Jimmy Choo’s headquarters are exactly what you would expect from a brand best known for glamorously cobbling the international jet set at extortionate expense. Located in a tall glass building overlooking London’s glossy Victoria district, the lounge seems designed for an oiled-up female assassin or maybe a jubilant Russian divorcee. Think black marble floors, shimmering gold curtains, floor-to-ceiling windows and fur lounge chairs. You half expect Pussy Galore to skulk round the corner, reapplying her poison lipstick.
Instead, to my surprise, I’m led into a large boardroom and introduced to a wisp of a gal in her early 40s with a tomboyish haircut and a pleasant grin. Sandra Choi, creative director of Jimmy Choo, sits at a long table, engulfed by a vast black leather swivel chair, swinging her legs in ripped jeans, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and black suede high-top trainers from the current collection. She jumps up, greets me warmly in her Hong Kong–accented English—a lovely vowel-bending mix of Chinese and British—and motions for me to sit with a flutter of her tiny hands.
It’s been just over a year since Choi took the helm of Jimmy Choo, where she worked for over a decade with her mentor, friend and former business partner Tamara Mellon, previously the public face and main stakeholder of the brand. It was Mellon, she of the glossy hair, gleaming legs and vast family fortune, who envisioned and cultivated Choo’s ferociously femme image—teaming up with Choi and her uncle Jimmy in 1996 and turning the brand into the status symbol it is today. It’s this image Choi is attempting to broaden, one comfy high-top sneaker or biker boot at a time.
“When you mention Jimmy Choo, it’s this sexy, woman-loving brand that you associate with a strappy stiletto. But Jimmy Choo can be other things, too,” Choi explains, motioning to her own feet. “I actually come to magazine interviews wearing trainers. It’s part of my personal style, and while I do wear high heels sometimes, I’m also a hands-on person who’s in the office all day long.”
Choi references her own shoes with a kind of insouciance that has become her trademark, both in her designs and in the way she carries herself—a kind of easy-going approachability, compared with Mellon’s high-flying glitz. It’s just one move in her subtle campaign to inject casual street style into one of the world’s foremost formal shoe brands.
Choi—who is married to a British menswear designer turned artist and photographer, Tamburlaine Gorst, with whom she has two young daughters—describes herself as a “typical working mum” in many ways, but her style is anything but matronly. So far her solo collections have been luxurious and sexy but with a darker, deconstructed edge that reflects her love of streetwear, as evident in the black structured Hatcher boot and the mannish Memo lace-ups from the prefall collection.
And in truth, a certain flexibility has always been part of the Jimmy Choo M.O.—the label made its name producing custom footwear for designers without their own shoe lines, as well as for magazine stylists and movie stars looking for the perfect pair of stilettos. (A practice Manolo Blahnik turned his nose up at.)
Choi knows the brand’s backstory; she’s been around for almost all of it.
Born in England to Chinese immigrants (her parents opened the first Chinese restaurant on the Isle of Wight), Choi was just a baby when she was sent back to Hong Kong to live with her grandparents while her mom and dad grew their fledgling business. At 13, she returned to her birth country, learned English and bolted to London as soon as she could. She stayed with her uncle Jimmy, a busy shoemaker with a studio in an old factory in Hackney, one of the roughest bits of East London. At 18, Choi knew she wanted to be a fashion designer, and she enrolled in a foundation course to get into the respected Central Saint Martins. She was eventually accepted … but never finished her degree. “I completed my dream because I always said I wanted to get into fashion school, but I never said I was going to graduate,” she jokes.
In fact, Choi dropped out because she was toiling long hours in Jimmy’s studio. Suffice to say there was not a Gucci or Prada outlet for miles around, though occasionally in-the-know socialites and celebrities did begin to make the trek east from Knightsbridge or Mayfair.
It was there, making tea and sweeping the studio floor, that Choi became interested in the shoe business.
“I was meeting the customers, doing the PR, taking the orders, cutting patterns, playing with leather, learning the basics of shoemaking. In Chinese culture when you stay with someone’s family you help out. You get integrated into the work system.”
What Choi could not have known in her late teens was that this small family-run “work system” would go on to become one of the biggest brands in the world. It’s currently in expansion mode, having been sold in 2011 to the German luxury conglomerate Labelux for over $790 million (Mellon stepped down shortly after), and in the process of adding 10 new standalone stores to its 180 locations worldwide. The new boutiques, most of which will have a revised design and colour palette (satin golds, pink marble, mother-of-pearl flooring), will offer a made-to-order service to women looking to up their shoe game in places as far flung as Macau, Vienna, Tokyo, Dallas and, now, Toronto (its Yorkdale shop, the first in Canada, opened this past summer).
Choi has watched her uncle’s business—as well as her own career—grow exponentially since the ’90s. But it was her close partnership with Mellon that was instrumental in making the brand a household name. Choi first met Mellon when the latter was working for British Vogue. Mellon would call up and say, “We need a bunch of flat silver ankle boots for a space shoot,” and Choi would deliver. When Mellon (with the backing of her father, Tom Yeardye, one of the founders of Vidal Sassoon) proposed that she and Choo produce their own collection, Choi helped facilitate the expansion. As the business grew, however, her uncle became increasingly uncomfortable with the unwieldy, fast-paced nature of the high-fashion world. “He’s a great shoemaker, but he wasn’t that interested in the business,” she explains.
In 2001, when her uncle sold the company to Mellon for what now seems like a quaint sum of $20.2 million, Choi decided to stay on. Sadly, she’s no longer in contact with Jimmy, who is reportedly back in his home country of Malaysia, running a small atelier.
When I ask her about the rift, she flinches ever so slightly. “It felt right to go with Tamara. What we were doing was the future, so I didn’t agonize over the decision. I could sense that it was the right thing to do.”
Today, she says, it hardly matters that the Choo company is still in the family. “Now, to me, it’s just the brand. Yes, there’s a person called Jimmy Choo, but the fact is I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if the brand wasn’t something in and of itself. It needs to be more powerful than any one individual. The point is for Jimmy Choo to live beyond me.”
There is little doubt of that. Today the brand has expanded, working with licensing partners to produce scarves, perfume and sunglasses.
To mark the opening of the Canadian store, Choi and her team have even designed a limited-edition customized Toronto handbag called Candy, featuring the city’s subway map. When I ask if she’s ever used Toronto transit, she admits she hasn’t, but says she’s “extremely keen” to visit T.O. (and Canada) very soon. “Maybe during the film festival? But we always have the collections then so it’s tricky.”
Our time is up, and she jumps up from her chair and walks me back out through the Bond girl waiting lounge to the gleaming bank elevators before striding—rather than tottering—off in her soon-to-be-iconic Jimmy Choo trainers.