Yo I’ve spent just a few minutes with Jimmy Choo, the ubiquitous King of Shoes, and he’s already told me about his friendship with Princess Diana, asked me about my marriage plans, and analyzed my shoes.
“Cowboy boots,” the 75-year-old whispers, looking down at my feet. I prepare myself for criticism. “Very pretty!” I can breathe again. “When are you getting married?” he asks. “Because when you do, call me and we can make the dress and shoes for you!” I’m not engaged, but I make a mental note to find myself a fiancé immediately after finishing our interview.
This is Choo in a nutshell: endearing, captivating and slightly, but brilliantly, eccentric. It was in 1996 that Choo earned the nickname “King of Shoes,” after co-founding his eponymous brand with his business partner Tamara Mellon, then accessories editor at British Vogue. The brand’s stilettos became something of a cultural phenomenon in the ’90s: “I lost my Choo!” lamented Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw when she took off her shoes while she was trying to catch a ferry. For Beyoncé’s unofficial remix of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” she crooned, “Jimmy Choo kicks, killin’ it.”
Choo left the brand in 2001 and sold his 50 per cent stake in the company for £10m. But it continued to flourish without him: in 2017, Michael Kors Holdings bought Jimmy Choo Ltd in a deal worth £896m. And the brand is still partly in the family, with its current creative director being Sandra Choi, niece of Choo’s wife, Rebecca.
Meanwhile, Choo has embraced new horizons. He has founded his own fashion school, the Jimmy Choo Academy, or JCA for short; It is his attempt to spread his astute wisdom to the next generation of designers. We’re in the school’s top-floor office, Choo sitting in a Lamborghini swivel chair and his trademark aviator glasses propped up on a side table. The building itself is majestic and luxurious; situated in a large five-storey Grade I period terraced house, opposite Vogue House, soon to be the former location of the Condé Nast publishing house. A huge spiral staircase leads students to their bright work rooms, and there is a library filled exclusively with fashion magazines. The students, clearly on a deadline, breeze through. “Are you looking for a mannequin too?” “Yeah!”
The academy offers bachelor’s and master’s courses with small class sizes, all for the incredible price of £18,000 per year for UK students; that’s £8,750 more than “normal” university annual fees, if you were curious. (Scholarships are available and the academy recommends that prospective students individually discuss tuition and fee options with their finance office.) Choo is also involved in teaching and promises one-on-one tutoring with students whenever he is in town. It’s also the reason he’s late for our interview: a feedback tutorial he was leading apparently ran overtime (a school staff member tells me that Choo “gets into a lot” when he teaches).
The legacy of the Choo label could explain why someone would shell out the better part of £20,000 for their expertise. Diana, Princess of Wales, played an important role in creating brand myths. She wore her first pair of Choos (a pair of pale blue satin suspenders) to a performance of swan lake at the Royal Albert Hall in June 1997, and possibly became the brand’s first model. Choo, who has boldly said in the past that Diana’s favorite shoes were hers, fondly remembers her first visit to Kensington Palace.
“I would show up with my big case, we would sit together on the floor and she would try everything,” he says. For her initial visit, she had to communicate with palace staff, but her subsequent meetings were less formal. Diana would call him directly when she wanted something new. “At first she wanted low heels, but then we started wanting higher heels. She would always say, ‘You’re so smart,’ and she’d ask how everyone was: how’s my mom, my dad? “She cared about everyone.”
He says that what he will remember most will be his goodbyes at the end of each meeting. “She would walk me to the parking lot and try to take my suitcase,” he laughs. “I thought… ‘Princess! What are you doing in the parking lot!’” Choo has met different royals since then, but she says those interactions can’t be compared. “The (rest) of the royal family…” Would they do that? “I don’t think so. They’d say ‘Bye! That’s it!’ Diana was very kind.”
Born in Malaysia in 1948 to a family of shoemakers, Choo learned the trade from his father, who forced him to sit and watch while he worked. At first, the only thing Choo was allowed to do was watch. “And I sat there for a month, thinking: why haven’t I started yet?” Finally, he was allowed to sit at the pattern cutting table. “Patience is what I learned from my father. He taught me how to cut out the pattern. The first few times (I did it), I cut my leg.” He performs a cutting motion along the top of his thigh. Choo would make his first pair of shoes at age 11: sneakers for his mother. “People are always surprised that I made shoes so young, but at that time, more than 50 years ago, there were no mobile phones or computers,” he explains. “We didn’t have machines. “You did everything with your hands.”
Choo eventually moved to east London and, in 1982, began studying at Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney, which is now part of the London College of Fashion. It’s also where he met his wife. He remained in Hackney after graduating and had two children: Emily, who works alongside her father in fashion, and Danny, who now lives in Japan and owns a company that designs smart dolls with artificial intelligence.
While Choo is no longer strictly in the business of making stilettos for Hollywood’s elite, she is still passionate about high-quality craftsmanship, shoe composition and, of course, glamour. He has been running his new brand, The Atelier London, which specializes in wedding dresses, for six years. “We sell worldwide and ship to New York, Barcelona, Paris and Italy,” she says. “That’s why I have a hundred employees working with me in the main office in Shanghai. Then we have Kuala Lumpur, a four-story building, and almost 50 people work there.”
Choo’s daughter Emily helps him run the business and the store at 18 Connaught Street in London, a building that previously housed a Jimmy Choo Ltd store. “I’ve got my Connaught Street store back,” she tells me. . “We’ve changed everything, there’s nothing old there, everything new.” Choo also hands me a business card: it says Zhou Yang Jie, his Chinese name and the name he uses to make custom-made shoes for very exclusive clients. I slip it into my bag, between my Oyster and my Boots Advantage Card.
As if to prove that he’s still a cobbler at heart, Choo pulls a napkin from a side table in his office. He asks me for the pen I’m using and starts scribbling. The room falls silent. All we can hear are the sounds of a master at work. He is drawing a stiletto. “Here, see?” he asks. “This is a court shoe. You have to understand the fit. “If they are too tight or cut too high, you will hurt your feet or your back.”
I think you’ve taught me my first lesson. I just hope he doesn’t charge me.
The JCA offers open days and guided tours for future students here.