He exudes kindness and warmth from a mile off. I recall a time I was standing with Jimmy Choo OBE as he waited for his driver to pick him up at Penang Airport, and an elderly woman approached him and asked whether she could borrow his phone to call her daughter. He immediately obliged. At that moment I was worried his personal information might leak, but he didn’t have a care in the world. This is Choo: he knows exactly who he is, but he doesn’t act like it and is ready to give. No matter how busy he is with fashion, he still keeps up with his philanthropy and teaching, and takes it all in stride. As he says, ‘I would like to give back to society as much as I can’.
Choo is arguably Malaysia’s most globally famous person. His name sits at the pinnacle of shoe design and is synonymous with dramatically arched stilettos – dream fashion sought by jetsetters and royalty, not to mention fictitious fashion plate Carrie Bradshaw. Having sold his share in his eponymous brand over a decade ago, Choo has stepped back from the fashion frontline. But the designer keeps a different kind of presence in the fashion world, dedicating himself to grooming a new generation of talent. Geographically, his focus is now on Malaysia – especially in his native Penang – as he promotes the local fashion industry in his role as an ambassador for the country’s tourism authority.
‘I was so excited to hear about the launch of Penang Fashion Week,’ says Choo, referring to the event that started in 2014. ‘It’s proof positive that Penang’s fashion industry is on the rise and is about to really establish itself.’
Those who have attended fashion week would likely have spotted Choo, a champion of the fashion talent coming out of this city best known for its heritage neighbourhoods and street food. This year the event takes place from 15 to 23 April, and to Choo it presents an important opportunity for young designers both local and from around the region.
‘Having attended the past two fashion weeks, I’m certain that this is an indispensable platform for now and the future,’ he says. ‘It’s a chance for local and overseas designers to showcase their works on the same stage, where they get to exchange ideas and find inspiration. The public also gets to know more about fashion.’
Born in the 1950s into a family of shoe designers in Penang, Choo was immersed in shoemaking from an early age, helping out in the family workshop. ‘When I was growing up, Penang was already famous for shoemaking,’ he says. ‘Back then, if someone could afford a good pair of shoes, you knew that this person was pretty well-off, and that they were fashionable.’ The shoe industry at the time was all about handcrafting, from cutting the material to stitching or attaching soles. The quality, says Choo, has always been there, but designers are still looking for ways to increase awareness of their product. Today, modern technology offers one obvious solution. ‘Nowadays designers can use social media to promote themselves.’
An annual fashion showcase is another sure way of helping promising designers. This year’s Penang Fashion Week showcases 15 designers, who come from Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Choo says he is especially excited about Keith Kee, a fellow Penang native, who graduated from design school in Penang and received further training in Taiwan and Paris to become a bridal and couture designer. Kee started his own label in Kuala Lumpur, which gradually got him to where he is. ‘He is the fashion darling among celebrities and royalty in Malaysia,’ says Choo. ‘It was his designs I was most drawn to at the inaugural Penang Fashion Week. Besides design talent, this is a man of great determination and diligence. I’m proud of this designer coming from my hometown.’
Another source of pride is Taiwanese handbag designer Illiza Ho, Choo’s protégé, whom he made his assistant in 2011. Spurred on by the encouragement from her mentor, the University of the Arts London graduate founded her own brand in 2014. Ho uses geometry and asymmetrical silhouettes in her mission to reinvent handbag design.
‘I was asked why a shoemaker wanted to nurture a handbag designer,’ says Choo. ‘Well, I think shoe and handbag designs go hand in hand, even if they’re different things. What matters most is the creativity and substance behind the designs. Illiza has a unique vision and a distinctive style that dares to flout convention. She absolutely represents a new generation of design. I’m sure she’ll make a mark.’
Choo is far from done with designing. The latest indication: he recently registered a new brand name, Zhou Yang Jie London, using a transliteration of his Chinese name. ‘I’m still passionate about design and shoemaking, and I believe in lifelong learning,’ says Choo. ‘Zhou Yang Jie London is a private, custom brand, with service by appointment only. You can say I do it out of personal interest, but I also want to use this brand as an official record of my work in this stage of my career and as a way to pass on my craft. I want young people to know that chasing your dreams is a never-ending process.’
Penang Fashion Week is held 15-23 April, visitpenang.gov.my
Cathay Dragon flies to Penang from Hong Kong 10 times a week.