Jimmy Choo is a world-famous shoe designer. Born in Malaysia, he started designing shoes with his father at a very young age and later moved to London, England to pursue his dream of becoming a prominent figure in shoe design. His career was thrust forward after a few years working in London, and he now stands in history as one of the foremost shoe designers in history. His pieces have been a staple in high class and celebrity culture, with the late HRH Lady Diana, being one of his most notable and loyal patrons.
Solstice: You attribute your talent for shoemaking to two things, your father, who was shoe designer himself, and boredom. Tell us about how exactly you picked up the knack for shoemaking?
Jimmy: Well, I grew up in Penang in Malaysia, and this was in a time where we didn't have mobile phones, computers, TVs. It was a time where the internet wasn't even around. As you mentioned, my father was a shoe designer and he was a master at it. In those times many people were craftsmen, specialising in one craft and making a living from it. After I came back from school, I would do my homework and then go and help my dad out in his shop. The first real pair of shoes I made were some leather slippers, which I had made to gift to my mother for her birthday. They were fairly simple, but I did design them myself and made them in around 8 hours or so. This was when I was 11 years olds, so I started young. I don't have them anymore, as they were buried with my mother when she passed away.
Solstice: What made you head to London when you eventually left your home in Malaysia?
Jimmy: Going to London was a dream of mine, and I was so fortunate to have an understanding family that let me go. I left Malaysia when I was 21, to get a formal education at Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney, in the east of London. Getting a formal education was very important to me, as you almost always needed one to get a good job in those days, especially in London. I managed to get a job a shoe design firm after graduating.
Solstice: How did you end up founding your own shoe design company?
Jimmy: Well, I did work at that shoe design company I mentioned for a good eight years. I left them, and started working at another one, but that only lasted a little while. I got the feeling I had to have my own company, so that's what I did. However, it was not easy and I was very lucky, as my parents came to London to help me with starting it. They provided some financial investment, with around £6000 coming from my mum's retirement fund. For two years, it was just the three of us. We were the entire operation. After those two years, they left to go back to Malaysia. In 1986, I decided to expand and set up shop in an old derelict hospital building in the East End of London.
Solstice: Your brand was not an overnight success, and you had a tough start. How was it in those first few years where you struggled to get brand exposure and was it hard to not give up?
Jimmy: Yes, it's true, it wasn't a huge success straight away but I could not give up. I felt it was my responsibility and duty to make it a success. My mother had invested in me and my brand with her money and time, so I couldn't let her down. I'd seen lots of designers give up, either because they weren't able to get exposure in the media or they simply weren't brave enough with their decisions. The turning point for Jimmy Choo shoes was when I got some coverage from Vogue UK in 1988, after that my designs were in demand and I was collaborating on fashion shows with the likes of Helmut Lang and Paul Smith.
Solstice: It's not always been smooth sailing for you and your brand, and a few years ago you had a bit of a power struggle, which later ended up with you selling your half of the company. You had your opinions and stood by them, so is sticking to your principles important to you?
Jimmy: Definitely. In this industry you sometimes have to make sacrifices and compromises, but when it came to how my company was run and how it operated I couldn't do that. I wanted to keep the production smaller, to enable us to stay with a very high quality product, other people wanted to make more pieces but with that, the quality would have been less. I wasn't really willing to do that, so in the end I sold my half of the company. Back in Malaysia, I started out making high quality shoes in small numbers, and that's always how I thought it should be.
Solstice: It looks like you've had a big influence within your own family as your nieces Sandra and Lucy Choi, both work in the fashion industry. With Sandra being the Creative Director of Jimmy Choo, and Lucy becoming a shoe designer in her own right. How important is family to you?
Jimmy: It's very important to me. I grew up in a strong and close family, so the sense of family was instilled in me from a very young age. I'm very happy that both Sandra and Lucy have been influenced by my work and I could not be prouder. Sandra does an excellent job being Creative Director of Jimmy Choo, and Lucy has become quite the accomplished shoe designer.
Solstice: You are now much more focused on the education side of design and helping young people fulfil their dreams. Tell us about the work you're doing for that?
Jimmy: Yes, I think that nurturing talent is very important and even more so is doing it the right way. You must not stifle creativity; experimentation should be encouraged. I've worked with various universities and schools to help people realise their dreams. I'm an Ambassador for Footwear Education at the London College of Fashion, which something I'm very passionate about. I'm also proud of being a spokesperson for the British Fashion Council, there I help them reach out to foreign students. I think foreign influence in British culture is very important. To be honest, I don't there is a British culture without foreign influence.
Solstice: You're also very keen on helping your home country of Malaysia gain popularity and prestige. You're obviously very proud of your roots and of the country itself. Why is it so important to you?
Jimmy: It's the country where I was born and where I began my journey in shoe design. The people there are very nice, helpful and the country itself is very beautiful. It's very different to the U.K where I live, but I still do consider it a home for me. It's good to give back and help where you can.
Solstice: What do you see yourself doing in the next few years?
Bella: Well, I want continue the work I'm doing helping young designers develop their skills and gain exposure. I also want to keep working with the British Fashion Council. I'm very happy doing all of that, however I can see myself slowing down a little and relaxing a bit more. Maybe some more time away to visit other countries and learn about different cultures.