Do you know that the pair of Jimmy Choo shoes you buy at a store anywhere in the world have not actually been made by Jimmy Choo himself? That’s because the celebrated shoemaker sold his stake in the company in 2001 and is now associated only with the Jimmy Choo Couture line, where he handcrafts shoes for a select clientele (see box, Sole Survivor). Not so unusual for a man who made his first pair of shoes when he was just 11 – for his mother. “She had to attend a party, so I decided to make a pair of shoes for her,” he explains, adding, with a laugh, “Actually, she was the only one I could experiment on at that time.”
These days, as the head of the Jimmy Choo Couture line, the Malaysian of Chinese origin has many celebrity clients, but the customer he remembers most fondly is Diana, Princess of Wales.
“I loved making shoes and sandals for her,” says Choo, who recently visited India for the first time.
Sipping coffee and chatting with us at The British Council in New Delhi, after an interactive session with students, he recalls, “Princess Diana had a creative eye. She would call for me before any special occasion – a formal visit to a country or an anniversary party. She would show me the dress she planned to wear and we would often sit down on the floor and discuss each aspect of the kind of shoe she wanted in detail.”
Choo adds, “She really made an effort to get it right, and that motivated me to always make the best for her. Though I have some great clients, Diana remains my favourite. I still remember a lovely blue shoe that I made for her when she visited India.”
Choo, along with certain other shoemakers, has been at the forefront of a revolution where shoes have evolved from being almost overlooked as part of a woman’s outfit to a definitive accessory. So what is it with women and shoes?
“I feel the shoe in many ways represents the person that you are. It’s a reflection of your attitude,” he explains. “The shoe also has a lot to do with presenting you in the right form. A lady’s pair of shoes carries her, so they may as well carry her well.”
Choo has his own take on why the shoe skyrocketed to accessory stardom. “It’s magazines like Vogue that turned the shoe into an important accessory,” he states. “They made the shoe that a woman wore a defining accessory. People then started wearing shoes as a highlighter of their personalities.”
Head over heel
These days, fashionistas seem to pride themselves on wearing higher and higher heels. But Choo insists that the four-inch heel is the most ideal for most women.
“That is the perfect height in terms of comfort and wearability,” says the master shoemaker. “Anything more needs to be supported with a little platform base in front; otherwise it spoils the balance of the shoe.” Choo also feels that the front of the shoe should always have a little elevation. “Ten to 12 mm is good, anything higher than that will tilt the balance of the shoe backwards,” he explains.
Sole to sole
Born to a family of shoemakers in Penang, Malaysia, Jimmy Choo’s initiation into shoemaking was a smooth transition. “Back in Malaysia, family is most important. So learning the trade was the most natural thing to do,” he says. Choo adds that his father was his teacher. “I learnt by observing him at work. He made every shoe with his own hands, just like I did when I made that pair for my mother.” And does he still do that? “No, now there are too many machines, which do a good job,” smiles Choo.
Choo now hopes that his daughter Emily will take over from him. “She knows the art and has learnt it well,” he says. “I hope she carries on the tradition. But it’s completely her choice.”
However, customising or making shoes to order remains a tough call, insists Choo. “The demands of customers can be varied, but one must take the ultimate call after a lot of thought,” he explains. “That is what Jimmy Choo Couture is all about. When customising a shoe, I work like a doctor – I look at my client’s body structure, gait and walk. If I feel that she will not be able to carry more than a certain height, I advise against it. What is the point of wearing something that you can’t wear for more than a couple of hours?”
Considering his mass appeal, isn’t his work out of the reach of most women? “It is, but I guess that’s the way it is,” he says. “Of course I do offer discounts but how much can you discount on quality and hard work?”
So what should women who can’t afford Jimmy Choo do? Choo advises, “There is a variety available in the market. Check the fit and comfort levels. Try various brands and then make your choice.”