Lessons from the sole
Shoe designer Jimmy Choo talks to Nicole Chabot about making strides in education and tourism
For a person who once said a pair of shoes should not be less than four inches high, Jimmy Choo OBE is remarkably grounded.
"I come from a humble background, my father was a shoe designer and shoe maker, and my mother helped my father with his business.
I grew up with shoes," he says. But even though his parents were in the shoe business his interest in shoes came naturally. "I had fun making shoes, it was like a game for me," he says. The first pair he made was for his mother when he was 11 years old.
Jimmy Choo shoes have become synonymous with celebrities, actresses, royalty and pop stars with help from co-founder Tamara Mellon, previously an editor with British Vogue. Not surprisingly, Choo makes and wears his own shoes ("I've lost count of the number of pairs I've made for myself") and is said to don platforms when he goes to parties.
Unbeknown to many outside the fashion industry, Choo is no longer involved in the operations or management of Jimmy Choo ready-to-wear, and has not been for more than a decade. Choo sold his 50 per cent stake in the company in 2001 for £10 million (HK$121.3 million).
Now, people who want a pair of Choo's designed by the maestro himself, must book an appointment at Jimmy Choo Couture based in London. A pair of Choo's bespoke shoes is ready five to six weeks from the initial appointment.
However, today Choo doesn't want to focus on shoes. Through his link with University of the Arts in London - Choo was made an Honorary Fellow in 2004 - he is able to further his non-fashion-related work, and his interest in the promotion of education.
"I work with the university to inspire the younger generation to pursue tertiary education. I travel the world on behalf of the university and the British Council, to give talks on the importance of education, and the opportunities it can offer young people to advance in life," he says. Choo enjoys the opportunity to speak at conferences and universities. During a recent speech at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talk in Shanghai, Choo told a captive audience of 1,900 students the story of the first pair of shoes he made for his mother, including an impromptu tai chi demonstration, all in less than 18 minutes.
"The opportunity to learn is everyone's birthright. As long as the willingness to learn is strong, you will learn," he says. "Education does not guarantee success but it provides more structured perspectives, and helps pave the way to reach one's desires," he says.
In 2009, Malaysian Tourism Minister Dr Ng Yen Yen appointed Choo - a native Malaysian - an ambassador for tourism.
"I speak for Malaysia to the world," says Choo of his cultural duties. In the past, he has called this "his responsibility". Some might say that this stems from 2000 when Choo received the honorary title "Dato" (equivalent to a knighthood in Malaysia) from the Sultan of Pahang. Others say Choo's inclination to serve stems from his Buddhist upbringing.
"I am very much a Buddhist. It is part of my background," he says. A rich man, Choo nonetheless calls the Buddhist pendant that he wears daily his most treasured possession. He has been wearing the "Divine Mother Goddess" pendant for three years. It was a gift from his spiritual master. "The teachings encourage my philosophy of giving back, and make me see things from a more universal perspective," he says. With regard to Malaysia, Choo is proud of his home nation, particularly his birthplace, Penang, which is the recipient of two Unesco World Heritage listings, and credits the country's tourism success to the Malaysian culture that blends different racial influences.
For a man who has received a slew of accolades and awards - more than 15, including an OBE in 2003 - Choo remains approachable, unassuming and untainted by the mercurial and relentlessly self-promoting nature of the industry he helped define.
And still the awards flood in. Last year, Choo was given the 2011 World's Outstanding Chinese Designer Award at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, an honour reserved for designers of Chinese heritage who have demonstrated significant contributions to the design community, and a continuous devotion to the development of design through supporting educational, training and research activities across the globe.
Had Choo not become a shoe designer, then what? "I have not explored other fields," he says mindfully. The response is typical of Choo who measures his words as carefully as he crafts his couture shoes. He is said to have once spent three days sewing details on a single pair of shoes ahead of a Katharine Hamnett fashion show.
Nonetheless, Choo's successes have meant that many have tried to claim him as their own: from the Brits, to the mainland Chinese, and the Hong Kong Chinese. Some would argue that even his former partner Mellon tried to claim his very name for herself.
What's it like having everyone wanting a piece of him? "I'm happy to relate to all of them, and I feel I belong to them all. To be content and grateful gives me deep peace of mind."