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Jimmy Choo: how a boy from Penang, Malaysia, became the shoemaker of choice for British royalty, including Princess Diana

With clients ranging from Hollywood celebrities to Diana, Princess of Wales, the Malaysian designer has left a lasting imprint on the world of fashion. He puts his staggering success down to the good old-fashioned values of family, education, and a willingness to help

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 5:45pm

As a boy growing up in the Malaysian state of Penang in the 1950s, Jimmy Choo Yeang Keat enjoyed an atypical after-school routine, but it would prove invaluable to laying the groundwork for his now world-famous shoe brand.

Raised in quaint George Town in a simpler era without television, the internet and other modern technologies, many children might have found themselves bored. Not Choo.

Free from electronic distractions, Choo said he had the world’s most valuable resource at his disposal – time. Pairing this with his insatiable curiosity, the eager young designer spent his formative years in his father’s shoemaking workshop. The experience would spark a deep passion for traditional bespoke footwear.

Every day after school as a seven-year-old, Choo would watch his father and other craftsmen put together beautiful, handmade shoes.

Little did he know that one day the Choo name would be the toast of the international fashion world.

The legendary design icon’s journey from penniless university student to major player in Europe’s fashion capitals is an inspiring tale. Today, he counts the British royal family and Hollywood celebrities among his most loyal and elite clientele.

But despite his colossal success, Choo is not satisfied.

Besides his new couture label Zhou Yang Jie, which charges between US$3,000 and US$5,000 per pair of shoes, Choo now travels the world extensively to speak at universities and charitable events, to promote projects that help young people get an education.

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A believer in “creativity through skills”, he is out to spread a message about the importance of learning. He tells City Weekend how society needs to nurture youngsters who show the same thirst to grow and succeed that he saw in himself as a George Town boy.

How did it all begin? Is it true you made your first pair of shoes at the age of 11?

My father was a shoe designer, not a cobbler, and he made every shoe by hand. I was born into a shoemaking family. My mother also helped out in the workshop. When I was seven or eight, I remember coming home, doing my homework, and then spending the rest of the day in my dad’s workshop watching him and other craftsmen at work.

That’s the way I spent my spare time as a child because we had no iPhones, no computers, no televisions, not even calculators. It was quite primitive, so in order to kill time, that was my entertainment.

My dad was a talented shoe designer and a master of the art of shoemaking. He didn’t just make women’s shoes – he also custom-made children’s and men’s shoes. In those days, people often had to make a living with their hands, and many products were handmade.

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The first pair of shoes I made were a pair of leather slippers for my mum’s birthday. I was 11 years old. I chose to make slippers because they were easier than proper shoes. I designed them, too, and it took me about eight hours. I don’t have the slippers with me now because they were buried with my mum when she died.

Your name is synonymous with international luxury alongside brands such as Christian Louboutin, Chanel, etc. How do you see fame and success?

I am very proud to be the ladies’ shoe of choice and named alongside such great international designers. To me, success is a blessing, and it also means it’s only the beginning – I have to keep going by continuing to improve myself and help others, especially young people.

I am a tourism ambassador for Malaysia and also a global ambassador for the British Council Alumni Awards, which means I make speeches around the globe to promote education.

I am also an ambassador for The Diana Award charity, set up in memory of the Princess of Wales, to keep her legacy alive and instil the belief that young people have the power to change the world for the better. As an ambassador, I help to raise funds to support social programmes to help young people.

Many people don’t know I have sold the Jimmy Choo brand. But I am very proud that people still relate the brand with high-class, high-quality products and high society.

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Why did you leave your hometown and decide to study in London? What motivated you?

I was quite good at making shoes when I was 15 or 16 years old. I had one older sister, but only I inherited my dad’s craft. My mum was also a significant part of my dad’s workshop. She multi-tasked and did everything, from cooking, cleaning and making clothes for us, to doing all the housekeeping. Everything that needed to get done, mum would get it done.

I wanted to leave Penang to get an overseas education. I went to England at the age of 21 and studied at Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney (now part of the London College of Fashion).

After graduation, I went to a shoe design firm to work. I didn’t want to go back to Malaysia because I wanted to make it in London. I worked at the same company for eight years and then worked for another one for a bit before starting my own business.

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How did you start your own high-end brand, which ultimately became one of the world’s most expensive and sought-after footwear labels?

After I quit the second design company, my parents came to Britain to help me start my own business. Altogether they stayed for two years. My initial investment came from my mum’s retirement fund, which was about £6,000 (US$7,930). The three of us were the entire operation; that meant we spent every day making women’s shoes, packaging them, promoting them, and selling them. And then in 1986, I decided to expand the operation, so I found a derelict hospital building in the East End and set up shop there.

Then came my big break in 1988 when I did a show at London Fashion Week. Vogue magazine saw my designs and featured my work in an eight-page spread. Before that, times were tough because I didn’t have many clients.

What got you through the difficult times before the Jimmy Choo couture label took off?

I saw a lot of designers not make it and quit halfway, not only because they couldn’t attract media attention or gain public exposure, but because they didn’t have the courage or perseverance.

I was determined to make it because I had enough confidence and perseverance. This deep-seated motivation was driven by my determination not to let my mum down because she believed in me and bet on me with her life savings. It didn’t take long for me to return the money to my mum and with a generous amount of “interest”.

After the Vogue coverage, my work was non-stop and I was doing catwalk shows with big designer names such as Helmut Lang and Paul Smith. Before I knew it, the press were all over me.

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How did you develop such a close relationship with the late Lady Diana?

Diana was one of my biggest clients. I have many who are members of the British royal family and members of high society, as well as pop stars.

I was introduced to Lady Diana through a prominent fashion industry contact. At that time, I believed she had already seen the Vogue coverage. She was very kind and never complained about my shoes.

My parents knew I made shoes for Princess Diana. But when I told them I would go to Kensington Palace to meet her and deliver the shoes, my mum didn’t believe me. She said: “You are kidding me. You are a yellow-skinned Chinese and she is a princess. Wouldn’t she prefer to see designs from Christian Dior or Coco Chanel?”

When she realised it was true, she told me to spend all the money I could spare to buy the best suit in the world, to make myself as presentable as possible in front of the princess; so I did. I even bought new underpants and socks! Everything was new from head to toe, and my parents were so proud.

It was the same way we celebrate Lunar New Year – we put on new clothes to be ready to usher in a good new beginning. To me, dressing up in fresh new clothes to see the princess also symbolised a wonderful new beginning in my career.

I visited Kensington Palace quite often, to the point where even the guards recognised me. One time I saw a young Prince Harry playing in the garden. When he saw me he shouted out “Jackie Chan!”

I still find that hilarious, but I was also proud he associated me with someone so famous.

What defines a person? And what are your mottos in life?

Everyone has the freedom to criticise. If someone criticises or insults me, it’s their opinion and their right. I have the freedom not to take it too seriously and to not let it affect how I feel and act. Everyone is free to make choices, so I am free to choose to ignore negative comments. But if their criticism is constructive, I will try to change and improve.

Learning is for life. Life is all about being adventurous and willing to experience the unknown. And I also believe in doing good deeds, being sincere, honest, and having a willingness to help others whenever possible.

Charity work is good for the soul because the simple act of helping others is a blessing. In 2015, I was invited by the Kowloon Shangri-La hotel to help with a charity event, and was responsible for screening 3,200 shoe design entries. It took me ages to go through each draft design, but it wasn’t a problem at all. It was worthwhile.

I grew up among women and have always respected them. I was very close to my mum as a child. I slept next to her holding hands. I admired my mum and my mum adored me.

I love making shoes and I am no stranger to the meticulous process involved. It’s like building the foundation of any structure – if you don’t pay attention to the foundations, the building will not stand for long. And it’s the same with building character – that’s why it’s so important to have a proper education and strong family support. A good family education brings harmony to not only the family, but also a community and the nation.


JIMMY’S MORE QUIRKY SIDE

What are your health tips?

Eat less and be selective in what you eat. I also meditate as often as possible to try to keep myself free of worry and anger. I am still trying to get rid of the bad habit of going to bed too late. I think having sufficient rest and sleeping well are important.

Which is your favourite city?

I love Hong Kong. I come here very often to relax and eat good food. And I love the people here. They’re so direct.

How would you define beauty?

Elegant and stylish. Women don’t need to be overly glamorous, too made up or too sexy.

What’s your favourite pastime?

I love singing karaoke. I find music inspirational, and the lyrics often help trigger my creativity.