Sunday January 14, 2007
How Jimmy Choo ‘lost’ his name
In an exclusive interview, the first she's ever given, Sandra Choi –Datuk Jimmy Choo's niece and former protege – reveals how the demands and pressures of building a global shoe empire can unravel family ties and break up partnerships.
THE last time we met, Sandra Choi was a harassed and tired-looking lass of 23 with a bad haircut. She had served me tea and the occasional meal when I visited the then Encik Jimmy Choo in his grotty workshop in Hackney, East London.
Ten years on, I am staring at an impeccably garbed damsel with bouncy, designer-cut locks gliding into Jimmy Choo's reception area in swanky Chelsea and wondering who she is.
"Kee Hua Chee, how dare you just sit there and ignore me?" squeals the dame. "In my own office too!"
"Sandra? Is that really you?" I squeal back before demanding to know the name of her cosmetic surgeon.
"I haven't gone under the knife yet. If I look better it's because I don't stay up anymore till 3am every night making shoes," chuckles Choi.
Those were the bad old but wildly exciting days when Uncle Jimmy's fame as shoe designer extraordinaire was just starting to take off.
Many assume Choi to beJimmy Choo's niece but she is actually the niece of his wife, Datin Rebecca. Another fallacy is that she came from Hong Kong, like her aunt. The truth is: Choi was born on, of all places, the Isle of Wight, a tiny island off southern England!
"My grandparents settled on Isle of Wight after emigrating from Hong Kong and we were just about the only Chinese there. My parents sent me to Hong Kong as a child to learn my roots which explains why people think I came from there," explains Choi.
She returned to Isle of Wight at the age of 13 and the difference between frenetic, crowded Hong Kong and serene, sparsely populated Wight could not be more dramatic.
"I wanted to do fashion and Isle of Wight was not the most suitable place!" giggles Choi.
In 1991, she packed her bags for London's famous St Martin School of Design. And who should she live with but her aunt Rebecca and Uncle Jimmy.
Her timing was perfect: Vogue magazine had devoted a record eight fashion pages on Choo's shoes in 1988 and he was on the threshold of fame – if not fortune. The teenage Choi was fascinated.
"I started by helping out before learning about shoemaking from Jimmy in earnest. I found I loved designing and more importantly, making shoes. I knew I had found my forte.
"I loved working with Jimmy so much I never completed my St Martin's course in Art & Design. The workload was so heavy I gave up after one term."
The work, in fact, was flowing in by the torrents.
"That was a wild, creative and happy time for Jimmy and me. I met and attended to titled and rich clients who appeared in the social pages wearing Jimmy Choo shoes. Then came the celebrities and stars from the movie and entertainment world."
(I remember they almost died when I tried on the boots made for singer Robbie Williams just before he came to collect them.)
Three hectic years later, Choi was beginning to suffer from burnout.
"As the shoes were handmade, there was a limit to how many we could produce. I was on a high initially making all those beautiful shoes but I knew I couldn't last forever like that
"The pressure was tremendous as the shoes were mostly commissioned for specific functions like weddings, anniversaries or important parties so they had to be ready on time. The clients even brought fabric samples of their dresses and gowns so that we could match the colours."
Around the mid 1990s, Choi was began to feel, strangely enough, bored. "The work was dragging me down. We had reached a crossroad. The name Jimmy Choo was getting more and more famous and unless we expanded dramatically, we would be stuck in a rut. Everything was done in-house so we couldn't farm it out. Even Rebecca helped out feverishly."
Along came Tamara
As Vogue accessories editor, Tamara Mellon was knee-deep in Jimmy Choo shoes. She owned so many pairs she did the sensible thing and bought into the company!
Of course it helped that her doting and wealthy dad was Tom Yeardye, the man behind the Vidal Sassoon hair-care empire which he co-founded.
"Mellon was looking for a bit of economic adventure, something to sink her teeth into. And she came armed with a formidable business plan.
"She visited our workshop, saw how we did things, did her math and all the paperwork. She is a business woman who takes after her father," reveals Choi.
Under the partnership, Choo and Mellon each owned 50% of the company, Jimmy Choo Ltd, they co-founded. Yeardye became the chairman and Jimmy Choo Ready-to-Wear was born.
From 1993 till 1996, Choi remained as Choo's employee and managed Jimmy Choo's couture line as the chief designer. Mellon sourced out factories in Italy.
"Tamara's dad told us he would open five Jimmy Choo stores in three years and he did. I was stunned! The first was in London, then we opened in New York in 1998, Los Angeles in 1999, followed by Las Vegas and Milan."
It was in 1996 that the cracks between Choi and Choo began to appear. The work load and future opportunities were the factors that tilted her decision to jump ship and join the Mellon camp as employee.
"Your uncle could accuse you of blatant, unforgivable betrayal." I remark provocatively.
Unfortunately Choi doesn't get rattled but gives a most measured answer: "At that time, Jimmy owned half the partnership so I had to choose between working for him or Tamara. Frankly, Jimmy and I were physically exhausted from work and I could see what was coming if I remained. You just said I looked different – that's because I have a life now!" (See Sandra's choice)
With Choi now on the other side, there was an obvious clash.
Although he was a partner, the day-to-day running was left to the Yeardyes. Choo retreated, once again, to producing his exquisite, handmade couture shoes called Jimmy Choo Couture. The RTW line is Jimmy Choo London or just Jimmy Choo.
Today Jimmy Choo Couture – under licence from Jimmy Choo Ltd – is available, by appointment only, at 18 Connaught Street, off Oxford Street, London. Starting price: £350 (RM2,450).
Things became so strained that both Mellon and Choi eventually lost contact with Choo. At swanky Jimmy Choo Ltd parties, Choo, the man behind the name, is not invited. Mellon is officially the founder and president of Jimmy Choo Ltd.
To say Choo was furious is to put it mildly. Even now niece and uncle are no longer on speaking terms; Choi has also not spoken to her aunt since she decamped. The last time they met was in 2002 at Choi's sister's wedding.
"I saw Jimmy and Rebecca at Lisa's wedding. Jimmy and I both made a pair of shoes for her so she had to change twice to please us, ha ha! Jimmy is still family and I would love to call him should I come to KL."
In April 2001, the expansion of Jimmy Choo took a quantum leap when Robert Bensoussan, CEO of Equinox Luxury Holdings Ltd bought over Choo's shares for a reported £10mil (RM70mil), valuing the company at £20mil. Bensoussan then became CEO of Jimmy Choo Ltd.
In April 2004, Mellon's father died and in November of that year, Lion Capital, now Hicks Muse Hedge Funds, became majority owner in a transaction that valued the company at a staggering RM700mil. If Choo had held on to his 50%, imagine, he could have cashed out with RM350mil!
Today, Choi oversees a team of four designers who create to-die-for shoes ranging from RM1,400 to RM7,000 a pair. Since 2003, she has also been coming up with handbag collections, which makes sense as all self-respecting Mak Datins need matching shoes and bags.
"Bags and small leather goods now make up 30% of all sales," she beams. "Tamara always says we must fully accessorise a woman!"
Her fab bags are priced from RM2,800 to RM85,000 for a crocodile masterpiece. "A good bag averages RM5,000 these days," says Choi nonchalantly.
The Jimmy Choo empire is growing at a relentless rate. Choi says in 2006 alone, they were opening stores on the average of one every two weeks! By the end of the year, there were 40 stores with an estimated turnover of RM350mil. The company expects to open at least 50 more stores by 2008.
Coming to KL
Of the 50 stores planned, one is slated for Kuala Lumpur, at long last.
"We plan to open Jimmy Choo in Kuala Lumpur and of course we wish for Jimmy's blessing as he is so admired in Malaysia," says Choi. "Valiram Group (the KL-based retailer that will manage the store) says it will be in the middle of 2007."
Will Choo be invited?
"Of course he will and I hope he will come too," says the niece. "If he is unhappy with anything, he can speak to Mr Bensoussan as they are on good terms. I am sure Jimmy is proud of us as he is the man behind the brand. And we know support in KL will be tremendous!"
What about healing the breach and inviting Choo to be, say, honorary chairman of the company that bears his name?
"You have to ask Mr Bensoussan and Tamara about that but why not? Anything is possible," replies Choi.
Later I direct this question to Choo himself.
Without batting an eyelid, he says, "I will accept because that's my name and I know I will be able to take the label to a next level."
He nods – in agreement, I presume – when I remark it will be so cool to have Jimmy Choo at Jimmy Choo again!