Behind the towering name which set off the creation of a brand that became synonymous with shoes is an unassuming, humble and soft-spoken man who talks passionately about his dedication to his craft.
We are in the executive lounge of GKelawei Hotel in Penang and Datuk Jimmy Choo is fresh off a flight from Australia where he presented the first masterclass in shoe design at Curtin University.
The shoe maestro is back in his hometown to show his support for the inaugural Penang Fashion Week; giving back is something he feels strongly about.
“I just came back from Australia, but here I am (in Penang). I still support my hometown, my hometown supports me. I tell my team, you don’t just give to people. People also give to you, if you think like that, you will never go wrong.
“I am always promoting my country; in Perth, the tourism (ministry) organised a lunch for me and I spoke about Penang. I want people to share my energy and give back to my country; that’s very important.
“We have KL Fashion week which has been running for a long time as well. I think a lot of people enjoy Penang, it’s a very peaceful city. It’s a beautiful city so fashion week will allow people who come in to see our local fashion. It helps the industry, the people. If you design something good, you can show it somewhere. It’s a platform for designers to show in Penang.”
Many people wonder what exactly has Choo been doing? He’s not just resting on his heels, he’s actually doing a lot of things. He still designs shoes under the Jimmy Choo Couture label, a made-to-order line.
And he has a protege, Taiwanese Iliza Ho who’s based in Malaysia. She designs very unique bags and has done well enough for a new designer, having been awarded the Most Promising Designer of 2014 at the Mercedes-Benz Stylo Fashion Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur.
“I want to build up a new label for my protege, Iliza. I want to show the whole world, that I can make an up coming designer (into a success). I want her to follow my mission, and then she can train 10 more people for me. And from there, train more people. That’s what we did in the olden days. You learn a skill from your father and pass it down. That’s what I am doing.”
Ho travels with him as part of a learning experience and also to build confidence. “I don’t want someone to copy another designer. I want her to follow my first steps. It’s not about making money, people will say why not make money, but that’s not the point. I can support her, my intention is to create something new and original and I want her to show wherever I travel. After this, we will be going to Korea.”
Choo says you must have the skills to begin with when it comes to being a designer but it’s also equally important to educate yourself.
“If you don’t have the skill, that’s a big problem. When I started my couture collection, no one helped me, no one will entertain you if you don’t have a skill. The college (Choo graduated from Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney in 1983) taught us patterns and cutting leather but not many people learn that.
“Everyone wants to be a designer but how many can actually be one? They may have four to five seasons but they don’t last because they don’t have the marketing experience or financial backing. Also, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. If you know people who can help you and you have a good friendship with them, they can help you. But you have to be good and unusual; if not, who would want to write about you?
“I want to do a workshop, and talk about design and my experience. Also to talk about the heritage my father gave me. If I didn’t have the training from my father, I wouldn’t be here today. I went to London to study, they taught me about design, but they didn’t teach handcrafting. They teach you manufacturing, but it was my father who taught me design and pattern cutting from start to finish.”
Choo has previously presented masterclasses in Beijing and London and the most recent one, as previously mentioned, was at Curtin.
Apparently more than 2,000 people wanted to attend the exclusive event, which was only open to 250 people. Choo was very happy with the response.
Everyone wants to be a designer but how many can actually be one?
“They appreciated my talk because I speak from my heart. It’s a real story – what I’ve gone through, a person from Penang, going there to study – it’s not easy, it was very difficult.
“I’m lucky, people tell me how lucky I am. For my first collection, Vogue gave me eight pages. A lot of people do so many seasons but don’t get anywhere. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have the skills from my father and the knowledge of building a beautiful pair of shoes from the beginning to the end.”
“In the old days, we did everything ourselves, so the foundation is very, very strong. Then when I went to college to study, they gave me more ideas. They push me because lecturers are from the industry, so they taught me a lot. You must be willing to learn. I worked hard because I wanted to achieve something, I didn’t want to let my father down. I wanted to do something good to show the people in Penang that I can do it.”
He has no intention of slowing down and he’s keen on expanding his knowledge and educating himself further.
“I want to go around the world. I want to do China (Shanghai and Beijing) next, later perhaps Japan. So far everyone has been very supportive.
“I’ve been working with the British Council for 10 years, so whatever they want me to do, I do. I travel with them to Japan, India and Korea. It’s all about learning something, making connections. If you want to learn, people will give you the opportunity. That’s why I want to do masterclasses and travel around the world.”
And what’s his advice for aspiring designers out there? Know your market. If it’s local, focus on the local market and if you want to enter the international market, go there and find out more about it.
“You should travel to the country and form a partnership with someone there if they’re willing to work with you, to establish your name. Never feel like you’re not good enough. But at the same time, make sure you are good, if not, who would want you? Why did I get eight pages? Because my shoes are unusual.”
For Choo, one of the most important things is to remain humble and count your blessings.
“Be simple, down to earth, I’m still the same person. If people support you, you should appreciate it. Never think you’re big, you have to have determination and come out with something new. We have to be simple, down to earth and get along with everyone.
“When you sell your business, it’s about your own image as well. And you must have teamwork, learn to manage the team and not lose your temper. The biggest mistake in the industry is to lose your temper because people can’t do what you want.
The biggest mistake in the industry is to lose your temper because people can’t do what you want.
“When I travel, people know where I come from – Jimmy Choo from Penang, Malaysia, so it’s also helping the industry and tourism. I think of it as that way. Wherever I go, people recognise me, they want to take pictures with me. I still sketch every day. I have my team, it doesn’t matter if we make money or not because financially, I am ok. I want to train a team of people, doesn’t matter if they are young or old.
“Age doesn’t matter. I never feel old, people ask me how old I am, I can’t remember. I tell them 49, they say it may be closer to 60! I want to work, I want to carry on the vision, I want to have a Jimmy Choo scholarship in London.
“I want the world to know I still want to work. I want to work hard, maintain my vision and share my knowledge with people.”
For Choo, creating a name and maintaining a legacy of craftsmanship, work ethics and continuous growth, along with remaining true to your roots is the key to ensuring longevity in the industry.