I have spent mere minutes with Jimmy Choo, the ubiquitous King of Shoes, and he’s already told me about his friendship with Princess Diana, inquired about my marriage plans, and analysed my footwear.
“Cowboy boots,” the 75-year-old whispers, eyeing up my feet. I ready myself for criticism. “Very nice!” I can breathe again. “When are you getting married?” he asks. “Because when you do, give me a call and we can do your dress and shoes!” I’m not engaged, but I make a mental note to find myself a fiancé immediately upon completion of our interview.
This is Choo in a nutshell: endearing, disarming and slightly, but brilliantly, eccentric. It was in 1996 that Choo earned his “King of Shoes” nickname, having co-founded his eponymous label with business associate Tamara Mellon, then an accessories editor at British Vogue. The brand’s stiletto heels became something of a cultural phenomenon in the Nineties: “I lost my Choo!” wailed Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw when she tumbled out of her footwear while 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, selling 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 Sandra Choi being the niece of Choo’s wife Rebecca.
Meanwhile, Choo has embraced pastures new. He has founded his own fashion school, the Jimmy Choo Academy, or JCA for short – it’s his attempt to spread his crafty wisdom to the next generation of designers. We’re in the top-floor office of the school, Choo sitting on a Lamborghini swivel chair, his signature aviator shades resting on a side table. The building itself is regal and luxurious; situated in a grand, five-storey Grade I period townhouse opposite Vogue House, soon to be the former location of publishers Condé Nast. An enormous spiral staircase leads students to their shiny workshop rooms, and there is a library filled exclusively with glossy magazines. Students, clearly on a deadline, briskly float past. “Are you looking for a mannequin too?” “Yep!”
Patience is what I learnt from my father. He taught me how to cut out the pattern. The first few times I did it, I cut my leg
The academy offers BA and MA degree courses with small class sizes, all for the eye-watering price of £18,000 per year for UK students – that’s £8,750 higher than the annual fees for “normal” universities, if you were curious. (Bursaries are available, and the academy recommends prospective students individually discuss tuition and fee options with their finance office.) Choo is involved in the teaching, too, promising one-to-one tutorials with students whenever he’s in town. It’s also why he arrives late to our interview – a feedback tutorial he was leading apparently overran (one staff member at the school tells me Choo “gets really into it” when he’s teaching).
The legacy of the Choo label might explain why someone would fork out the best part of £20,000 for his expertise. Diana, Princess of Wales, famously played a big part in the brand’s mythmaking. She wore her first pair of Choos – a pair of pale-blue satin sling-backs – to a performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall in June 1997, and arguably became the brand’s early poster girl. Choo, who has boldly said in the past that Diana’s favourite shoes were his own, remembers his first visit to Kensington Palace fondly.
“I would turn up with my big case, we’d sit on the floor together and she would sample everything,” he says. For his initial visit, he had to liaise with the palace staff, but their 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 to want higher. She would always go ‘You’re so intelligent’, and ask how everyone was: how is my mum, my dad – she cared about everybody.”
He says it was their goodbyes at the end of each meeting that will stick with him most. “She would walk me back into the car park and try to carry my case for me,” he laughs. “I thought… ‘Princess! What are you doing in the car park!’” Choo has met different royals since, but he says those interactions haven’t quite compared. “The [rest] of the royal family....” Would they do that? “I don’t think so. They would say ‘Bye! That’s it!’ Diana was very kind.”
Born in Malaysia in 1948 to a family of cobblers, Choo learnt his trade from his father, who made him sit and watch as he worked. At first, watching was all Choo was allowed to do. “And I [sat] there for one month, thinking, why haven’t I started yet?” Eventually, he was allowed to sit at the pattern-cutting table. “Patience is what I learnt from my father. He taught me how to cut out the pattern. The first few times [I did it], I cut my leg.” He motions a slicing action along the top of his thigh. Choo would make his first pair of shoes at the age of 11: slippers for his mother. “People are always amazed that I made shoes so young, but in those days – more than 50 years ago, there were no mobile phones, computers,” he explains. “We had no machines. You did everything with your hands.”
Choo eventually moved to east London and, in 1982, he 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 graduation and went on to have two children: Emily, who works alongside her father in fashion, and Danny, who now lives in Japan and owns a company that designs smart AI dolls.
While Choo isn’t strictly in the business of making stilettos for the Hollywood elite any more, he is still passionate about high-quality craftsmanship, the composition of shoes and, of course, glamour. He has been running his newer brand The Atelier London, which specialises in wedding dresses, for six years. “We sell all over the world, and ship to New York, Barcelona, Paris, Italy,” he says. “That’s why I’ve got a hundred staff working with me in Shanghai in the main office. Then we have Kuala Lumpur – a four-storey building – we have almost 50 people working over there.”
Choo’s daughter Emily helps him run the business and the shop out of 18 Connaught Street in London – a building that was previously home to a Jimmy Choo Ltd store. “I’ve got my Connaught Street store back,” he tells me. “We’ve changed the whole thing, there’s nothing old there – all new.” Choo also slips me a business card – it reads Zhou Yang Jie, his Chinese name, and the name he uses to make custom shoes on request for very exclusive clients. I slip it in my purse, between my Oyster and my Boots Advantage Card.
As if to prove he’s still a shoemaker at heart, Choo pulls out a napkin from a side table in his office. He asks me for the pen I’m using, and begins scribbling away. The room falls silent. All we can hear are the sounds of a master at work. He’s drawing a stiletto. “Here, you see?” he asks. “This is a court shoe. You have to understand the fitting. If they are too tight or cut too high, you will hurt your feet or back.”
I think he’s given me my first lesson. I just hope he doesn’t charge me.
The JCA offers open days and tours for prospective students here.