Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, and Jimmy Choo are the three big names in high-end shoes right now. They’ve been duking it out in the luxury market for decades, and while each deserves to be profiled here, today we’ll focus on Jimmy Choo, who got famous by shodding a princess.
So is there a real Jimmy Choo?
Choo Yeang Keat was born in Penang, Malaysia in 1961 into a family of shoe makers of Chinese Hakka descent. He made his first pair of shoes when he was 11 and spent his teens honing the craft. But sensing his future lay west, he moved to England in the early 80’s to attend the prestigious Cordwainers* Technical College (now part of London College of Fashion) in London.
After working his way through school as a janitor and a waiter, Jimmy – as he now called himself, after Anglicizing his name — graduated in 1983 and opened his first shop in 1986 in an old, converted hospital building not far from the college. His creativity and craftsmanship generated buzz almost immediately. An 8-page spread in Vogue magazine in 1988 put him “on the map,” and when Diana, Princess of Wales, came knocking in 1990, he shot to international acclaim as a bespoken (custom) shoemaker.
While Jimmy was busy filling handmade shoe orders, twenty-something socialite Tamara Mellon was crushing on his shoes. As an accessories editor for British Vogue, she had seen hundreds of shoemakers over the years and knew that Jimmy Choo had something special. She approached him about mass-producing his shoes, and he agreed. They formed Jimmy Choo Ltd. in 1996 with money from her father, entrepreneur Tom Yeardye . . . and butted heads almost immediately.
Tamara had one vision, Jimmy had another. While she arranged production in Italy, found high end distributors, and handled all the marketing, Jimmy saw everything getting too big too fast. His protege and niece, Sandra Choi, sided with Mellon, and took over as head designer for Jimmy Choo. Jimmy withdrew from the brand that bore his name and continued to make bespoke shoes for his best clients. In April, 2001, he sold his 50% stake in the company to Tamara for £10 million (approx. US $16 million) to concentrate on his Jimmy Choo Couture line, which caters to bespoke clientele.
Meanwhile, Tamara – who worked in Public Relations before she went to British Vogue – has continued to build the Jimmy Choo brand. Not only are the dozens of Jimmy Choo boutiques in leading fashion cities like London, New York, Beverly Hills, Milan, and Hong Kong, she also sells them through high-end retailers like Harrod’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman. She added handbags to the mix in 2001 and has been working hard to dominate the luxury accessories market ever since.
Jimmy Choo ready-to-wear shoes start at US $345.00 and their handbags are US $500+.
Jimmy Choo Couture Shoes, available at Mr. Choo’s Cannaught Street Boutique by appointment only (and a favorite of the Duchess of Cornwall) start around US $1,000.
Don’t have that in in the budget? Try eBay instead.
So – from a young man with big dreams from a small town in Malaysia to international acclaim in just over a decade. Fashion empires can start anywhere. . .
* A cordwainer is an old British term for a shoemaker who makes soft leather shoes and other luxury leather accessories. Derived from the word cordovan – the soft white goat leather first produced in Cordoba, Spain – the word has been in use since the 1100’s. Cordwainers are one of the 108 livery companies established in London in Medieval times (others include saddle makers, glove makers, and butchers), and their guild, The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers (founded 1272), was like a union that oversaw, set standards for, and settled disputes among those in the cordwainer trade. Like the theater district, the meat-packing district, and the garment district, cordwainers had their own district in the City of London, called the Cordwainer Ward. Its boundaries were Cheapside (N), Cannon Street (S) Wallbrook (E), and Bread Street (W) – right smack dab in the middle of London.