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Forget the glamour and glitz, the world's most famous shoe maker is more interested in spirituality and promoting a new creative arts school in Fulmer. Tessa Harris was granted a rare interview with Professor Jimmy Choo OBE
When I asked a friend of mine what she thought I should wear on my feet to interview the legendary shoe designer to the stars Jimmy Choo she told me:Better try trainers. Anything else just isnt Choos. Im thankful I ignored her advice on this occasion. Mr Choo likes ladies to dress smart, I was told by the manager of the chic restaurant in Paddington where we were to meet.
When Mr Choo, or to give him his correct title Dato (the Malaysian equivalent of a knighthood) Professor Jimmy Choo OBE, arrives he is a slightly-built gentleman in a dark suit and white polo shirt. He is wearing black loafers. He is demure and softly spoken there isnt a hint of designer flamboyance or bravura that one might associate with a genius who regularly deals with the likes of Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Charleze Theron.
Mercifully I dont see him look at my high-street-clad feet either, but then it seems that the glitzy and glamorous side of the haute couture industry, the Oscar parties and the Hollywood hype are fripperies that hold little allure for Professor Choo. In fact I put it to him that he is the very antithesis of the image his brand conjures up.
Choo set up his own couture label in 1986, making ends meet by making cheap sandals, and selling them for 5 a pair in weekend markets, earning enough money to keep himself afloat. His big break came when a friend from college, whose father was organising a fashion show, asked him to make her some shoes.
When, in 1988, British Vogue magazine ran an eight-page spread on his creations, he never looked back. Vogue accessories editor Tamara Mellon could spot a design genius when she saw one and, with her father, Tom Yeardyes backing, she launched Choos ready-to-wear line and Jimmy Choo shoes became a must-have on every fashionistas list.
In 2001, however, Choo subsequently sold his share of the ready-to-wear business whilst he himself continued to operate his couture line.
Today, Choos presence is forefront in two main areas, namely, at his couture house on Connaught Street (off Hyde Park), where he still works with his team, designing and making bespoke shoes bearing the Jimmy Choo Couture label; and in his firm support for education.
I tell my students that the key to success is hard work, respect for others and the determination to not give up, he says, adding: You need to love what you do. He is in fact the ultimate perfectionist. I talk to my shoes, he reveals.
Ive got a nice house in Hyde Park, right next to Jasper Conran, but sometimes on a Sunday, when my shop is closed, I just go and look at them. I fall in love with my shoes. I want them to know I believe in them.
He has chosen to base himself in the UK because, he says, it offers the best grounding in the world. Why doesnt Jimmy Choo go to Italy or New York? Because the UK has the best teachers and the best education, he says. He is, however, keen to stress that good students do not only design shoes, they need to be able to make them, too. So many designers talk about the concept, but unless you can realise the concept into a product its meaningless. So the message is you need to know the traditional skills as well. Unless you have skills concept is meaningless.
With Royal Ascot just around the corner, his workshop is busier than ever, creating fabulous shoes for the likes of the Duchess of Cornwall and Cherie Blair.
Many customers come back year after year, he says. They bring me their outfits and we match the shoes. My trademark is elegant and feminine. Thats my image.
If you want Mr Choo to design and make your Royal Ascot shoes, prices start at 650. Like an haute couture dress, you will also be expected to go for fittings.
The late Princess Diana was, of course, one of Choos greatest ambassadors. He reveals: She told me Jimmy, I dont have nice feet. I made her sandals, but she wouldnt wear them.
The day before she died Jimmy sent her a pair of shoes to Kensington Palace. He recalls: Afterwards they called me up to pay for this last pair of shoes, but I said I would rather have them back. She was a very kind lady. She endorsed so many designers in the UK. She did so much for them.
Professor Choo is not sure whether he will be attending Royal Ascot this year, although he tells me he enjoys the occasion, but he may be away travelling. He is very often abroad, promoting cultural and artistic links with Britain. On a recent trip back to Malaysia, he was very flattered to see his photograph in a school history text book. And when he can, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter, who is studying in the USA. He reflects: My life is easier now. I have people to do things for me. I have time for my family.
He laughs: Oh I can put on a show and dress up in furs and rings, but thats all it is - a show.
These days he is more interested in educating future generations in shoe design and to that end he has become an Ambassador for Footwear Education at the London College of Fashion, spokesperson for the British Council in their promotion of British Education to foreign students, and now the Honorary President of the International School of Creative Arts at Fulmer, near Gerrards Cross.
Opened last September and sharing its grounds with the Japanese Teikyo School, the ISCA is an independent day and boarding school for students in pursuit of artistic excellence at pre-university level. It is the only education facility worldwide able to offer A-level students access to the Central Saint Martins Foundation Plus, an accelerated summer programme that affords the same qualification as Central Saint Martins College established Foundation Diploma in Art & Design.
I visit as often as I can, Jimmy tells me over lemongrass tea. I am honoured to lend my support to this new initiative. It will offer an inspiring and life-changing experience, similar to that which I experienced as an international student at Cordwainers College (now part of London College of Fashion), to talented students from both the UK and further afield.
Living and working in London he enjoys visiting the school, which is set in 20 acres of landscaped gardens. It is a very nice place, surrounded by lots of trees. It is very green and peaceful. There is good chi there, he says.
Chi is a word he uses a great deal. It is at the heart of his philosophy. He explains: I am a Buddhist, very Tao. I do meditation. I am a simple, old fashioned man. I am a millionaire but I dont want any more money. I am still the same as I always was. I do not come from a rich family. My family came from China. My father believed work hard and you can survive. So I always remember where I came from.
Indeed, the young Jimmy made his first pair of shoes for his mother at the age of 11. The son of a reputable shoe designer in Malaysia, he spent his early years on the idyllic island of Penang working as his fathers young apprentice.
Determined to master the art of shoe design, he came to London in the 1980s to study footwear at Cordwainers College. The college has since become part of the London College of Fashion, one of five colleges that form University of The Arts, London.