The school of Jimmy Choo
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“Shoes are very important,” says Jimmy Choo, beadily studying my heavy-duty biker boots. “If you’re not comfortable, you spoil your body, and your spine will not be straight. A lot of people don’t walk straight when they walk – they don’t wear shoes nicely.”
The debonair shoe designer, whose super-sparkly creations have been worn by everyone from British royalty to Hollywood stars, would know all about the importance of good footwear. Dressed in a characteristically exuberant jewel-toned jacket and crystal-embellished midnight-blue brogues of his own design, he is chatting in a light-filled room of the recently restored Boston Manor House in the leafy west London suburb of Brentford, Hounslow, where he is opening a new “makerspace” for emerging craftspeople and designers. According to the Red List of Endangered Crafts published by the Heritage Crafts Association (an advocacy body established to safeguard traditional heritage crafts in the UK), shoe-making, hat-making and glove-making have all become “endangered” skills, meaning there are fewer practitioners to pass expertise on, and a dwindling number of people entering the profession. The soaring cost of materials and supplies following Brexit, or the problem of purchasing specialist equipment, pose further challenges.
“My father always said to me, if you have a skill, it’s good to pass it on,” says the 74-year-old. “If you look around these days a lot of craftsmen are slowly disappearing all over the world… Everyone wants to be a designer, but if you don’t know the craft, you can’t achieve what you want.”
Choo’s meteoric rise from cobbler to shoemaker to Diana, Princess of Wales, reads a lot like a fashion fairytale: born into a family of shoemakers in the Malaysian state of Penang, he learnt his craft from his father, making his first pair of shoes – a pair of flat leather sandals for his mother – at the age of 11. “In those days when you finished school, there was no computer to play on,” he says, “so I would watch my dad and the craftsmen make the shoes every day, and I learned very quickly.” These hand-based skills underpin all his later success, he says. “No machine could make a shoe as beautiful and as stable.”
He moved to London in his early 30s to study at the prestigious Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney (now a part of London College of Fashion), where he scraped together the funds to open his first shop in an abandoned hospital building. His fame grew when British Vogue’s then accessories editor, Tamara Mellon, gave his shoes an eight-page spread. In 1996, Mellon left the magazine to partner with Choo on mass-producing his designs, catapulting the brand into a £900mn global business. By the glitzy chainmail era of the early Noughties, Choo’s diamanté-encrusted shoes had become synonymous with high-octane red-carpet glamour, even earning an iconic cameo appearance in Sex and the City (“I lost my Choo!” cries Carrie Bradshaw as she throws herself at the Staten Island ferry); he was awarded an OBE in 2002.
Since selling his 50 per cent stake in the brand in 2001, Choo has continued to design shoes as well as couture wedding dresses (his niece Sandra Choi is now creative director of the brand); but his focus has turned to education, working as an ambassador for the London College of Fashion and promoting UK education overseas for the British Council. It was these experiences that inspired him to launch his own school and professional incubator – the JCA London Fashion Academy – in Mayfair last year. Although there is no dearth of fashion schools in London, Choo’s proposition sets itself apart from other institutions through its focus on craft-based education and entrepreneurship – a subject often deemed antithetical, even taboo, to inspiring creativity in fashion education. The JCA academy, by contrast, prides itself on its entrepreneurial approach. “We want to give students better knowledge, and to help them get into work,” says Choo. They also aim to attract students marginalised from higher education, having set aside a sum of £500,000 for scholarships to support those from disadvantaged or non-traditional educational backgrounds.
“People say to me, ‘At your age, you should relax and not worry about anything,’” he continues. “They say, ‘Why would you want to create a school? Why would you want to come back to work?’ Because I love fashion. I love education. If you’ve got something that you love and look forward to, you never feel old.”
The new makerspace, occupying the service wing of Boston Manor House, marks a next chapter. Set among 34 acres of parkland and surrounded by ancient cedar trees, the Grade I-listed Jacobean mansion was originally built in 1623 for Lady Mary Reade, a young widow who would go on to marry Sir Edward Spencer – an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. “We’d look at it thinking, my God, what a beautiful house, not knowing that it was derelict inside,” says the academy and makerspace’s director and chief executive, Stephen Smith.
Having fallen into a gradual decline since the first world war, the house was closed for more than three years as part of a redevelopment project and has now been returned to its former splendour following an extensive £6mn-plus restoration by Purcell architects, funded by Hounslow Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. “We chose this place because of the history and the surroundings,” says Choo. The house itself, with its stately rooms now upholstered in sumptuous blue silk damask and its gilded ceilings carved with ornate pagan motifs and allegories, looks like the spectacular backdrop of a Regency-era period drama; it will be open to the public for free, with a small gallery of the makers’ products in a café downstairs. “When people walk in, they’ll see a beautiful place with a good story, surrounded by fresh air, and they can learn something great.”
Comprising shared design studios, workshops and event spaces, the makerspace will accommodate the academy’s design and accessories students as well as aspiring artisans and craftspeople, who will have access to specialist machinery such as laser cutters, 3D printers, metal and resin workshops and sewing machines, as well as business support programmes and mentoring, including masterclasses with Prof Choo himself, based on a tiered subscription model starting from £240 per month. “There’s a lot of things for a sole craftsperson to do by themselves which creates a barrier,” says Smith. “If we can remove some of those barriers to entry then that will really help them to progress faster and more meaningfully.”
Boston Manor-based upholsterer and vintage restoration specialist Kal Watrobski will, for example, be able to expand her business with the new facilities at Boston Manor House. “The recent facelift has shone the light on a historic, nearly forgotten building in west London,” she says. “The fact that this space is now accessible, beautifully restored and has amenities that facilitate not only the disabled but creatives and makers in a way that has not been seen this side of London is a great drawcard.”
As for Choo, who divides his time between his homes in London and Kuala Lumpur, both the Mayfair Academy and the makerspace are also a way of giving back to the city he feels a deep gratitude and fondness for. “My father always taught me, when you drink water, think about where the water came from,” he muses. “If it wasn’t for London and the Cordwainers, I wouldn’t be here today.”