Hubert Burda Media

Sandra Choi's secret to success

Sandra Choi talks about her success at Jimmy Choo and going against the grain.

Even though one’s choice of footwear tells how fashion-forward they are, shoemaking ironically remains traditional and unapologetically male-dominated. “By its proper term, we refer to someone who makes shoes as a cobbler. It’s dirty work. If you ever get a chance to visit a shoe factory in Italy, you’ll only find men working there. While women can make a pair of shoes, the task requires strength. So it’s still very much a men’s world,” explains Sandra Choi, one of the few women who is all too familiar with the inner workings of the trade.

After all, the creative director of Jimmy Choo was still in her teens when she first started working for her uncle, the decorated Malaysian shoemaker Jimmy Choo.

At the time, inspired by alumnus John Galliano’s jacket, she had just enrolled in the fashion design class at London’s distinguished Central Saint Martins. And it didn’t take long before she started skipping school to learn the art of making shoes — from designing, cutting patterns, stitching and fitting to constructing lasts. 

“It wasn’t just the shoemaking; it was the whole experience. Stylists like Katie Grand and Jane How would come over to the studio, borrowing shoes in plastic bags for shoots or to make tearsheets for their portfolios. I was answering calls from the Vogue fashion department,” she recalls. “It was an exciting time for someone who was 18 and wanted to get into fashion. So you can say I did my training on the job.”

This year, she’ll ring in her 20th anniversary at the brand where she became creative director in 1996, when British socialite and former Vogue accessories editor Tamara Mellon invested in and expanded the Jimmy Choo brand. (Her uncle later sold his 50 percent share in the company to devote himself to his Jimmy Choo Couture line.) In 2013, after the larger-than-life Mellon left the company, Choi moved from her behind-the-scenes role, to the brand’s most visible one.

Stepping up to the fore with a bold vision, she quickly proposed a complete departure from the style her party girl predecessor had cultivated. “It’s time to give this place a shake,” she declared to The Daily Telegraph at the time. “Jimmy Choo is that sexy, strappy, stiletto thing, but it can be something else too. [The new Choo woman] doesn’t need to get her hair done; she has a sense of attitude, which is: ‘You know what? This is me.’”

The brand may have built its name on skyscraper-high heels, but Choi turned her focus to flats, right around the time fashion began embracing more earthbound alternatives. Noting that lower heels are popular these days, she adds: “People are actually wearing trainers to the front rows of runway shows. I guess I’d sensed how fashion was taking on this new way of expressing itself.”

“We’re living in a time where a woman’s confidence is really represented by self. The Jimmy Choo woman calls the shots — she decides what she wants to wear. Stilettos are a staple but there are other shoes like trainers and sandals, so there are lots of expressions that communicate a woman’s lifestyle. And this is what I want Jimmy Choo to be able to do,” she says about expanding her collection beyond the red-carpet variety.

If women striding in sky-high, skinny stilettos translates into power, flats, on the other hand, convey a different strength to Choi. “Having the guts to wear flats is a sense of confidence. I’m petite and honestly, I like to wear high heels. But fashion today is fantastic because half my peer group is running around in flats, so I can actually lower the heel heights in my collections.”

Her latest Cruise 2016, for one, offers a myriad of designs that will convert even the most hard core high-heel devotee. “Flat is becoming a very important heel height in the world of Jimmy Choo,” she notes. “I’m loving the Dolly ones with the pom-poms.”

Another of her favourites is the retro sci-fi winter boots, a collaboration with iconic 1970s Italian label Moon Boots. While it is unusual for a shoemaker to team up with another shoemaker, Choi is never one for predictability. She gave the familiar shape a glamorous upgrade with luxurious textures such as shearling and fox fur, as well as cool treatments such as punkish studs and high-shine metallics in acid yellow and silver.

What’s also keeping the brand buzzy is the makeover of its Paragon store, which reopened in August. It was designed to incorporate the men’s line, reportedly Jimmy Choo’s fastest growing category. “It is about being classic but with a twist. I want my collection to appeal to the modern man. The play on details [such as the printed soles of the Alaric shoes] is subtle, so it remains approachable. That said, he’s not afraid to take it up a notch with [the Sloane] slipper embellished with studs,” she says. “I love designing beautiful silhouettes but they need to have an edge.”

Of all the compliments she receives, it is those that commend a shoe’s comfort that she finds most satisfying. “It is great to know that people love wearing your designs because it looks and feels great. It’s the cherry on top of the cake.”

With a retail network stretching across 183 stores in 36 countries, a new boutique makeover, a thriving men’s line and a revitalised women’s line, Choi seems to be every shoemaker’s dream come true. “I’m very lucky to be able to do something that I really love. Don’t get me wrong; there are challenges every day. But I don’t feel that I’ve brought the brand to where I want it to be. So I haven’t finished my job yet.”