There are those who measure their achievements in life by the number of designer shoes they have in the wardrobe.
Then there is Jimmy Choo. Not that the celebrity footwear designer is not crazy about shoes. He has three cabinets filled with stylish shoes at home.
But Choo, a Buddhist, sees life through the lens of benevolence. The goodwill of others has made the Malaysian Chinese the world’s famous footwear icon that he is today. Choo feels obliged to reciprocate by promoting the virtue of education and bringing up young designers from Asia.
“A Chinese saying goes: a master should always have a few tricks up his sleeves, lest his apprentice outstrips him one day,” Choo said after attending a British Council award ceremony held in Hong Kong. “I don’t believe that. A true master shouldn’t be afraid that his proteges would become better than him. I teach mine everything I know. It was how I learnt the craft. My father was my master.”
Choo’s father Choo Kee Yin, an immigrant from Mei County in Guangdong, was a shoemaker. Born in Penang to a Hakka family, the junior Choo learnt about design and pattern-making at the family’s shoe factory.
At 11, Choo made his first pair of shoes: dog-patterned leather flats for his mother’s birthday. “I made that because my mother liked wearing slippers. And my childhood nickname was Doggie,” he said. “Many parents in Malaysia gave their children an animal nickname, hoping they would grow up strong like an animal even in difficult circumstances.”
Although Choo moved to London in his teens and lives there ever since, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He speaks fluent Cantonese and Hakka. And after selling his shares in his eponymous label in 2001, he started another company named after his Chinese name, Zhou Yangjie.
“I used to speak Cantonese a lot in London because there were a lot of Hongkongers there,” said the 68-year-old. “Most restaurant staff spoke Cantonese. Some spoke Hakka.”
London made Jimmy Choo famous. In 1983, he graduated with a degree in footwear design at the Cordwainers Technical College, today’s London College of Fashion. Three years later, he opened Lucky Shoes in Hackney.
Choo’s father-in-law suggested the name. Choo is married to a designer from Hong Kong.
“My father-in-law said the name would bring me good fortune so his daughter wouldn’t starve,” he recalled. “I was quite handsome when I was young. So I didn’t need much effort to court my wife. When we were dating, she often invited me to her place for dinner. She said Hongkongers are good at making soup. In return, I made her shoes.”
Good fortune didn’t come immediately – even though Choo was selling his handmade shoes at £50 (HK$472) a pair. “No one wanted my shoes because I was a nobody. My parents gave me their retirement savings to keep the business afloat,” he recalled.
To make ends meet, Choo went into making cheap sandals and uncredited pieces commissioned by theater producers and famous fashion designers. Although his creations would appear in fashion magazines, he was only paid £6 per pair sold.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for his reputation to grow. Within two years of opening Lucky Shoes, his works were featured in an eight-page spread in the UK Vogue. Then Choo went into business with society girl Tamara Mellon – and the rest was history.
Throughout the years, many celebrities and royalty have stopped by Choo’s shop – Princess Diana, the queens of Jordan and Brunei, Michael Jackson, Kylie Minogue, and Kristin Davis, to name a few.
“When Katie Holmes was in London for the premiere of Batman Begins, she visited my shop on 18 Connaught Street,” he said. “Turned out, that location really brought me good fortune.”
Choo’s niece Lucy Choi has taken over his London shop but he is still accepting bespoke orders from close friends. “I’ll never stop making shoes – not even when I am 100.”
When he is not busy entertaining clients and scouting for young footwear talents, he would fly to Kuala Lumpur to get his suits and shirts made at Lord’s Tailor. The man is, in his own right, a purveyor of fashion.
“Being a designer is not only about making fashionable shoes. It’s also about making shoes that bring joy, comfort and a sense of wholesomeness.”
The article first appeared in the Standard on March 10, 2017.