As co-founder of one of the biggest names in fashion, a distinct celebrity shimmer follows famed footwear designer Professor Jimmy Choo OBE when he walks into a room and takes off those famous aviator shades. When he founded his namesake label in 1996 (with Tamara Mellon), he was in the vanguard of Asian designers to make it big on the global stage. Fans include Michelle Obama, the late Princess Diana and author Candice Bushnell and her Sex and the City TV character Carrie Bradshaw, who arguably made Choo a household name in the late ’90s.
Backstage in the green room of Shanghai Fashion Week, we sit to talk with the design maestro firstly about a new project with his nephew Yew Lau — namely, their Malaysian couture gown label, The Atelier. On the runway, they send models out in incandescent, feminine couture gowns, all painstakingly handmade by the small atelier team in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. The craftsmanship is disarmingly complex.
The collection is a nod to futurism as well as architectures of the past. Blending the two ideas, the pair created sophisticated gowns largely in silvers, whites and the palest of hues. The effect is altogether rather angelic: ostrich feathers, chiffon layers and swinging beading recalling art deco eras moving sensually around the body. Structures reference skyscrapers, Roman and Gothic architectures – and keep those romantic sweeping fabrics feeling cool, crisp and modern.
“My nephew wanted to do design since he was a little boy,” says Choo in his rapid-fire cadence. “He wants to help people and create jobs in Malaysia, so I’m helping him … He’s hard-working and young — and it’s family!”
Jimmy Choo (right) and his designer nephew, Yew Lau.
Inevitably, the conversation steers to the reason why Choo is a household name, and how the ethos that lies behind handmade items (whether gowns or heels) ties together all his creative endeavours. After all, it was his own shoemaker father who first taught him the craft as a child.
“He said to me, for half a year you can only watch me and you can’t touch anything. You need to have the feeling in your heart for the craft. See how the knife can sharpen the leather … he was training me to be patient. Without patience you can’t do the work, you need to have the calm.”
Choo is indeed calm and collected, but not without a mischievous spark in his unusually pale eyes. There’s also an unusual kindness about the man, who spends 70 percent of the interview talking about his staff, his family and the development of other people, before reluctantly focusing on himself.
At almost 70, you have to wonder how Choo has the energy for it all. His speech is quick. He lives between London (he has an apartment overlooking Hyde Park) and his native Malaysia, but travels constantly around the world. There’s a multitude of ambassadorships – the British Council, Princess Diana’s charity, Tourism Malaysia – that he works at promoting. There’s also today’s furious new interest in Asian designers, one that didn’t exist many years ago when Choo started.
“In the old days,” he says, “we didn’t have so much digital news and social media. It was just magazines and TV back then. Today it’s faster, but success can be fleeting too. As a designer you have to be good, you have to be responsible and you have to be creative.
“But as you well know, it’s also not what you know, it’s who you know. You need to get support from the right people.”
One of the small team of women working with Choo at The Atelier.Choo was working as a cobbler in London after graduating from Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney in the mid ’80s. He then worked at design houses for years before opening his own business, impressing London’s fashion set with his impeccable craftsmanship and creative designs. He was making shoes for Princess Diana for seven years, and was featured in Vogue when he began working for Tamara Mellon, then an accessories editor at the magazine. She approached him to found a label in 1996 and the rest, as they say, is fashion history — but not without its dramas. Choo sold his 50 percent share of the company in 2001 for £10 million. Mellon continued on at the Jimmy Choo brand until 2011, when she left the company with a reported £135 million payout.
Today the stores and shoes bearing his name are everywhere, and the brand has changed hands multiple times. Last year it was sold by JAB Luxury to Michael Kors for almost £900 million. Helming design at the label is Sandra Choi, a long-term employee of the brand who’s been there since the start; she’s also a niece of Jimmy’s Hong Kong-born wife Rebecca. Choo still admits to a sense of pride and happiness seeing the boutiques all around the world: “They keep the name going forward … I wish them to do better and better.”
The designer still makes shoes, but only under his Chinese name Zhou Yang Jie, and it’s only couture, bespoke footwear for a very elite set of clients. “Some of these people will spend 300,000 to half a million [dollars] ordering my shoes,” he says, “but you’d never guess. These rich people, many of them are super discreet, they just want something unique and the best.”
Fast fashion might have reached an apex, and everyone sells on the Internet — but Choo argues that the very rich still want things hand-made to order. “If you have that kind of skill and force it can still be a unique offering,” he notes.
These couture dresses are beautifully made, Choo says, turning back to the gowns. “See the very fine details, all the [craftsmanship]. Some of the atelier ladies stay in our shops until the early hours before our show. We respect them, we treat them right, we build up a very good relationship with our workers and they’re willing to work hard.
“We have eight of them in the core team. I said if you work for me for three to five years, after that — if I’m still alive — I want to give you the deposit money to buy an apartment,” he explains. Choo is almost philosophical about how to work with people, how to treat them, and maintains that “if you’re sincere with them, if you give them your heart, they’ll also do the same for you”. It is, indeed, a refreshing attitude for an entrepreneur.
Born to a humble family in Penang, Choo is verbose in his championship of Malaysia. And for the country, there’s no native who’s more famous. If the Americans have Ralph Lauren, the Malaysians have Jimmy Choo.
He recognises the responsibility all too well and is focused on finding young designers he’s keen to promote, help and mentor from Malaysia and abroad.
“I have a protégé, a great bag designer called Elisa Ho. We met six years ago, and she’s a London College of Fashion graduate. Her design is great, the creativity side is great … the bags are very unusual,” Choo says. “I said to her that I want her to train more people and designers in the future. That’s what I like to do, I want people to follow in my footsteps.”
All photography: Peter Xu Studio