Talk about lifetime employment. In an industry where creative directors come and go at breakneck speed, shoe designer Sandra Choi has only ever worked for one company: Jimmy Choo, shoemaker to the stars and to stylish women around the world.
Although the house she helms doesn’t bear her name but that of her uncle Jimmy, who hasn’t been involved with the label since a notorious fallout with co-founder Tamara Mellon in 2001, Choi is Jimmy Choo. She has been with the brand from day one, when it started as a small shoe shop in London catering to a loyal clientele that included the late Princess Diana, and has seen it experience many ups and downs throughout its two-decade-long history.
You’ve been at Jimmy Choo from day one. How does it feel to be creative director now?
The main thing about fashion is that you need to keep on evolving; that’s the key. I’ve seen it from being an idea. None of the people who were involved at the beginning were coming from other houses so we were all learning on the job but there was always a goal. I remember in the beginning when Tamara’s father said, “We’re going to open five stores in the world within the next three years.” I didn’t think it could happen because my career started in a studio, in Jimmy’s workshop in the East End, and then we opened a shop in the middle of Belgravia and then an office in the shop and then it really happened. We opened those stores. So if you set your mind to it and set a benchmark, if you have a goal, you can make it happen.
What’s the first thing you did when you took the creative reins in 2013?
When you’ve been in a place for a long time and you know it so well and it’s not broken, you don’t want to change anything, there’s that feeling. It’s more about understanding who we are. I remember for many years I sat aside and thought, “I would do this if I were in charge,” so I had those feelings of, “If it’s not broken don’t fix it.” There’s so much of a little heritage, so to speak, and the DNA of Jimmy Choo is so apparent there’s no need to say, “I want to do this, I want to do that.” It’s a feeling of contradiction but I took my time, sat down to think about what makes Jimmy Choo, what’s the key DNA of Jimmy Choo, so I have to keep that in mind all the time but I also have to make it grow, make it flower. It’s an accessory company but at the same time we now run it like a fashion brand.
Can you tell me more about the idea that shoe brands now are fashion companies?
They were seen as leather goods back then. At the beginning there were very few key brands but now there’s a lot, which is amazing because those who started have inspired individuals to focus on accessory design. On top of that, now every fashion brand has a shoe line. When we first started it was only a few and their shoes were just meant to finish an outfit. Making shoes is an area of expertise in the same way you can’t just go and cut a jacket. There’s craftsmanship involved. If you want to make a dress, you can get the patterns and the material and try to do it at home with a sewing machine but with a shoe, you really can’t do that.
Can you tell me how you conceive each collection?
The design process starts from the story. Let’s say it’s a pair of cowboy boots. We start from the storyline and then the shape, silhouette … with the story then I can brief the shoe and bag team, the windows team, so it all comes together. Once the brief is set, the colour palette comes together and I sit down with my designers and talk with them and they contribute with their opinions. It’s a lot about the construction, the shape, the mould.
What about the idea of comfort? What role does it play versus design?
Lifestyle is taking over a lot of people’s lives. Now we’re very spoilt in terms of comfort, so if it’s OK to wear flats, why not? When I design, I think of the cut, the shape and how it looks and then I think about the functional bit. They need to be functional of course, but if it’s not flattering the feet or doesn’t have the right proportion it doesn’t work, because there’s an element of image involved. You wear these shoes because you want to feel great, and feeling great often comes with a price.
Jimmy Choo is only 20 years old and yet it’s a household name.
We hit the golden era when the media went crazy about shoes. I can’t help but mention the red carpet. There were other brands doing the red carpet but we did well because everyone wanted to put dresses on celebrities but we focused on shoes, so we found our niche. We never jeopardised the relationship between celebs and fashion brands. They also loved the comfort factor. The first thing they said was how they loved them and [the shoes] made them feel amazing, but then it was always comfort. We were trusted. I’m a woman, so I won’t put anything out there that doesn’t look good. So it’s a mixture of the red carpet, craftsmanship, design – and we were also born in the era of Sex & The City, when girls were getting together and had their own money and bought their own pieces of fashion. It’s also easier to tap into a trend with a pair of shoes and bags.
Was there a moment when you realised that this was your call in life?
I was too busy to even realise that I wanted to do this. I always loved architecture but I was a dropout at fashion school. I was eager to work. My love for design and fashion merged into a thing, an object, and what’s better than shoes? I think I ended up in the right place for myself also because I’m very detail oriented and shoes are small, especially when you compare them to a handbag.
Do you remember the first pair of shoes you bought?
I was in the studio with Jimmy and I wanted a pair of Patrick Cox’s Wannabes and it didn’t go down well. I also remember this pair of white Mary Jane shoes that I had when I was seven, they came with a little block heel and had a square toe. For a seven-year-old it was a big deal, but the first pair that I wanted to buy for myself was that pair of Wannabes around 1992. I remember not being able to buy them because I was getting very strange remarks by Jimmy [laughs].
Why do you think you were able to last so long at the brand?
Honestly, there’s so much more to do. I was never the boss. I’ve only been in charge creatively for the last three years. I’m loving what I can do; it’s a constant evolution. We consistently surprise people so I feel that everything is possible; I’m not there yet. There’s so much we can do. You need to have an open mind and I have a group of people of different ages and I love talking to them, because don’t forget that when I started I was 24, so 20 years later – you do the math. It’s a different point of view. I used to go out clubbing but I don’t any more so I want to hear their experiences, what they see out there. That is important, that is key, that is the essence of the company and to have almost 200 stores around the world from those five … fashion is not just about one place; it’s very global, not even global, actually, but cyber.
Finally, can you share something about your Hong Kong roots?
I was born in the Isle of Wight in the UK and then I grew up in Tai Po. I love the vibrancy of Hong Kong and I learned my work ethic there. I love that people there are eager for fashion – it doesn’t matter if they’re big spenders or not but they love to embrace fashion and that’s something very true of Hong Kong. They love shopping, whether it’s a market on the street or a department store.