The humble beginnings of Jimmy Choo – shoe designer

Malaysia’s finest and most famous fashion export is without doubt Jimmy Choo, the shoe designer. To use his full titles, he is Dato’ Jimmy Choo OBE. In 2000, he was awarded a title by the Sultan of Pahang in Malaysia, and in 2004 he was awarded a title by his home state of Penang. Both Malaysian awards carry the title Dato’. In 2002, he was conferred an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the Queen for his services to the shoe and fashion industry in the UK.

Shoe designer Jimmy Choo, spotted at a fastfood restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Photo by Aaron Toh).

Shoe designer Jimmy Choo, spotted at a fast food restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Photo by Aaron Toh).

For this post, I will be writing about Jimmy Choo, focusing on where he came from before he became famous. Jimmy Choo was born Choo Yeang Keat (周仰杰) in Penang, Malaysia. His family name is actually Chow, but his name was misspelt as Choo on his birth certificate. He was born into a poor family of shoemakers and he made his first pair of shoes at the age of 11.

Before going to London to study, Jimmy Choo was an apprentice at the Hong Kong Shoe Store in Penang, Malaysia. He learnt shoe making from Mr. Wong Sam Chai, a master shoemaker. If you’re on the trail of Jimmy Choo in Malaysia, Hong Kong Shoe Store still exists, now run by Wong Heng Mun, the son of Mr. Wong. The store’s original location was on Muntri Street (Lebuh Muntri) in Penang. It then moved across the road to 177 Muntri Street (at the corner of Lebuh Muntri and Lebuh Leith), and it has now recently moved to 20 Kimberley Street.

Hong Kong Shoe Store, where Jimmy Choo was an apprentice, at its former location in Muntri Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

Hong Kong Shoe Store, where Jimmy Choo was an apprentice, at its former location in Muntri Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by Chang Shih Yen).

Hong Kong Shoe Store specializes in handmade and made to measure shoes. They are famous for their Nyonya beaded slippers (which I’ll write about in a future post). It takes about 2 months for them to complete a pair of handmade shoes and the cost ranges from RM200 – RM300 (that’s under US$100). It is even possible to give them a picture of a pair of shoes and they can copy the design from the picture. They also have ready made shoes that can be bought off the rack, and these are even cheaper, about a quarter the price of their custom-made shoes.

Hong Kong Shoe Store, now at Kimberley Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by David Lee).

Hong Kong Shoe Store, now at 20 Kimberley Street, Penang, Malaysia (Photo by David Lee).

After his apprenticeship at the Hong Kong Shoe Store, Jimmy Choo left for London. He graduated from Cordwainers Technical College in Hackney in 1983, probably one of their most famous alumni. This college is now part of the London College of Fashion, a college of the University of the Arts, London. To pay for his education, Choo worked part-time at restaurants and as a cleaner at a shoe factory.

In 1986, Jimmy Choo started his own shoe label that bore his name. He became famous because his designs were a favourite of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. His shoes were also referenced in the hit TV show ‘Sex and the City’. In 1996, he co-founded Jimmy Choo Ltd with Tamara Mellon, a stylist for British Vogue. In 2001, Choo sold his 50% stake in the company. He now concentrates on his couture line. His shoe designs are high-end, beautiful but also comfortable.

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