In her shoes: Jimmy Choo creative director Sandra Choi talks Margaret Thatcher and the power of footwear

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Susan Riley
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As Jimmy Choo celebrates its 20th anniversary, Stylist's Susan Riley meets Sandra Choi, the creative director at the helm of the most coveted shoe brand in fashion

Who keeps spare pairs of shoes at work? (I’m imagining a show of hands). I do. My colleague Gemma, opposite, certainly does. She has 16 pairs of heels and two pairs of ankle boots ranging from Primark to Louis Vuitton sample sale piled in a heap under her desk. My colleague Mandie, to my left, scatters a good five or six pairs from flat brogues to kitten heels under hers. Well. We’re doing it all wrong. And now I’ve visited Sandra Choi’s office, I know what we all need: shoe shelves. Choi has one directly to the left of her desk – rows of shoes proudly lined up and displayed, to be called upon at a moment’s notice for a lunch or dinner function – and it’s a beautiful thing. Ryman, if you’re listening, get to it; shoe shelves are the new office essential.

At first I thought said shoes were prototypes; designs for the next Jimmy Choo collection. But no – they’re hers. Those that haven’t made the shoe shelf are lined up on the floor in front of a floor-to-ceiling window. “Occupational hazard” she laughs as I bestow my admiration.

If Choi’s occupation is anything, it’s not a hazard. As creative director of Jimmy Choo, she has a job millions of women would limp barefoot through the streets for. To dream up shoes, to craft shoes; to dress the feet of everyone from me and you, to Amal Clooney and Michelle Obama. Oh to walk a mile in her shoes. Because she has seen it all. 

There from the very beginning (she starting helping out her uncle, bespoke shoemaker Jimmy Choo, in his East End workshop aged 17, way before the company was officially formed), Choi, now 43, has remained the brand’s only constant in a series of incarnations. When her uncle sold his stake in 2001, she stayed. When co-founder Tamara Mellon left in 2011, she stayed. Which makes Jimmy Choo’s 20th anniversary so much more than a business landmark; for Choi it’s a personal rite of passage.

As history suggests, in person Choi is steady. And gracious. Easygoing but focused, her short hair giving her edge. Her office near Victoria station is a creative’s dream lair. Aside from the shoes, there are shelves stacked with books, intricately shaped perfume bottles and trinkets collected from Choi’s travels, plus a pinboard turned moodboard showcasing flashes of inspiration. But behind the artistry lurks organisation and she admits to having to-do lists everywhere. Success isn’t just a happy accident.

To mark the anniversary she designed ‘Memento’: a collection of 20 shoes and bags that embody the brand, firmly nodding to Jimmy Choo’s red carpet heritage while gently reminding us it’s not all about the feet (the brand’s offering extends to bags, accessories, eyewear, fragrance and men’s shoes). Personally I reckon they could do a mean sideline in shoe shelves too...

Jimmy Choo shares its 20-year anniversary with the Spice Girls – congratulations!
[Laughs] Yes we do!

What are your personal highlights from the last two decades?
Showing our first collection. Going to New York [their first store opened there in 1998]. I remember standing on Fifth Avenue and thinking, “God I’m on Fifth Avenue!” The power of it; the endless view – it was incredible. Then getting involved with the Oscars was almost surreal. Now it’s so normal [for celebrities to wear designer shoes], but it wasn’t back then. I was telling my mother I had to go to LA to cover the Academy and she was like, “What’s that got to do with you?”

You joined Jimmy Choo as a teen. What it’s like having spent over half your life building something?
The weird thing is I live in decades. In fashion you always reference back to the past and then try and make something go forward. You talk about the Twenties, the Forties, the Nineties and so on, and [so] I’ve really felt as though I’ve lived through those decades. At the same time I have seen how women have changed. To me it’s been living it and learning from it.

When you say we’ve changed, how have women evolved?
Well let’s just talk about it in shoe terms; I remember everything by shoe shapes. At the beginning Jimmy Choo had kitten heels. They were slender and well- crafted – very much my point of view of luxury at the time when everything was a bit prettier. In the mid-Nineties, the feeling was the higher the heel, the more important you are, so I trained myself from [making] little heels to those all the way up to 100mm, and then with a platform. Now everything is more cross-lined. There’s a huge contrast of Comme des Garçons and the subcultures; we can wear trainers to a meeting or a fashion show. It doesn’t matter – it’s more about how you conduct yourself or about the attitude.

Footwear does feel more casual, especially at work with the prominence of flats and trainers. Do you think the pendulum will swing back?
I think so, but to what degree, who knows? The future is what we are going to make of it but it’s all about contrast. You wear trainers but you don’t wear a tracksuit; you wear something else with it so there’s always the balance.

The relationship between women and shoes is so key. What is it about us and them?
Oh it’s a mood changer, completely. You put the right shoes on, you feel different. It’s that sensation that’s inside you. And joking aside, it’s one place you don’t need to deal with weight change – so a pair of shoes that you love and adore will always make you feel great; like you’re attached to it for some memorable reason.

Many women are magpie-like with footwear. To be responsible for creating something that brings such a lot of joy and emotion must be pretty special?
You’re making me feel so good [laughs].

But why do you think shoes attract such commentary?
Shape and body forms ultimately. When you see someone walking down a catwalk or in a magazine, you want to be that person. When you have a pair of shoes and wear them right, it changes the ball game completely. It’s instant.

Heels, like red lipstick, are often used as weapons in the war against feminism. Where do you sit on that whole argument?
I don’t know. The way I see it is that it’s down to the confidence and attitude of the individual. At the end of the day, I am my own self – I govern what I wear, and if I’m not misbehaving then it’s OK. A pair of high-heel shoes is a century-old silhouette – if you can navigate them and own them, why not? It’s a skill. And when you have confidence, you can overcome a lot of things.

Theresa May has received plenty of focus on her footwear. As Prime Minister, is that a good or bad thing?
When you’re a public figure, you will immediately receive judgments. So why not? I don’t see a huge problem with people discussing the styling direction she has. It’s interesting, and this is a very open-minded country. I have noticed her shoes myself; she wears great necklaces too. It’s good. It’s her making a statement – which draws attention and [makes] you remember who she is. [It’s the same as] growing up with various figureheads in history. You always know when you’re talking about Mona Lisa, what you’re talking about. Margaret Thatcher had a certain look too.

You have previously mentioned that Margaret Thatcher was one of your heroes...
Growing up in Hong Kong, the press, before 1997 [and the transfer of sovereignty] referred to everything back in the UK, so I got to learn about all the important government ministers in the cabinet. I’m an Eighties person so for me I thought she really firmly stated the power of being a woman and, as a woman, showed that you can still lead and overcome lots of different things.

You also grew up on the Isle of Wight. How did island life influence you?
So I was born there. Then from the age of eight months to 13, I was in Hong Kong, and then I came back. I remember arriving home, dressed in a red T-shirt, baggy jeans, white lace-up shoes, and with shaved sides; Duran Duran were big then, as was Boy George. I don’t think my mum knew what to do with me [laughs]. Then my older sister, who was 14, came bouncing down the stairs all innocent in a knee-length skirt and a big yellow bow on her hair. And the two of us had a moment where we were like, right, let’s try to meet in the middle here.

Do you enjoy going back?
Yes. I’ve got two young children [Choi’s daughters are six and three] and a crazy job, so I haven’t been back as much but my family’s still there. The Isle of Wight really grounded me from a can’t-wait-to-grow-up kind of person and nurtured what it is that made me into who I am. Getting to know my parents, learning English, spending time in the art department at school and getting to understand that I’m creative. Then the Hong Kong influence gave me the vibrancy and showed me what I can do in a hustle bustle environment.

Many people wish they had more creativity – like it’s some magic ingredient. How do you tap into yours?
I see myself being half and half. I understand how the business runs and make sense of everything. I’m probably less artistic than my husband [artist Tamburlaine Gorst] because he dreams all the time whereas I’m always trying to dream and then come back to reality – and lots of meetings!

Where do you get inspiration for your collections?
Travel, art, architecture... It’s everything. I collect things when I’m travelling, tear pictures from magazines; I hoard everything. It could even be an album cover, or an experience. It comes from every angle. Recently I went to LACMA [ Los Angeles County Museum of Art] and saw the James Turrell, Breathing Light exhibition. I was mesmerised by the whole installation and [as a result] designed a collection to do with abstract and trompe l’oeil. There are days when you have a brain block, but then you go and listen to music and one thing feeds another...

Do your friends constantly nag you for shoes?
No. They know to respect boundaries because ultimately I work for this company – I don’t own the company. Although they always badger me for sample sales, that’s for sure.

You’ve previously said you have 500 pairs of shoes. Is that true?
Probably [laughs].

Do you have more?
[Laughs] Yes OK, it’s occupational.

How do you store them?
I actually store them in a very organised format, I know exactly where they are; the ones that are stored in a warehouse in the middle of Somerset. I looked at them the other day on the computer screen and I was like: oh I remember wearing them, I was doing that when I wore those, oh look at that print.

Do you have any practical tips for breaking in shoes?
If you’re going to buy a new shoe shape, especially something more refined, buy them in the afternoon. It’s when your feet are a bit more worked, a bit more relaxed so they’ll be in their full stretch. That way you’ll know whether they’re going to be tight.

What about navigating height? [Some Jimmy Choo heels, like Vita, Kalpa and Koko reach 145mm, while styles like the Lance and Minny stop at 115mm.]
In our collection, when there’s a great silhouette – I call them the drivers – I like to do them in different heel heights. So start with something lower and work yourself up. Train yourself. I started with a 65[mm] kitten heel in 1996. Now my everyday heel is a 100 and 110 is my limit, otherwise I need a bit of a platform. You have to know your personal limit; everyone is different.

Please tell me you carry a pair of flats in your bag like the rest of us?
I saw yours in your bag [laughs]. I’m heading off to Bath to the cottage later [Choi has a home there] so have a pair of skater shoes in my bag. I only put these on because you know, I’m in an interview [Choi gestures to her Merry s/s 2016 slip-on clogs with chunky glitter heel]. It’s great to have options. One of my favourite moments on the red carpet was Uma Thurman wearing her flat Jimmy Choo sandals in Cannes. Someone like her, with her individual style, walking out onto the red carpet as herself wearing flats really made me smile.

Which other shoe brand do you admire?
Good question [thinks]. Nike. How they innovate with design concepts. I’m not a tech designer or a sports specialist so I find the way they work with certain materials – with the environment, with tech, with structures, with performance – intriguing. And trainers have come into our lives big time. Whether it’s designer trainers or sports trainers, they’re everywhere.

The first shoes you remember owning were a pair of white patent Mary Janes, aged seven. What were the last ones?
I bought a vintage pair, eight months ago. I couldn’t resist. The colour, a bright greeny- turquoise, was amazingly fabulous and they were bulky and full of volume. I just love looking at them. Their boldness influences the collection we’re doing for cruise and spring/summer.

Will Jimmy Choo do clothing?
I’m drawing a line on clothing for the time being. I really like the idea of just working on the highlights of a look. It’s harder – you’re actually trying to predict what’s going to happen – but I like having the monopoly on the part that’s on your feet, or a bag or a pair of sunglasses. That’s a nice angle.

You create for a living, which I imagine extends to every area of your life...
[Choi nods].

Do you do anything that’s convenient? Ocado?
[Laughs] I have the app on both my phones. And I’ve got a Peter Jones [more laughter].

In contrast, you’ve also been to the White House. What was that like?
So weird, when the call came in I was like: Really? An invitation like that sets the tone. I called my parents and told them and they were very chuffed. It was really inspiring. Michelle Obama was hosting a workshop for underprivileged young people and I was invited to a cocktail party with lots of designers and industry insiders. [They wanted us] to give them an insight into how the fashion industry works, and obviously we all showed up.

Well you would; what are you going to do? “Sorry Michelle, busy that day.”
That’s it! It was the invitation of a lifetime for me. Obviously we’ve worked together because of her wardrobe [Obama is a fan of Jimmy Choo, wearing a pair to Barack’s inauguration in 2009] but when we were talking, she was so well informed. Despite all her commitments, she knew exactly what we were doing in the business; it was so impressive. She was charming.

She always appears to be... Hell, I think we all want to go to the pub with Michelle.
[Laughs] She’s warm, normal, but at the same time she uses every bit of her power and her presence to engage and inspire and encourage people. And that to me, hats off.

Finally – to reassure women everywhere – can you ever have too many shoes?
No, course not – you’re interviewing me remember!

Photography: Pixeleyes, Rex Features