May 3, 2023
Achieving the status of a pop icon that transcends the mainstream universe, establishing an independent name beyond one’s industry of origin, is something that only a few brands and individuals can accomplish. And Jimmy Choo is one of them. Hailing from Malaysia, the designer was born into a family of shoe manufacturers and immersed himself in the industry since childhood. In the 1990s, he gained international recognition with his eponymous shoe brand, backed by one of the clients responsible for popularising his recognisable designs: Princess Diana of Wales. In no time, his unique heels, sold from $300 onwards, were famous. Jimmy Choo became a reference of femininity and accessible luxury on the streets of fashion capitals, red carpets, and episodes of “Sex and the City.” Only 15 years after founding the brand with businesswoman Tamara Mellon, Choo sold his 50% share of the successful company that would continue to bear his name. He made a surprising decision to concentrate on his couture and prêt-à-porter business. Today, the luxury shoe brand Jimmy Choo is owned by Capri Holdings Limited, a conglomerate that also owns luxury labels like Versace and Michael Kors.
In fact, it was at a fashion event that we met the London-based designer, recognised as an officer of the order of the british empire (OBE). During the latest edition of Barcelona Bridal Fashion Week, the renowned creative presented the latest collection of his bridal couture brand, The Atelier, both in a runway show and commercial presentation at the trade fair; and was awarded with a lifetime achievement award.
There, we were met by Yew Loh, CEO of the brand created in 1986, founded initially as a small bridal store in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. However, it was not until 2016 that the brand was officially established with a bridal design studio in Shanghai and, a year later, the experienced Jimmy Choo was appointed as its creative director. Today, the company employs 150 workers, dedicated to both bridal and prêt-à-porter collections; it is present worldwide through around 200 points of sale and China and the Americas are its main markets.
“It is essential to have a presence in Barcelona, a city that brings together the entire international bridal wear market. It is the meeting point for professionals from Europe, China and the United States and offers a platform where everything is much more concentrated than in New York, for example,” said the leader. The company, a regular at bridal trade shows in Shanghai, Malaysia, and New York Bridal Fashion Week, has returned to the Barcelona event, in which it participated for the first time in 2019 before the pandemic. Among its upcoming projects, it plans to strengthen its own store network, currently led by Malaysia, London, and Shanghai.
Jimmy Choo arrived at the meeting slightly delayed, dressed in an elegant suit, cap and black sunglasses. Although he was excused for his tardiness due to the busy Barcelona traffic, the designer whom everyone addresses as “Professor Jimmy Choo” insisted on apologising numerous times before getting down to business. After a few seconds of silence, he carefully selected his words in English and proceeded, slow but steady, to offer something akin to a masterclass… or a finely crafted embroidery.
The importance of transmitting knowledge
“The development of the brand relies heavily on the training of young talent, so they are able to master manual labor and craftsmanship,” stated the designer, who launched the JCA London Fashion Academy, a project aimed at fashion students, in 2021. “I have been in the fashion industry for nearly 40 years, and everyone knows the name Jimmy Choo. However, one thing I have learned throughout my career is that it is essential to pass on knowledge and not keep it to oneself,” affirmed the 74-year-old creative, acknowledging that one of the challenges facing the industry is the preservation of ancestral artisanal savoir-faire.
In fact, The Atelier boasts employees who have been embroidering for over 45 years, many of them for the brand. However, both its CEO and creative director agree on the great challenge that currently exists in finding young people who want to dedicate themselves to these types of manual activities that require so much training, time, and concentration. “We have some dresses that require a year of work!” exclaimed Jimmy Choo, pointing to a design with countless hand-embroidered feathers of different sizes that resembled a brilliant white swan. The delicate dress, only suitable for millionaire budgets, was responsible for putting the finishing touch on his latest runway show in Barcelona.
“We create garments that will survive for more than 100 years. That is something transcendent, much more relevant than the money you can make from the business,” said Jimmy Choo, acknowledging that “couture requires a lot of concentration, mainly because the customer is very different from the one for shoes.” And he added, “I pay a lot of attention to these couture designs because people are willing to spend large sums of money to acquire them. It is essential that all the details are perfect, from the fitting to the carefully selected materials, things that we improve on every season.”
Retirement is not an option
Jimmy Choo’s presence at The Atelier is not incidental, and his personality and commitment to work permeate the workshops. “For years, many people have told me that I should retire and relax in a mountain or seaside location. But I still enjoy what I do to the fullest and have no plans to retire. I love interacting with people and adore my work. And I firmly believe that the more I work, the more value I can bring to the next generations. If I don’t work, I’ll fall behind,” he reflected, stating that he continues to enjoy being involved in the creative process, even in “small” or “everyday” tasks.
When it comes to achieving success, the creative didn’t mince his words and highlighted the importance of “loving what you do” and “taking care of your team” as fundamental keys. Although these may seem like common-sense ideas, Choo is adamant about their significance. “In order to achieve success, the human factor is one of the most crucial aspects. Your smile and the way you approach your work are two things that can speak volumes about you as a professional. It’s essential to be cordial and attentive, always greeting and thanking everyone, no matter how tired you may be,” he emphasized, asserting that this is one of his guiding principles as a mentor.
“When you work in design, you need good teamwork. Thus, one of the most important pieces of advice I give to my students is: “Take care of the people around you and always help whenever you have the opportunity,'” admitted Jimmy Choo with wisdom.
And he added about his experience: “Sometimes, in large international schools, you come across wealthy students from many countries who first have to learn to love each other. It doesn’t matter where you come from or how much money you have. In the fashion industry, humility has to be the first step. Otherwise, you won’t last long.” For the creative originally from Malaysia, having a “friendly network of contacts” is the key to being able to collaborate well in the future and build positive synergies.
When it comes to the importance of maintaining enthusiasm and passion for work, Jimmy Choo seemed to maintain the energy of the first day, as if he were one of his own students. “You know what? I still do it. I’m in Barcelona, on my way somewhere, or talking to a friend, and I have to stop to admire things that inspire me, like Gaudí’s work. I stop and make a drawing or jot down an idea, thinking that at some point I’ll be able to use it for a design. I enjoy it very much and I plan to keep doing it,” he admitted. And before ending the conversation, just a few hours before receiving a lifetime achievement award, he smiled and said, “In the end, what matters is that I love what I do. And presenting new designs every year is what really makes me happy.”
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