Friend to royalty and celebrities alike, Choo remains ever humble, despite his notoriety and successes. He prefers to stay at home with family or entertaining British and Malaysian friends at his restaurant in London. Read on for the full story on Jimmy Choo, and the events and experiences that conspired to bring him to the forefront of the high-fashion shoe industry.
GROWING UP IN MALAYSIA, HOW WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD?
Penang was a very quiet, relaxing city to grow up in, not like a really bustling Asian mega-city. And of course I was close to the sea so I was always, from a very young age, in a boat or on the quayside fishing, swimming, or playing lots of badminton. It was also a real melting pot of a place to experience the rich cultural diversity of the local Chinese, Indian, and Malay communities who lived there.
HOW WAS THAT EXPRESSED?
Well, with religion for example. I was always on my bike cycling past Chinese temples, Buddhist temples, and mosques. That colorful, multi-cultural landscape started to influence me strongly in my designs. It was also expressed in the rich architecture. I was always obsessed with the clock tower built at the height of the British Embassy and presented to Penang by local millionaire Cheah Chen Eok in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
BY THE TIME YOU WERE A TEENAGER, HAD YOU RESIGNED YOURSELF TO A LIFE IN MALAYSIA OR HAD YOU ALREADY BEEN SWAYED BY ANOTHER WORLD, SUCH AS THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF HOLLYWOOD?
Well, many times my best friend had said to me in my teenage years, “Let's go to London for a holiday”, and then at 21 I finally bought my ticket and went and completely fell in love with the place. So I decided that I had to study at the amazing Cordwainers College in North East London, close to where the Olympic stadium is now, which is so interesting to me as I have so much affection for the area.
SO YOU CAME TO LONDON, AND THEN WHAT, THE START OF YOUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE PLACE?
Completely, I immediately fell in love with the place. It's the greatest city for me; it’s the multi-cultural heartbeat of the world. Everybody is a foreigner there so I felt so at home. We joke in London that no one is actually from London anymore! London gave me everything; it gave me the platform to succeed as a shoemaker.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU TRAVEL HOME TO MALAYSIA?
At least once a year I'd go to see my parents, but they’ve passed away now so I go to visit my sister. I have a house there in the area of Kuala Lumpur called Mont Kiara, which is a bit like Chelsea. I love the whole area of South-East Asia and I'm off to Borneo to see the gorillas soon. I'm very excited about that.
YOU MUST BE VERY PROUD TO REPRESENT SOUTH-EAST ASIA ON THE WORLD STAGE.
Of course, I was presented with the 2011 World's Outstanding Chinese Designer Award, a great honor reserved for designers of Chinese heritage who have demonstrated significant contribution to the design community, at a ceremony in Hong Kong.
HAVE YOU RECEIVED OTHER SUCH AWARDS?
In 2000, I received the title of ‘Honorable Dato', which is the equivalent of a British Knighthood, and in the UK itself I was honored by the Queen and received an OBE in 2003. In Malaysia, there was great affection for British influence when we were a colony, and, of course now in Britain, there are many Malaysian students and successful businessmen like myself.
THERE MUST BE MANY THINGS, APART FROM MAKING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SHOES IN THE WORLD, WHICH YOU ARE VERY PROUD OF.
Of course, like my couture house on Connaught Street in London's West End, my ambassadorial role for Footwear Education at the London College of Fashion, and being a spokesperson for the British Council in their promotion of British Education to foreign students. These days, I work less on the design side of things, which means I have more time to actively support my country as a Tourism Ambassador for Malaysia, something I've been honored to do since August 2009. Although I live in London, it is my responsibility to promote Malaysia as a unique tourist destination on the other side of the world. I am still a proud Malaysian, so, each time someone asks me where I come from, I instinctively promote my country to them.
DOES MALAYSIA HAVE AN IMAGE PROBLEM AS IT HAS TO COMPETE WITH THAILAND, WHICH IS NEXT DOOR?
Not anymore because 3 years ago the entire season of Britain's Next Top Model was shot in Malaysia. We had Elle Macpherson there, and many journalists descended on our country, wanting to know about myself and about our hidden secrets. I've never been as busy as now, going on TV and radio stations, talking about my shoes, my brand, and my country. I've been asked many times to be a judge and to take part in reality TV.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN MALAYSIA, IF YOU LOOK AT IT THROUGH A BUSINESSMAN’S EYES?
Twenty years ago, something stamped with 'Made in Hong Kong' or 'Made in Malaysia' did not represent quality. Today, it means quality. We also have the shopping malls stocked with Fendi, Gucci, Chanel, and Jimmy Choo in Malaysia. We have a lot of Malaysian fashion designers who have actually studied abroad and returned home to become major brands there.
YOUR SHOES ARE BEAUTIFUL BUT ALSO FAMOUSLY QUITE EXPENSIVE.
That's because of the quality, and why I have for example the Royal Family of Kuwait and a Prince from Malaysia visiting me as soon as we finish this interview. We have a huge counterfeit problem in Asia so, for my label, my brand to succeed has been an incredible achievement. I even went to Stockholm recently after the King invited me there. I'm lucky to be able to name Kings, Queens, and Princes as friends.
AND IN LONDON, YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY LOVED BY THE MALAYSIAN COMMUNITY?
Yes, Tony Fernandez, who owns QPR, and I are known everywhere I guess. I have a restaurant in London and we have had some great times there with both our British and Malaysian friends.
ARE YOU SOMETHING OF A SUPERSTAR WHEN YOU WALK DOWN THE STREET IN ASIA?
I don't go to film premieres and parties, as I prefer to be with my family. I am very fortunate that people in Malaysia really love and respect me. I would like to think that I've stayed a humble man, but, yes, I am stopped by people who want a photograph or an autograph.
AND, NO DOUBT, A PAIR OF SHOES?
They are very expensive...too expensive to give away! [Laughs]
interviewed by ANDREW THRELFALL / THE INTERVIEW PEOPLE|photos: courtesy of GETTY IMAGES