Legendary shoe designer Jimmy Choo puts art and soul into fashion indutry
Belinda Seeney, Brisbane NewsOctober 9, 2017 5:12pm
The first thing Professor Jimmy Choo notices about a person is their shoes.
When that person is me and my footwear is being openly scrutinised by the legendary designer it’s hard not to feel paranoid about whether the simple black and white striped stilettos I painstakingly selected hold up.
Jimmy Choo. Picture: Justin Lloyd
Fortunately, the diminutive designer who stands in judgment is both charming and kind.
He greets me with a smile, takes my proffered hand with both of his and bows deeply – all the better to examine my shoes.
“You’re so tall,” he exclaims as he straightens. “Such high heels.”
He beams widely, continuing to hold my hand and I feel giddy with relief to have passed inspection.
Jimmy’s name is synonymous with shoes.
The former trainee cobbler from Malaysia matured to become a highly awarded shoemaker to the stars, including seven years spent as designer and confidante to the late Princess Diana.
Diana, Princess Of Wales, arriving for The Christies Party In New York wearing a champagne coloured dress and shoes designed by Jimmy Choo. Picture: Tim Graham / Getty Images
He has adorned the feet of hundreds of celebrities, denizens of high society and members of the royal family. He produces his smartphone to flick through photos of his A-list clientele, among them Australian success stories Nicole Kidman, Elle Macpherson, Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbruglia.
He is a celebrity in his own right but the master craftsman recalls his humble beginnings with pride.
Each day after school, Jimmy would make his way through the streets of George Town,the capital of Malaysia’s island state of Penang, to his father’s workshop.
Without television or computers vying for his attention, he would sit and watch his father craft shoes for a ledger of loyal clients.
He was given small tasks to perform – tracing a pattern here, cutting a piece of fabric there – first by his cobbler father, Choo Kee Yin, then by other craftspeople in the capital.
Decades later and it was his turn to pass on the skills he learnt from his father, teaching his own children, Daniel and Emily, the art of shoe design and craftsmanship.
“Both of them, when they were young, would come to the workshops to help me make shoes,” he says.
“Because in the old days, I would employ so many people and the whole family would unite together. My father, my mother, my family, my children would all come and help.”
Neither child followed in their famous father’s footsteps. His Japan-based son is focused on marketing his line of Smart Doll fashion dolls and Emily is a trained pastry chef.
“Daniel Choo is not making shoes for humans, Daniel Choo is making shoes for the dolls,” the proud father says as he lets loose with a delighted laugh. “He makes bags and belts and accessories for the smart dolls.
“And Emily makes shoes but only for herself. They both know the skill and both know how to make and design shoes.”
Choo is no longer associated with the retail brand that bears his name, selling his share in the business in 2001, focusing instead on couture design and his new passion – teaching.
Jimmy Choo hosting his first Australian masterclass at Curtin University.
Bestowed with the prestigious title of Datuk Professor Jimmy Choo OBE, he devotes his time to travelling the globe and sharing his knowledge.
“I want to do workshops, I want to train people myself, to be a speaker and share my experience with people in different countries,” he says.
Emerging Queensland designers are already reaping the benefit of his wisdom through his partnership with TAFE Queensland.
The training institute spent a year finetuning the arrangement which resulted in a four-day visit to Brisbane last month where the famed designer met students, hosted a masterclass, took part in a fashion symposium and spoke at several events raising money for the fashion program.
It was only the second time he had visited Australia but the country’s vivid geography and rich history has already managed to make an impression on his work.
He unveiled six new couture designs while in Brisbane including two sleek slingback heels incorporating the work of Western Australian indigenous artist Peter Farmer.
CREATIVE CALL: WA artist Peter Farmer’s print features on Jimmy Choo’s shoe and Ae’Ikemi couture gown by WA designer Alvin Fernandez. Picture: Mark Calleja / AAP
The Blue Wren in Kambarang print depicts one of six Aboriginal seasons (kambarang, or spring) with vivid splashes denoting wildflowers and the arrival of the blue wren, Peter’s family totem.
Jimmy cradles the shoes at a Brisbane News photo shoot, inspecting them under the studio lighting and comparing them with a dress in the same print by Western Australian designer Alvin Fernandez.
Forever teaching, he beckons both the model and the photographer over during the session to point out a feature of the print or detail of the shoes.
He’s eager to collaborate further with indigenous artists and plans to revisit Western Australia in 2018 for a holiday and leisurely exploration of galleries and the state’s striking natural environment.
It may not be the only return visit on his itinerary.
In September, he became ambassador for The Diana Award, a youth charity established to honour the late princess.
About the same time, her estate announced that every pair of shoes he made for her over his official seven-year appointment would be returned to him. He plans to carefully replicate each pair and mount a travelling exhibition of the shoes which will crisscross the globe and raise money for The Diana Award.
At 68, he remains at the forefront of fashion but he humbly acknowledges he constantly learns new things from young designers too
Maybe they don’t have the experience I have from travelling around the world and talking to people but they have new technology, new ideas and new designs … so I’ve already learned from them something new.
“They just need people like me, and my feedback to them, to lift them up and bring them to a different level.”
While students clamour to learn from a designer with enviable career longevity, he cautions the most important lesson must be mastered before the first tape measure is unfurled or fabric swatch selected.
“The very first thing I teach is a very old Chinese tradition. I want to teach them how to be responsible first.
“I want to train them to be kind to people and more sincere and respectful because if you have those kinds of qualities – responsible, kind and down-to-earth – they can learn things faster. Above all, treat people nice and show them respect.
If you do not respect people, how can you expect them to respect you? If you’re too arrogant eventually no-one will come to you. You might make good business for one or two seasons then slowly people won’t come back.