Twenty years ago this summer, Princess Diana stepped out at a Chicago gala wearing a purple Versace dress and matching Jimmy Choo pumps. She wowed the crowd with her elegant, effortless style — and thrust the fledgling British footwear brand into the spotlight.
“She came to us via her couture designers and asked Jimmy to make shoes. She had an inner radiance and was utterly normal. She would drive straight up to the door of our first store on Motcomb Street and park on the double yellow lines,” recalled Sandra Choi, who spent those early days behind the scenes, quietly toiling away alongside her uncle, the company’s namesake. (Jimmy Choo left the brand in 2001 after its first sale.)
Two decades later, Choi — now the brand’s very visible creative director — still looks back at that royal moment with great pride as she reflects on the company’s storied history.
The designer herself has been a central character through all of Choo’s chapters. She has skillfully navigated the ups, downs, twists and turns: the complex acquisitions, dramatic leadership changes, the digital revolution.
Along the way, Choi helped build the brand into one of the biggest fashion success stories of the modern era and make it a household name. Carrie Bradshaw loved and lost her Choos in a memorable “Sex and the City” episode during the early 2000s. Beyoncé sang about them. First lady Michelle Obama, one of Choo’s biggest fans, danced in the label during both her husband’s inaugural balls — and dozens of other times, too.
“The fact that I’m making shoes that are being worn in important places by important people — that was always a dream,” said Choi, who last night hosted the brand’s buzzed-about 20-year bash with Amber Valletta and the six other models from the anniversary campaign.
During a more relaxed moment this summer, Choi sat down with FN in her London office to talk about her incredible journey so far and why she’s so excited about the road ahead.
You’re the only major force at the company who’s been there since the very beginning. How does that feel?
For a long time, I was just kind of moving forward. For the anniversary, we’ve been talking about our DNA, our heritage and everything we’ve done [so I’ve thought more about the past]. I’ve grown up with this brand. We’re 20 years old, and when we started, I was a twentysomething-year-old who probably worked hard, had a good time, went out clubbing, got on planes without having any sleep. Now, I’ve gotten married and had babies and seen my team moving on to other companies and having babies themselves. I’ve had a great time.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
From time to time, I think about how I would have loved to have graduated from school. Neither Tamara [Mellon] or I had been to any institution, but we had a lot of support around. I guess I graduated from a different kind of school — the school of Choo. We wrote our own textbooks.
When did you realize that Jimmy Choo had the potential to become a household name?
The stars think of us when they get dressed up. The red carpet has always been key. That started during the “Sex and the City” era. TV is very powerful, and we were there for that moment. Women got more vocal about what they wanted to wear and how they wanted to have fun with it. People liked what we were doing and started talking about us. It all happened organically, and that’s when we knew we could grow the business.
Any other tipping points along the way?
For me, one of the monumental ones was when we opened our first store in New York. It felt like the moment when we said, “We’re here, and we want to make this happen.” That was in 1998, and I can still remember what I was wearing. I took pictures of everyone. Then we opened in January 1999 in L.A. It was quite fast, but Tamara’s father, [the late business mogul Tom Yeardye], had the foresight to open stores early on, and we did.
What has been your personal career high so far?
Possibly the most pinch-me moment was attending a reception at the White House in 2014. I had to be there. I dropped everything and cleared my calendar. The first lady invited all of the people she works with in the fashion world to [take part] in a two-day workshop and event she hosted for underprivileged youngsters. Meeting Michelle Obama was surreal. When I met her, she knew what I was up to and what the brand was doing. I was so impressed by how detailed and personal she was.
It’s been about three years since you took over the sole creative reins of the brand. Are you more comfortable in the spotlight today than when you first took the position?
I have to be. It’s a big organization. Everyone’s looking to you for leadership. I love that I’m instilling my mark.
How much do you think about the business side?
I don’t get myself wrapped around it too much, but you definitely need to be aware of it. There’s a difference between being a designer and being an artist, so you could create an art piece, but you still need to make sure the 12 other pieces in the collection will actually sell.
You made a splash with the fall campaign, bringing together seven different female models. What statement are you trying to make?
The way I’ve been looking at the brand is as a jewel with many different facets. For the campaign itself, I deliberately wanted to show those different personalities and women of our time. They were shot individually and together, and I love the dynamic mix. We don’t want to just be a brand that talks about glamour and the red carpet. There’s so much more to it, and I think the girls were able to channel that.
Do you feel you have an advantage as a female designer who’s designing for other women?
I’ve never looked at it like that. It probably gives me an advantage because I can try on a shoe and see where it lands on my ankle and arch. In that sense, it’s beneficial. But who’s to say the male designers aren’t trying them on, too?
What’s your favorite shoe you’ve designed?
The Pascha, a rope-strap flat sandal. I’ve got three pairs of them. I made them twice because I like them so much. To me, those shoes represent freedom and holidays. I love how sexy they are as a flat. They are also my husband’s favorite shoe.
How challenging has it been to delve into categories beyond footwear, such as sunglasses and fragrances?
The shoe business is my baby, and I can design everything. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got designers working for me, but [women’s shoes] are the one thing I know how to do. In terms of bags, I’ve grown up with them, but I can’t say I’m an expert. Even with men’s, there is a learning curve. But we have to go with the flow and listen to your gut feeling.
Do you get as excited about designing men’s shoes as women’s?
I wasn’t brought up and trained in men’s. I like studying it and educating myself about it. There are a lot of quiet details and strict rules you have to respect. The structures, techniques and workmanship are important. Men are playing with colors and details [more than ever before].
James Jagger is your latest men’s campaign star. Why was he the right choice?
We were looking for a character to represent the business, and James Jagger ticks all the boxes. He’s an actor in the making, and he’s part of the rock ’n’ roll aristocracy. At the same time, he has his own sense of style, and I love how he represents men today. Jimmy Choo is an English brand that has lots of international qualities. James lives all around the world.
What other categories are on your wish list?
Personally, I dream about fine jewelry — I would love to do that. Whenever I go on trips, jewelry always catches my eye. But until I can get the expertise and know-how in that area, I’m not going there. I need to do it properly and perfectly.
Can you envision a Jimmy Choo ready-to-wear line?
I don’t see it just yet. I am a bit old-fashioned. I like to think we will be able to [continue to evolve with accessories.] I like to have the freedom to be able to wear something else on my body as well.
What has been your favorite collaboration over the years?
In the past, I loved what we did with the “Four Inches” book [where notable women posed only in Cartier jewelry and Choo shoes to benefit the Elton John Foundation]. I also loved the collaboration we did with Brazilian artist Rafael Mantesso and the illustrations he did of his English bull terrier, named Jimmy Choo. That was brilliant because it shows you don’t have to always be rigid. You can experiment.
Who is the one person living or dead you would like to see wearing your shoes?
Lara Croft. I like her as a character. She will have a few pairs [for different occasions].
What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone breaking into the business?
Anchor your aesthetic. You can mold it, evolve it, transform it, but you first need to establish it. Also, don’t take no for an answer. Find a way [to do what you believe in].
Is it more difficult to be a designer today than when you started out?
It seems that more and more designers are launching, but it’s hard to be a good designer and have the support you need to succeed. With dresses, you can go and design a pattern and make the dress in your bedroom. You can’t do that with shoes. You need a network of support on the industrial side. You have to get your hands dirty and overcome the challenges that arise when the shoemaker says they can’t do something.
Where do you want Jimmy Choo to go in the next 20 years?
I always say that we’re 20 years young. We’re just adolescents. The fundamental DNA is set, but [now it’s about] figuring out where we’re going to go next. For me, the most important thing around me is creativity. It’s great that Jimmy Choo is known for a certain aspect of shoes, but I think we can pave the way in anything that’s beautifully made, has a creative angle and that makes someone happy. I can’t wait to go out and do other things.