The Bergdorf Goodman shoe salon was abuzz on a Thursday afternoon earlier this month as dozens of shoppers crowded around a large display of Jimmy Choo resort styles.
A well-dressed woman sipping champagne showed off her glittering new Choos, which had just been autographed by Sandra Choi, the brand’s creative director. “I’m going to sleep with your shoes tonight,” the woman’s husband told Choi. “Good for you,” she responded enthusiastically.
The designer, energized and excited, had just stepped onto the shoe floor in New York for her first U.S. personal appearance, after an intimate Vogue lunch where she was the guest of honor. In between mingling with her fans — including two stylish NYU students whose dream was to own a pair of Jimmy Choos — she greeted her former boss, Bergdorf President Josh Schulman, and posed for pictures with Linda Fargo, the retailer’s fashion maven.
This was Choi’s breakout moment, which had been in the making for two decades.
“Being here at Bergdorf, I feel like I’ve arrived,” she said.
The niece of the company’s co-founder and namesake, Choi has been the one consistent character in every chapter of the label’s incredible, sometimes dramatic tale.
She was there at the beginning, assisting her uncle with his bespoke collection even before the company was born. When Tamara Mellon burst onto the scene in 1996, Choi began working with the ambitious entrepreneur on all aspects of the label, and in the process, she got a fashion education. After Choo sold his stake in 2001 as part of a larger acquisition deal, Choi stayed on.
Since then, Jimmy Choo, now owned by Labelux Group, has changed hands three more times and undergone several executive shakeups.
Despite the sometimes soap opera-like storyline at the brand, Choi has kept a positive perspective on the continual changes. “I had nothing to do with the deals. I just flew with them and they were fine,” she said. “I’m really lucky because I’ve been here for all the key moments as we’ve built the brand. I respect the past immensely. It’s what made us.”
And throughout the twists and turns, she has remained a force at the company. Until recently, however, her role was largely behind the scenes. Choi stepped into the spotlight last year following Mellon’s surprise exit and, for a short time, shared creative director duties with Simon Holloway. After his departure from the company early this year, she was handed the reins solo. “Day to day, things are relatively the same, but now I have my fingers on everything related to the brand image, like our campaign with Nicole Kidman. And sitting here talking [with editors], that’s completely new,” she said.
Choi, who is unassuming, even shy at times, said her goal isn’t to be a celebrity designer. Rather, she believes the shoes should tell the story. “It always comes back to the product,” the designer said.
And now that she’s in the driver’s seat, Choi is ready to take the collection in new directions.
“We’ve always been related to glamour, the red carpet, super-refined luxury. All those things are us. But how do you [translate that aesthetic] into something for a woman of our times?” said Choi. “People don’t know that we actually do sneakers and biker boots really well. I wear them all the time. I want to bring those other facets of the brand to the forefront.”
Jimmy Choo CEO Pierre Denis — the former John Galliano chief who was hired in July 2012, several months after Schulman left the top spot — said Choi’s promotion marked a significant turning point for the label.
“We are now leading, first and foremost, with creativity,” he said. “We have done a lot of work to elevate the brand in terms of products and execution. We are ready to embrace a new chapter.”
The team will forge ahead with several initiatives during the next few months. Among them: a refreshed retail concept, expansion in China and a deeper push into the men’s category.
On the retail front, the brand, which counts 173 stores globally, is working with well-known British architect and designer David Collins to sharpen the look of key locations.
“We want to introduce a shopping experience that is unique and a bit radical,” Denis said, declining to reveal specifics.
Choi added, “It will still be very much the soul of Jimmy Choo — very glamorous — but we’re focusing more on the details.”
The first revamped boutique will bow in Beverly Hills, Calif., next spring, and the new concept will roll out after that. “We will probably do some stores in Europe very quickly, and some of them will combine men’s and women’s together,” Denis said.
Other locations, including shops in London, will remain separate as the firm evaluates the growing men’s business. After debuting a men’s-only store on Dover Street in London, Jimmy Choo will bow another dedicated door at Shanghai’s new IAPM Mall before the end of the year. New York is also on the agenda if the right spot becomes available.
“The men’s market is [undergoing] a revolution, and we could potentially have a lot of male customers,” Denis said, noting that men are choosing footwear as a way to differentiate their looks. But, he added, don’t expect Jimmy Choo to get too extreme when it comes to design. “We definitely want to talk to a customer who has a sense of fashion, who is confident in himself. But he doesn’t want to [look] crazy.”
For Choi, venturing into the men’s business has been a learning experience.
“Men’s shoes have to be authentic. The quality, the luxury and the craftsmanship are so important, and we pay a lot of attention to those things,” she said.
While men’s is at the top of the agenda in terms of category expansion, China is high on the geographic growth list.
“I’m not going to depend on China to make my [numbers], but like everyone else, I am interested in developing the business there,” said Denis, who previously worked as the managing director for Christian Dior Couture in Asia. “What has happened in China in the past 20 years took 200 years everywhere else.”
He added that consumers in the vast market have developed a greater understanding of luxury over recent years. Increasingly, they hunt for brands that are specialists in their respective product categories, which he believes gives Jimmy Choo an advantage over larger luxury fashion houses that are selling footwear.
Elsewhere in Asia, Denis said he is impressed with Jimmy Choo’s momentum in Japan, which has been a thorn in the side of many luxury brands. “Everybody somehow put Japan [on the backburner], but we have a fabulous story there right now,” he said.
With the firm’s expansion plans now taking shape, Choi and Denis are getting strong reviews from their boss at Labelux Group.
“There has been a positive change in the brand, and the success has been clear. The renewed focus on quality and innovation has [translated] into products that have widely been acclaimed as the best yet,” said Labelux CEO Reinhard Mieck. “The evidence is in both top- and bottom-line performance, where Jimmy Choo has comfortably outperformed the sector on both.” (As a private company, Labelux does not release specific financial figures.)
Retailers are equally bullish on the brand’s performance.
“The [leadership] transition has been seamless,” said Dayna Ziegler, VP and DMM of women’s shoes for Saks Fifth Avenue. “Jimmy Choo continually offers our customer the perfect mix of modern fashion and timeless elegance.”
Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder of the Jeffrey boutiques and director of designer merchandising for Nordstrom, said the trends of the moment also benefit the label at retail.
“Jimmy Choo has always been known for its elegant single soles, and that is [driving] the market right now,” he said.
While Choi is upbeat about the strength in the shoe business, her vision extends well beyond footwear. Jimmy Choo already has a thriving handbag segment and has expanded into new categories such as fragrance and sunglasses in the past few years. “We’ve found that the brand itself is quite elastic, so we can actually branch out and do different things,” she said.
What’s next on the list? “For the time being, I want to get our perspective right and do things the way I think they should be done,” she said. “But the name is limitless.”
The creative director’s thoughts on her frenetic life with two kids and why you can’t take social media too seriously.
Defining moments for the brand:
“To me, there were two. One was during the craze of “Sex & the City” when “I lost my Choo” got so much attention. (The episode featured Carrie Bradshaw running for the Staten Island Ferry and leaving her Marlene Choo style behind.) That was the biggest thing. And the second was when we were told our perfume was successful. We set out to do a perfume because it was fun, a challenge, something we wanted to do. But it became one of the top scents. That shows we’re established. We can go beyond just one product and do other things.”
Juggling motherhood with the demands of her career:
“Right now, it’s tough [with a new baby], but I have an amazing support system at home. That allows me to be here. I’m a little bit of a control freak. It’s all about being organized and managing your time properly. I guess that’s why women give birth, because we can multitask.”
The power of great shoes:
“It is easy to change your look or persona with a bag and shoes. Often, I do that myself. I drop my child off at school wearing sneakers and a big bag. And within that bag, I will have another bag to go out to lunch. And then, I have a couple pairs of shoes in my office. So you can change your look and style instantly. On the other hand, clothing can be more disposable.”
The rise of social media:
“I was shocked when we hit 2 million fans on Facebook. Not so long ago, it was 1 million. There are a lot of voices from everywhere. You can hear about what someone in the middle of India thinks, or what someone in Brazil likes. It’s good to get reactions, an education on what people think, but you have to take it with a pinch of salt because there are so many opinions.”
Being an observer of fashion:
“I like to see what the competition is doing and try not to do the same. It’s important that you watch, though. I love fashion, so I look at everything, [especially] jewelry and outerwear. I love looking at what the youngsters are up to. Street fashion is fueling the whole creative process and keeping ideas fresh.”