler’s son from Penang, Malaysia and shoemaker to the stars.
It’s a story of glamour and recriminations, and the story of one man’s struggle to reconcile his craft with the realities of running a global fashion empire. It’s also about how an eye for beauty, a flexible, fresh design aesthetic and a relentless pursuit of perfection created one of the world’s most iconic fashion brands.
Jimmy Choo was born Choo Yeang Keat (周仰杰) into a family of shoemaking immigrants from China. He apprenticed as a shoemaker at the age of 9, and made his first pair of shoes by 11. He made them by hand, working in a store that made Nyonya beaded slippers, each one meticulously hand sewn.
“When I first started, my father wouldn’t let me make a shoe," he's been quoted as saying. "Instead, he said: sit and watch, sit and watch’. For months and months, I did just that.”
One of many Choo shoes featured in Sex and the City
It was in London, after studying at the Cordswainers Technical College that Choo found his creative voice, subsequently setting up a small studio in Hackney and rubbing shoulders with other then-unknowns like Alexander McQueen.
Soon, Jimmy Choo joined Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin to form the holy trinity of designer footwear, creating beautiful, elegant and (allegedly, I wouldn’t know) comfortable shoes—what Vanity Fair referred to as "Every woman’s favourite phallic symbol."
How did he find his niche in this accomplished milieu? Devotees speak about the beauty, workmanship and feminine elegance of his wares. Jimmy Choos are understated, but unmistakable. They’re timeless, they’re exquisitely crafted, they aren’t trashy or gauche or try-hard. Versus the signature red heel of a Chrisitan Louboutin (what’s been called the equivalent of wearing a price ticket on your clothes), Jimmy Choos are just that little bit classier. As the New York Times says ‘They’re not gimmicky or overly trendy; a thrill of added elegance and sexiness is what they offer the wearer. She knows she’s wearing the shoes, and not the other way around.”
So how did one quiet man become an icon of fashion design, and what is it about his design aesthetic that has made his shoes such icons of female elegance, and such objects of desire?
Firstly, he was passionate about his craft. Every pair of shoes was made by him, and every pair made by hand, a mere handful every week. That’s some old-school stuff. He built a very small, discerning and loyal consumer base of trend-setters and influencers. Princess Diana was one of them.
Secondly, he was passionate about his craft. He focused on small orders for high-profile clients and fashion titles. He offered Hollywood stars the shoes to match their gowns. His shoes got papped on red carpets. He got seen in the right places. He built exclusivity and devotion.
Thirdly, he was passionate about his craft, and that got him noticed. Vogue ran an 8 page special on his shoes. Carrie Bradshaw named him as her favourite shoe designer in Sex and the City. He partnered with it-girl and biz-whizz Tamara Mellon, and his Central St Martins trained niece Sandra Choi. Jimmy Choo the designer shoe label was born.
His weakness, if you can call it that? He was passionate about his craft. To grow, the business needed to outsource its workmanship, but he couldn’t reconcile quantity with quality. He failed to adapt, and ultimately left the business, leaving Tamara and Sandra to turn it into the global empire we know today.
Jimmy Choo did you knoo?
- The technical name for shoemakers is ‘cordswainers’. A cobbler repairs shoes.
- Jimmy Choo’s favourite food is chicken rice. He doesn’t specify which stall it comes from.
- Jimmy Choo has nothing to do with the famous shoes anymore. His niece Sandra Choi is Creative Director of the company.