Despite his fame, Datuk Jimmy Choo remains humble and down to earth, writes Syida Lizta Amirul Ihsan
“DO you know how to draw shoes?,” Datuk Jimmy Choo asks. He then borrows a reporter’s press release and her ball-point pen and start drawing.
First, a straight line. Then the front of the shoe, followed by the arch and heel. “The buckles are here, the decorations are here (at the tip) and here (on the heels),” he says, showing me the completed sketch of a slingback.
“Everything begins and ends with the shoe mould. If the mould is sturdy, the shoes will be comfortable and will look great too,” he says.
Where substance is concerned, Choo is like that sturdy shoe mould. Trained in the art in a family of shoemakers, Choo knows how to make a pair from scratch.
He can design shoes, cut patterns on hide and he understands the delicate balance of trying to find the most comfortable pair of heels.
Penang-born Choo is one third of the big names in high-end shoemaking — the other two being Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik.
“Christian is a very good friend. Late last year we met in Bombay and New Delhi when we gave talks to budding designers and I always see him at his atelier whenever I am in Paris,” he says. “Blahnik, meanwhile, is my hero. He has been designing shoes before me and I have the deepest respect for him.”
Choo oversees his Jimmy Choo Couture line, where a pair of bespoke shoes may fetch a five-figure price tag. “We are all friends, we have our own customers and style. I don’t see any kind of unhealthy competition between us,” he says.
Choo found fame in 1988 when his shoes were shot on the British Vogue cover, together with John Galliano’s dress.
In 1999, according to fashionencyclopaedia.com, he made actress Cate Blanchett’s shoes for the Academy Awards, featuring diamond ankle straps.
Two years ago, a pair he showcased at the Malaysia International Shoe Festival, was tagged at RM380,000.
But in person, Choo, who is taking a year off from work, is humble and down to earth. Well-dressed in a navy suit and crisp white shirt that shows just the right amount of hem, he has a firm handshake and is willing to tell stories if you have time to listen.
He is frank in his assessment of the fashion business. “It is hard... unless you have a solid (financial) backing. Talent just isn’t enough. I showed my collections eight times at London Fashion Week and it was still hard for me then,” he says.
Choo graduated from Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney, England in 1983 and three years later, he opened his workshop there.
“Longevity is hard in the business. You can be praised by the Press one season but you may not be able to sustain that in the long run.
“Never think you are the best. You are only as good as your last collection and the moment you let your guard slip, someone will do better than you.”
ALLURE OF HIGH HEELS
Choo has been in the field long enough to understand the allure of heels as well as the strain they put on women’s backs.
“Every woman should wear heels. They are elegant and feminine. But not too high, please. Four inches, the most. If you want higher, wear platforms.
“Heels higher than four inches are difficult to walk in,” he says. “Choose your occasions. Don’t wear high heels all the time. But I also know some women who complain that they cannot wear ballet flats because their feet are so used to high heels,” he says.
A pair of Jimmy Choo Couture heels can easily cost RM18,000. Everything, from cutting to assembling, is handmade and Choo says the prices are justifiable.
“Shoemakers live a hard life. It’s not easy to learn shoemaking, from drawing to putting the pieces together. We have to make it worth it, otherwise no one wants to do this.
“We no longer have many craftsmen. There has to be good financial reasons to keep them going, or we will lose craft to mass-market and machine-produced goods.
“A high-end shoe made in factories can cost RM2,000, so I think a bespoke pair merits its price.”
Naturally, Choo wears his own creations. He takes off one of his black wingtips and shows it to me. It is a well-designed and well-worn pair, emphasised by the leather creases and the patina. “A good pair should always, always be comfortable and should last for years. There is no compromise,” he says.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Fame, says Choo, is not enough to sustain a shoemaker in a fast-paced industry where young fashion graduates and designers are all out to make it big.
“You need new ideas, good marketing strategies and understand what consumers want. You have to work hard and continue working hard,” he advises.
But these days, Choo says he is no longer ambitious. He has his feet firmly grounded and he prefers to spend time with family or teaching budding designers.
“Been there, done that. I’ve had fame as well as royalty and celebrity clients. They still wear my shoes but they don’t define me now,” he says.
His only regret, he says, is not having spent enough time with his children, Danny and Emily, when they were growing up.
“I think it is the regret of all parents that they spend too much time working and too little time with their children. Have you had any fashion designer give you parenting tips before?” he asks, before realising it’s an odd topic we are discussing.
“But I think it’s nothing to be ashamed about. What can fame and money bring you? I think all parents should take time to listen to their children. We should not work so hard. Children want our attention and time, not money.”
In a few months, he will end his year-long break and work in London with his daughter Emily. Shoes and family... it’s the perfect fit for Choo.