Princess Diana’s shoemaker Jimmy Choo launches a British university of fashion

Jimmy Choo’s beautiful shoes have adorned the feet of Princess Diana and Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. Now he is launching a fashion university in the UK. Katie Wright and Stephanie Smith report.

Prof Jimmy Choo at Harvey Nichols, Leeds, in 2017. Picture by Simon Hulme

Professor Jimmy Choo says he has two important women to thank for his success. First, his mother, who cleared out her savings so that her son could start his own footwear business. “My mum is a generous person,” Choo says. “She said to me, ‘You start your own business instead of going to work for other people’. If my business failed, I would have no money to pay back to my mum.”

The other important figure Choo says helped him reach a wider audience is the late Princess Diana. “Whenever she travelled to different parts of the world, she would call me and say ‘Oh, Jimmy, can you design a range for me? I’m travelling to Japan, India… my birthday is coming up, can you design something for me?’”

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And, as word got out, he says, there was more demand: “So people said, ‘Oh, I must also ask Jimmy to design something for me’. So, it’s thanks to Princess Diana for giving me this opportunity.”

The Duchess of Cambridge wearing Jimmy Choo shoes. Ian Vogler/PA Photos

The 72-year-old speaks fondly of the time he spent with Diana before her death in 1997. “I remember the first time I went to see her in Kensington Palace by myself, talking to her about designs for visiting different countries. The lady-in-waiting asked her, ‘Do you want me to stay with you?’ She said ‘No, no I’m comfortable with Jimmy here’. We had a trust.”

In 2017, he visited Leeds as ambassador for the Diana Award charity, which was set up in 1999 following the death of the princess. It runs anti-bullying and mentoring programmes and recognises young people who demonstrate kindness, compassion and a desire to help others.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post at the Diana Award event marking the 20th anniversary of her death, he said: “I am passionate about mentoring because I know the impact it can have and it’s important for me to give something back.

“I can’t teach you how to be a good designer. But I can teach you how to be a good person. You need to be a good person first before anything else.”

Princess Diana wearing Jimmy Choo shoes in 1997. John Stillwell/PA Photos.

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Born in 1948 into a family of shoemakers in Penang, Malaysia, Prof Choo made his first shoe when he was 11. He worked part-time as a shoe factory cleaner to help fund his education in London. International fame came when his creations featured in a 1988 issue of Vogue magazine.

Princess Diana’s endorsement also helped. Their friendship blossomed over seven years of collaboration when he would visit her at Kensington Palace. He co-founded fashion empire Jimmy Choo with British Vogue accessories editor Tamara Mellon in 1996, but in April 2001, sold his 50 per cent stake and concentrated on his exclusive couture line.

Choo understands the enduring appeal of Princess Diana, and the importance of celebrity endorsements to emerging designers. “If you look at how the late Princess Diana passed away so many years ago, but every time it’s her birthday, (everyone’s) still talking about her.”

Jimmy Choo in Leeds in 2017. Picture by Steve Riding.

Now, the designer – currently living in his native Malaysia, where he has been forced to stay for a year, due to the pandemic (he is normally based in London) – wants to continue to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of fashion stars by launching JCA | London Fashion Academy.

Opening in September and based in Mayfair, the academy is on track to become the UK’s newest university dedicated exclusively to fashion, and hopes to attract talented students from all over the UK, with a curriculum that focuses not only on design, but on business acumen, too.

“Education for me is really important,” says Choo, who initially learned his craft from his shoemaker father in Penang, before moving to London in 1982 to continue his studies. “I’ve been travelling to different parts of the UK. If I go to Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, young people say, ‘I would like to study in your academy’.”

So, what does it take to go from fashion novice to a globally renowned designer like Choo? “First, they have to love what they do,” he says. “Second, they must have a creative mind, they must have a story. Then you have to have skills as well – if you don’t have skilled knowledge, you cannot create anything.”

Beyond a solid education, Choo is well aware of the power of product placement for designer brands.

On-screen style icon and high heel obsessive Carrie Bradshaw (played by real life style icon Sarah Jessica Parker) is credited with boosting the brand in the early 2000s thanks to the famous “I lost my Choo!” moment in Sex and the City.

Now the much-loved TV series is getting a reboot, and Professor Choo is very pleased. “This is a good chance for me,” he says, but it’s not his Jimmy Choos he’s hoping to see Carrie strutting around in this time.

“You see, all my students who study with me, they also have a chance to work with the royal family and celebrities as well. They have the knowledge, they have a connection (with the academy), they can design for the film stars as well.”

For more about the JCA | London Fashion Academy and to apply for courses visit www.jca.ac.uk.