Fam­ily Val­ues

Prestige Hong Kong - - CONTENTS -

JIMMY CHOO has come a long way since quit­ting his epony­mous la­bel. jing zhang meets the shoe – and now gown – de­signer in Shang­hai, as he and his nephew un­veil the new cou­ture col­lec­tion for their brand, The Ate­lier

As co-founder of one of the big­gest names in fash­ion, a distinct celebrity shim­mer fol­lows famed footwear de­signer Pro­fes­sor Jimmy Choo OBE when he walks into a room and takes off those fa­mous avi­a­tor shades. When he founded his name­sake la­bel in 1996 (with Ta­mara Mel­lon), he was in the van­guard of Asian de­sign­ers to make it big on the global stage. Fans in­clude Michelle Obama, the late Princess Diana and au­thor Candice Bush­nell and her Sex and the City TV char­ac­ter Car­rie Brad­shaw, who ar­guably made Choo a house­hold name in the late ’90s. Backstage in the green room of Shang­hai Fash­ion Week, we sit to talk with the de­sign mae­stro firstly about a new project with his nephew Yew Lau – namely, their Malaysian cou­ture gown la­bel, The Ate­lier. On the run­way, they send mod­els out in in­can­des­cent, fem­i­nine cou­ture gowns, all painstak­ingly hand­made by the small ate­lier team in Pe­nang and Kuala Lumpur. The crafts­man­ship is dis­arm­ingly com­plex. The col­lec­tion is a nod to fu­tur­ism as well as ar­chi­tec­tures of the past. Blend­ing the two ideas, the pair cre­ated so­phis­ti­cated gowns largely in sil­vers, whites and the palest of hues. The ef­fect is al­to­gether rather an­gelic: ostrich feath­ers, chif­fon lay­ers and swing­ing bead­ing re­call­ing art deco eras mov­ing sen­su­ally around the body. Struc­tures ref­er­ence sky­scrapers, Ro­man and Gothic ar­chi­tec­tures – and keep those ro­man­tic sweep­ing fab­rics feel­ing cool, crisp and mod­ern. “My nephew wanted to do de­sign since he was a lit­tle boy,” says Choo in his rapid-fire ca­dence. “He wants to help peo­ple and cre­ate jobs in Malaysia, so I’m help­ing him … He’s hard-work­ing and young – and it’s fam­ily!” In­evitably, the con­ver­sa­tion steers to the rea­son why Choo is a house­hold name, and how the ethos that lies be­hind hand­made items (whether gowns or heels) ties to­gether all his cre­ative en­deav­ours. Af­ter all, it was his own shoe­maker fa­ther who first taught him the craft as a child. “He said to me, for half a year you can only watch me and you can’t touch any­thing. You need to have the feel­ing in your heart for the craft. See how the knife can sharpen the leather … he was train­ing me to be pa­tient. With­out pa­tience you can’t do the work, you need to have the calm.” Choo is in­deed calm and col­lected, but not with­out a mis­chievous spark in his un­usu­ally pale eyes. There’s also an un­usual kind­ness about the man, who spends 70 per­cent of the in­ter­view talk­ing about his staff, his fam­ily and the de­vel­op­ment of other peo­ple, be­fore re­luc­tantly fo­cus­ing on him­self. At al­most 70, you have to won­der how Choo has the en­ergy for it all. His speech is quick. He lives be­tween Lon­don (he has an apart­ment over­look­ing Hyde Park) and his na­tive Malaysia, but trav­els con­stantly around the world. There’s a mul­ti­tude of am­bas­sador­ships – the Bri­tish Coun­cil, Princess Diana’s char­ity, Tourism Malaysia – that he works at pro­mot­ing. There’s also to­day’s fu­ri­ous new in­ter­est in Asian de­sign­ers, one that didn’t ex­ist many years ago when Choo started. “In the old days,” he says, “we didn’t have so much dig­i­tal news and so­cial me­dia. It was just mag­a­zines and TV back then. To­day it’s faster, but suc­cess can be fleet­ing too. As a de­signer you have to be good, you have to be re­spon­si­ble and you have to be cre­ative. “But as you well know, it’s also not what you know, it’s who you know. You need to get sup­port from the right peo­ple.” Choo was work­ing as a cob­bler in Lon­don af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Cord­wain­ers Tech­ni­cal Col­lege in Hack­ney in the mid ’80s. He then worked at de­sign houses for years be­fore open­ing his own busi­ness, im­press­ing Lon­don’s fash­ion set with his im­pec­ca­ble crafts­man­ship and cre­ative de­signs. He was mak­ing shoes for Princess Diana for seven years, and was featured in Vogue when he be­gan work­ing for Ta­mara Mel­lon, then an ac­ces­sories editor at the mag­a­zine. She ap­proached him to found a la­bel in 1996 and the rest,

as they say, is fash­ion his­tory – but not with­out its dra­mas. Choo sold his 50 per­cent share of the com­pany in 2001 for £10 mil­lion. Mel­lon con­tin­ued on at the Jimmy Choo brand un­til 2011, when she left the com­pany with a re­ported £135 mil­lion pay­out. To­day the stores and shoes bear­ing his name are ev­ery­where, and the brand has changed hands mul­ti­ple times. Last year it was sold by JAB Lux­ury to Michael Kors for al­most £900 mil­lion. Helm­ing de­sign at the la­bel is San­dra Choi, a long-term em­ployee of the brand who’s been there since the start; she’s also a niece of Jimmy’s Hong Kong-born wife Re­becca. Choo still ad­mits to a sense of pride and hap­pi­ness see­ing the bou­tiques all around the world: “They keep the name go­ing for­ward … I wish them to do bet­ter and bet­ter.” The de­signer still makes shoes, but only un­der his Chi­nese name Zhou Yang Jie, and it’s only cou­ture, be­spoke footwear for a very elite set of clients. “Some of these peo­ple will spend 300,000 to half a mil­lion [dol­lars] or­der­ing my shoes,” he says, “but you’d never guess. These rich peo­ple, many of them are su­per dis­creet, they just want some­thing unique and the best.” Fast fash­ion might have reached an apex, and ev­ery­one sells on the In­ter­net – but Choo ar­gues that the very rich still want things hand-made to or­der. “If you have that kind of skill and force it can still be a unique of­fer­ing,” he notes. These cou­ture dresses are beau­ti­fully made, Choo says, turn­ing back to the gowns. “See the very fine de­tails, all the [crafts­man­ship]. Some of the ate­lier ladies stay in our shops un­til the early hours be­fore our show. We re­spect them, we treat them right, we build up a very good re­la­tion­ship with our work­ers and they’re will­ing to work hard. “We have eight of them in the core team. I said if you work for me for three to five years, af­ter that – if I’m still alive – I want to give you the de­posit money to buy an apart­ment,” he ex­plains. Choo is al­most philo­soph­i­cal about how to work with peo­ple, how to treat them, and main­tains that “if you’re sin­cere with them, if you give them your heart, they’ll also do the same for you”. It is, in­deed, a re­fresh­ing at­ti­tude for an en­tre­pre­neur. Born to a hum­ble fam­ily in Pe­nang, Choo is ver­bose in his cham­pi­onship of Malaysia. And for the coun­try, there’s no na­tive who’s more fa­mous. If the Amer­i­cans have Ralph Lau­ren, the Malaysians have Jimmy Choo. He recog­nises the re­spon­si­bil­ity all too well and is fo­cused on find­ing young de­sign­ers he’s keen to pro­mote, help and men­tor from Malaysia and abroad. “I have a pro­tégé, a great bag de­signer called Elisa Ho. We met six years ago, and she’s a Lon­don Col­lege of Fash­ion grad­u­ate. Her de­sign is great, the cre­ativ­ity side is great … the bags are very un­usual,” Choo says. “I said to her that I want her to train more peo­ple and de­sign­ers in the fu­ture. That’s what I like to do, I want peo­ple to fol­low in my foot­steps.”

“These rich peo­ple, many of them are su­per dis­creet, they just want some­thing unique and the best”



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