Sometimes, but not often, I find myself in the presence of extraordinary people whose success and humility know no bounds. On an unforgettable night of dinner and conversation at the British High Commissioners Residence in Kuala Lumpur, I spoke with legendary shoe designer, Jimmy Choo OBE. Modest, kind and with an unwavering optimistic view of life, this is one of those exceptional people who will leave a mark on me for a long time to come …
With his words of wisdom, intriguing stories and laid-back style, Jimmy Choo reeled in and captivated those around the dinner table. Jimmy told stories about his father, a shoe cobbler, who ordered his son to sit quietly and observe him at work. Patience was clearly of the essence for Jimmy, and he is grateful to his father for this immersive and eye-opening experience. Jimmy’s hunger for shoe design grew day by day and he went on to make his first pair of shoes at the age of eleven.
With a thorough grounding in the craft of shoemaking under his belt, Jimmy went to England in the early 1980s to study at the Cordwainers Technical College, where he graduated with honours in 1983. In August 2000, Cordwainers College, a specialist school for shoemaking and other crafts, was merged with the London College of Fashion.
Engaged and riveted with British culture, and buoyed by the “knowledge and skills” he had learned at Cordwainers, Jimmy chose to remain in the UK. He opened his first shop in Hackney in 1986 and his reputation quickly went from strength to strength. In 1988, Choo’s shoes were featured in Vogue magazine. Celebrities and royalty began to take notice of Jimmy’s work with Princess Diana of Wales becoming a devoted customer at the turn of the 1990s. Further successes were inevitable and, by the late 1990s, Choo had stores in LA and New York with Hollywood celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Halle Berry known to be keen followers of all-things Jimmy. Today, Choo’s clientele is just as illustrious as it was in the 90s with Michelle Obama and Beyoncé among the most notable clients. The Choo brand has also branched out to include handbags and other accessories.
Jimmy Choo’s values have clearly been shaped by a disciplined childhood and an eye-opening period of study in the UK
Around the dinner table, it became clear to me that A-list celebrities, luxury retail clients, money and recognition do not totally rule Jimmy’s life and heart. I think that my assumption shines through in the great man’s words, actions and down-to-earth demeanour. On the surface, Jimmy is a regular guy and a man of the people. As Global Ambassador of the British Council Alumni Awards, he delights in getting to know UK university alumni and sharing their success stories because he feels indebted to the lecturers and whole experience of studying in the UK which combined to change his life and contribute to his success. Jimmy also gives back to his local community and is heavily involved in a project to establish a shoe academy worldwide. He also donates money to local charities and raises money for young students. Most admirably, Jimmy is prepared to travel to all corners of the world to foster young designers and teach them he skill of shoe crafting. One of his most famous protégés is Illiza Ho, who veered away from shoe design towards the creation of handbags under Choo’s mentorship.
Jimmy Choo’s values have clearly been shaped by a disciplined childhood and an eye-opening period of study in the UK. When growing up in Malaysia, his spare time was devoted to learning new skills, and his time at College in London, where approaches to shoe design were utterly unique, made Jimmy even “hungrier” for fresh knowledge. In his words: “I am still learning and still a student and I change every day because I am still learning”.
In terms of getting to where one wants to be in life and dealing with people on a personal and professional basis, Jimmy’s advice struck a chord with me: “Be nice to people - don’t lose your temper”. He went on to say that “you are not the best - just ask people if you don’t understand something”. Wise words from a man who has no doubt seen the best and the worst in humankind over the past thirty years or so in shoe design.
Overall, Jimmy Choo is the perfect example of someone who has made the most of their British education and deep cultural immersion in British culture. It is not just about grades and certificates, but networking, upholding principles and values passed down by parents and grandparents, remaining humble and truly appreciating the work of influential lecturers and colleagues at British universities and colleges. With Mr Choo, there is no hierarchy when you speak to him - man to man, equal to equal. Something for all of us to think about and bring to our workplaces.