July 25, 2024

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Crafting Fashion Trends

Jimmy Choo on the art of education and the future of fashion

5 min read

In the world of high fashion, where the tides of trend and tradition often collide — Jimmy Choo has navigated a course that’s as much about constancy as it is about change.

Born in Penang, he has become an emblem of national pride. And for the country, there’s no native who’s more famous: if the Americans have Ralph Lauren, the Malaysians have Jimmy Choo.

At 75, he still has that distinct celebrity shimmer behind those signature aviator shades – his name synonymous with the sophisticated heel. Yet, beneath the sparkle lies a tale of persistence, history and the art of shoe-making that harks back to Choo’s humble beginnings in Penang.

When he founded his eponymous label in 1996 with Tamara Mellon, the brand would go on to mark a chapter in the annals of fashion, making Choo one of the first Asian household designer names.

The brand’s meteoric rise, bolstered by Princess Diana’s endorsement and Carrie Bradshaw’s obsession in the ‘Sex and the City’ TV series, was a triumph of brand building but also vindication of Choo’s enduring allure.

Decades after his departure from the brand, Choo is now collaborating with his nephew, Yew Lau, on The Atelier, a couture label celebrated for its exquisite, handcrafted gowns produced in Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

Today, Choo is crafting a different legacy with the Jimmy Choo Academy (JCA), a fashion and design university in London, founded with Stephen Smith. The JCA serves as a young talent incubator where creativity meets business acumen, where students can push creative boundaries and hone industry skills, guided by seasoned professionals. It’s also where Choo hopes to pass on lessons from his own journey; the transformation of a quiet workshop corner into a global symposium of style.

Professor Jimmy Choo. Image: JCA
Professor Jimmy Choo. Image: JCA

Jing Daily: What inspired you the most when you were first designing shoes under your name?

Jimmy Choo: When I first started doing this in London, I drew a lot of inspiration from nature. Its endless diversity and beauty provide a constant source of creative ideas and solutions for innovative and aesthetically pleasing footwear.

JD: You travel all over the world and have bases in both London and your native Malaysia. What creative influences do you find in each?

JC: There are many beautiful places in the world. My favorite place is my hometown, Penang, in Malaysia. Rich in multicultural history, heritage, and cuisine, it provides me with many unique ideas.

My second favorite place is London. This renowned city, full of rich history and cultural diversity, offers so many sources of design inspiration. The Victorian and Georgian buildings, modern architecture, art museums, and the vibrant fashion scene inspire me and it was also the starting point for my fashion business.

My third has to be Barcelona. Antonio Gaudí’s iconic work, like la Sagrada Família, gives me an endless stream of creativity, especially through its colors, textures, and innovative structural techniques.

JD: A lot of people are nostalgic about the past in fashion. What gives you hope about the future of design today?

JC: What gives me hope about the future of design is the increasing focus on sustainability, diversity, and inclusivity within the industry.

There’s a growing awareness of the impact of design on the environment and society, leading to more ethical and responsible practices.

JD: How did the JCA come to existence?

JC: Many years ago, I met Steven who said to me “You’ve been traveling all over the world working with education and it would be good one day to start a school together – to put back all your knowledge to train all the younger generation.” So we did it under the JCA. It wasn’t easy to set up, it took years and years!

In the end we found our site in Hanover Square.. Maybe it’s good feng shui because JCA now is looking over (what was) the Vogue UK offices and all those years ago in 1998, it was Vogue that gave me an eight page feature and helped me to promote my first brand.

There’s good energy in this space and it’s central and safe, great for international students. We have great teachers with industry experience that can train the students who come from all over the world, from the UK, US, Italy, Singapore, Paris, Hong Kong, Malaysia and more.

People can come and say “Oh I want to be a designer”, but you need to build friendships and trust in this industry. When it comes to the building in the center of London, in Hanover Square, people see the environment and location. They feel proud, and I feel great about it.

Jimmy Choo looking over students' work at the JCA in London. Image: JCA
Jimmy Choo looking over students’ work at the JCA in London. Image: JCA

How is the JCA approach different from other schools’?

JC: We don’t teach just design but the whole business, marketing, legal advice, where to do runway shows, we give them a guideline of how to launch their own labels. If you look at myself, I’m not only designing shoes, you know. I have the couture brand with my nephew Yew and we show in New York, Barcelona, Paris now… So that’s the kind of experience I can give back to my students.

It’s not a school that focuses just on the academic but also the connections, practical and business side. We want to establish trust and share our sincerity with students.

Humility is an important value at our academy. We [care about] design and how we can add value and be supportive in collaboration. It’s not about competitiveness or tactics, it’s about how we can sincerely and humbly work with a designer, whether they’re a global megastar or someone just starting out.

JD: What do you think is a major challenge for aspiring designers today compared to your early days?

JC: I think the biggest challenge is really technology. They must keep up with the latest digital trends, and techniques, which means continuous learning and adaptation. While they can easily access many ideas and opportunities online, they also face intense competition from around the world. In the old days, we didn’t have so much digital news and social media, it was just magazines and TV back then.

Today success is faster, but can be more 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.

JD: Outside of work, what is most important to you and why?

JC: The most important thing to me is family. My family supports me wholeheartedly, allowing me to focus on my career in design. I strive to spend as much time with them as possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

Jing Daily presents Jing Masterminds — a fortnightly, exclusive interview series profiling today’s most iconic names in art, fashion, commerce and culture. Delving deep into their personal journeys, creative processes, business strategies and societal impacts, the series offers readers an intimate look at the lives and minds shaping our industries.

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