The next time you’re in the departures lounge of the Hong Kong International Airport, keep an eye out for a woman peering at your feet.
Lucy Choi has made her name in Britain with her brand of oh-so-desirable stilettos and pumps, but it is to Hong Kong that she returns every year to design her latest collections, and Chek Lap Kok is where she derives her most potent inspiration.
“I tend to get into the airport really early before my flight,” she says. “That’s normally where I do all my research, and I just see what people wear on their feet. I get my coffee and I just watch.”
Choi launched her brand in 2012, opening a store near London’s Marble Arch three years later. The label has become known for its quirky, multi-patterned designs at (relatively) affordable prices.
The 44-year-old has worked her way up. After completing a business degree at the University of Birmingham she became a financial analyst, then ran someone else’s mid-market footwear brand (French Sole) before selling her flat and striking out on her own. None of that, however, means she will be able to entirely step out of her family’s shadow.
The third generation to enter the shoe industry, Choi is a niece of Malaysian-born footwear legend Jimmy Choo (his wife, Rebecca, is her mother’s sister). Choi was born on the Isle of Wight, into the only Chinese family on the island, off England’s south coast, where her parents, originally from Sai Kung, ran a Chinese restaurant.
They sent two-year-old Lucy and her elder sister, Sandra, to live with their grandparents in Hong Kong so they could focus on their business, and so the children could connect with their Asian heritage (while their brother and other sister remained at home). Cantonese was their first language and they returned to Britain when Lucy was 12.
England has been her base ever since, but she just cannot stay away from her second home, where the technical elements of her designs are worked out. The fabrics come from Italy and Spain but the colour choices are influenced by visits to Hong Kong markets.
“Often, when I go [to Hong Kong] for my design season, I spend time looking at the trends, looking at what people are wearing, because they’re always much more forward than we are [in Britain], and the look and feel and the colour combos are very different,” Choi says. “That inspires me before I work on a collection.
“It’s not just material markets, but food markets and Stanley Market. They’re just very down to earth. You don’t get that over here, in the Western world. So just even the colours on the street or, you know, someone’s pulling a trolley with boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff, what they’re wearing, all the lights. That kind of stuff gives me inspiration.”
Such creative fuel is apparent in the designs on her store’s shelves: a riot of colours and patterns that drive her manufacturers to distraction.
“We never work on just one colour on one shoe. We work on maybe three or four colours. We don’t do a plain black leather; if you want that, you can go somewhere else. But we have some amazing materials and some amazing blacks. You kind of think there’s only one black, but there are different tones of black that I can use and combine into one shoe. My factory doesn’t love me because it’s too complicated: ‘Do you really have to put three materials in one shoe?’ And then I want the straps at the back and then I want the straps at the front. And I wanted to have the quirky and the very sleek kind of feel, mixing the yellow and the blue and navy and orange together.”
As a teenager, Choi watched in awe as her uncle handmade couture shoes in his small workshop in Hackney, East London; the humble birthplace of Jimmy Choo, the brand.
“I remember going to fashion shows with him, and I was so proud to see the [shoes made from] start to finish; having these models wear the shoes on the catwalk was incredible,” Choi says, perching on a chair outside her shop. “He used to go to Kensington Palace and see Princess Diana, and he used to bring his suitcase with him, with all the samples to show her the collection. At that point, I was at university, and I used to hear him talking about her a lot, and what she likes.”
The story came full circle when Choi opened her first store in the same premises that had been home to Choo’s London boutique, on Connaught Street.
Choi has modelled her brand’s aesthetic in part on another British royal – a daughter-in-law Diana never knew. She says her collection’s “rock ’n’ royal” theme is inspired by “the two Kates” – the Duchess of Cambridge (formerly Kate Middleton) and supermodel Kate Moss.
“The rock – I like my leather trousers on the weekends, or weekdays, as today,” she says, gesturing to her hide-clad legs. “But sometimes I have to look very businesslike, very professional […] so then I dress in a more elegant way. This is why the rock ’n’ royal theme came about.”
Choi happens to share a hairdresser with the duchess, and their glossy, wavy tresses are remarkably similar. The pair have never found themselves sitting next to each other at Richard Ward’s salon, in well-heeled Chelsea, but they have met. “I didn’t want to kind of push myself in there,” Choi says, diplomatically, but they did talk about shoes.
Moss’ stylist, meanwhile, has been into the shop to make a few purchases.
Choi’s creations have been seen on ballerina Darcey Bussell, BBC historian Mary Beard and models Winnie Harlow, Hailey Baldwin and Alessandra Ambrosio. The celebrity factor is clearly crucial to any fashion firm wanting to make it in the Instagram era, but the quirkiness of Lucy Choi London is all hers.
“I would say I am out of the box,” says the designer, donning a pair of her £235 (HK$2,400) Conrad stilettos, with their houndstooth pattern and striking red-and-black fringe. “As a teenager, I would wear things like shocking pink, and one time I wore everything in shocking pink – the bow in my hair – and people used to say, ‘What’s going on here?’ But it’s just me. And maybe I like to stand out as well, and that’s what my shoes are. They are different compared to what everybody else is doing, which is like my personality, like me really.”
Her mid-market price point (her uncle’s former brand sells shoes for up to £1,900 a pair) was a deliberate decision to differentiate herself from her older sister’s wares.
Sandra Choi helped Choo build up the ready-to-wear business that made her uncle’s name. He sold his 50 per cent stake for £10 million in 2001, in a deal that was not entirely harmonious. Sandra stayed with his erstwhile business partner, former Vogue magazine accessories editor Tamara Mellon (who would herself be eased out of the company, in 2011), and is now the firm’s creative director.
According to reports, Sandra and Choo have not spoken to each other for years. Mellon, in her 2013 book In My Shoes: A Memoir, wrote, “Eventually, his only contact with Sandra was through forwarding her mail. When it arrived I could see Chinese characters scrawled across the envelopes in pencil. I asked her, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Traitor,’ she said.”
In 2016, Lucy Choi told the Daily Mail newspaper that Mellon was “attention seeking” and had failed to move on from her Jimmy Choo days. “It’s a shame,” she added, “but then, Tamara did once sue her own mother!”
Today, Choi is much less forthcoming on the matter. “I’d like not to comment,” she says, with nervous laughter. Does Choi resent the fact that her uncle signed away his rights to speak about the affair while Mellon trashed him in her book?
“Can I not comment on that? Do you mind?” Choi says. “Because it’s just third-party, it’s nothing to do with the interview.”
She does not deny there is a rift between her sister and uncle, but says the fall out has not affected her relationship with either of them. “No, you know, not at all,” she says. “We still do things together, but it doesn’t, no, it hasn’t really affected anything in our relationship.”
She adds, “I’m actually really close with my sister. Very, very close. There’s no competition between us at all. She’s supportive, she’s proud.”
They argued in their younger days, mainly about shoes, and particularly when Lucy would borrow a pair from Sandra without asking. “She used to get so angry,” Choi recalls. “She used to wait for me at the bottom of the stairs – we used to share a house when I was in London – and she would wait for me to come back at two or three in the morning, and then she would have a go at me.”
When they meet now, they avoid talking shop.
“I do always look at her feet when we meet up for lunch – ‘Ooh, what are you wearing?’ We don’t really talk about what she’s doing. She’s working for somebody, this is my own [brand], so we try not to talk about shoes too much.”
Choi says she is “so grateful and glad” that she grew up immersed in two cultures, which, she believes, has given her a commercial advantage. “When you’re doing business,” she says, “it’s important to understand cultures and understand customers’ thinking, because Chinese people are very, very different to Westerners.”
One distinction is hosiery. “When I’m designing shoes, I always have black tights in mind,” Choi says. “It’s a very British thing. When I do events, I listen to what customers are saying and they all wear tights. I will have a black trim, or something that blends the black tights in.
“We have two types of customers in Asia – very conservative, in their mid-heels and their flats [and] you have people who are really edgy and one-of-a-kind. They want super-high heels and bold colours. But I guess we fit both because of the rock ’n’ royal theme.”
Choi says she would like to do a pop-up in Hong Kong; with only one shop outside Britain, Asian customers have to make pilgrimages to London to stock up. “There are tourists that come back every year,” she says. “Recently, someone bought 12 pairs because the shoes are very affordable. I mean, when I say affordable, it’s £200 or £230, but they feel and look like £500, so that’s why people come.”
Choi can empathise. She is a shoe-aholic whose compulsion is fuelled by the fact that, at size 37, her feet fit all of her company’s samples. How many pairs does she have at home? “Too many?” Choi says, bashfully.
Does she ever count them? “Better not! At least, probably, about 100. I’ve got overflowing shoes here [in the shop] as well, so finding ones I want can be hard. Every season we have a new collection and I tend to have at least 10 or 15 pairs to show off.”
I ask if her husband, Jonathan, whom she married on the Isle of Wight, ever complains. “Oh, he does,” she admits. “That they’re taking over his cupboard. He said, ‘Can you put your shoes in the shop?’”
Her two sons, however, have no such qualms. Thomas, six, and Harrison, two, “come in and check out the stock. They love shoes, actually. They come in and put my high heels on.”
Uncle Jimmy spends his year hopping between Malaysia, Hong Kong and London.
“You just missed him,” Choi tells me. “The moment he gets off the plane, this is where he comes. He brings a lot of people from Malaysia here. He always comes and looks at the shoes straight away. He comes in and smells them – to make sure they’re not plastic. Just in case. He likes to come here and eat biscuits.”
Choi remembers her first pair of Jimmy Choos. “It was when I was about 12,” she says.
“He made me this pair of flat shoes. They were very special to me. They were navy and had a raindrop on them. They had different materials. I just loved that pair of shoes and had them for so many years. I wore them to death.”
She also recalls some of the pearls of wisdom Choo has shared over the years: “‘Whatever you promise, you must deliver,’” she says. “So, if you’re saying that your brand is affordable luxury, without compromising the three Cs, which is comfort, craftsmanship and character, you need to make sure you deliver that.”
Choo still spoils his niece (he has said they “both have luxurious tastes”), but her gifts to him are prosaic. Every Christmas he receives a black or navy polo neck from Choi. “You can’t go wrong with that,” she says. “He’s an easy man to buy presents for.”
Later, when I do manage catch up with Choo, he reminisces about his niece.
“I always support Lucy because when she came to London and stayed with me, I saw how hard-working she is,” the designer says. “Always after school, she was helping me to finish the shoes, to take care of the customers. During London Fashion Week, we didn’t go home for two or three days. We had to work day and night to finish the shoes for all the fashion shows. She was willing to help, willing to work. Not many young people want to do that.
“And she can cook very good Chinese food as well. I’m a Malaysian, but she cooks very good Cantonese food. She cooked for everyone.”
What was her signature dish?
Choo bursts out laughing. “Oh, chicken mushroom,” he says. “Because in those days, I was poor as well, so we had to be careful with what we bought. Chicken is cheap in London.”
Does he ever offer his niece any professional critique? “Well, sometimes I do. My father made shoes; I grew up in a shoe family. Shoes are not just a pair of shoes. It has to be a piece of art. It has to be comfortable and look good.”
Choo accepts that his celebrity has played a part in her success. “Of course, it helps. English people always say, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ We have to accept this is true. But if she were not talented, if she were not hard-working, if she didn’t have the heart to do business, she would not make it. She also brings a lot of customers to my shop. She brings the couture customers to me.”
So could we see a Choo/Choi collaboration any time soon?
“I say that anything Lucy wants, I am here to support her. I love somebody working hard. Not only because Lucy is my niece. Any student who is working hard, who has got the heart to go forward, I’m always helping them.”
And does she still cook up a storm for him when he visits Britain?
“No. I have to cook for her!” he says, chuckling. “Lucy is too busy now. She has business meetings all the time. I’ve got more time to cook than Lucy now.”