On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Jimmy Choo finds a new niche

Henry and Choo, like many celebrities in London, are regulars to the restaurant owned by Malaysian Eddie Lim. 

“This is a very nice restaurant. You must meet the owner, he is from Kuantan and very proud that he is from Malaysia,” Choo half shouted, competing with the loud music blaring out from two speakers at the bar.  

But the fashion icon has little privacy in London. Malaysians know Choo as an internationally renowned couture (custom made) shoe designer and master craftsman, but few have an idea how big he is in London. 

It was an eye-opener for this writer, who joined him for dinner, together with Lim, his wife Joyce and Afghan-born Haleena Rashid, the wife of Jermaine Jackson. 

Jermaine, who now calls himself Muhammad Abdul Aziz, is the elder brother of Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. He was in town to take part in the hit reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother, where he was voted second after Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty in the final. 

Hot favourite: Choo with Haleena Rashid (next to him) and some of his ardent fans at the Mango Tree restaurant in London.

As Choo sat down for the dinner, a group of young women diners walked over to ask for his autograph. He sportingly posed for pictures with them, even though his meal was being interrupted. 

Heads turned, hands waved, and approving smiles and nods were directed at Choo as word went around the restaurant that he was present. 

After all, the Mango Tree is known not just for its good food but also as a hangout for rock stars like Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin. It is a place to see and be seen. 

“We must always be humble and polite at all times. I bear that in mind like any Chinese gentleman,” Choo said. 

Having made his name in his legendary shoes, Choo preferred to speak about what he could do for Malaysia, which he kept referring to as home, and how he could inspire the young. 

As a British Council-appointed education ambassador, Choo travels regularly in Commonwealth countries to talk about his career. However, that role has now extended to include non-Commonwealth nations in Asia, including China. 

“I like to impart my knowledge to the young. I am committed to promoting education,” he said, maintaining his silence when I asked whether he would like to see himself as a sifu (master). Of course, his humble personality does not permit him to even say it. 

Still, Choo said he was ready to accept selected interns to be trained by him at his shop at Connaught Street. 

The young, especially teenagers, idolise him. He has received more attention following the recent release of the movie The Devil Wears Prada, a film about life in a New York fashion magazine. In the movie, actress Meryl Streep wore Jimmy Choo shoes. 

His shoes have also been featured on the hit TV series Sex And The City where the character Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, was addicted to the brand. 

The late Princess Diana was a client, and so are Madonna, Beyonce, Lindsay Lohan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman, Naomi Campbell, Elizabeth Hurley, Nicole Ritchie, Natalie Imbruglia and Cherrie Blair. 

Besides several websites from fans dedicated to Choo on the Internet, there are over 1.5million postings in Goggle and 480,000 entries in Yahoo, the world's two largest search engines, on the man and his work.  

Madonna’s husband, English film-maker Guy Ritchie, was once quoted in newspapers saying that he had to buy her a pair of Jimmy Choo’s to appease the diva after a row. 

There’s even a hit song about the man and his shoes by hip hop artiste Shyne featuring Ashanti titled Jimmy Choo

Education is a favourite subject for Choo these days as he talked excitedly about the recognition now given to the industry. 

It was not easy for him. Much has been written about his humble family background in Penang, especially how he learned to make shoes at the age of 11 from his father, who was a cobbler. 

He studied in England, struggling through the lean years, and returned to Penang. But he soon set his sights on London again, knowing well that his future was in the fashion city. 

Despite his achievements and celebrity lifestyle, his heart is very much in Malaysia, and he insisted upon this writer to update him on the politics and economy back home. 

Said Lim: “Jimmy talks endlessly about Malaysia at functions here. He is always promoting Malaysia. We are really lucky to have him here because, as an icon, he can do a lot for the country. I regard him as a national treasure.” 

These are certainly flattering words from Lim, who has made a name for himself in the restaurant circuit and also owns the nearby Awana Chelsea restaurant serving top notch Malaysian and Asian food. 

However, few can dispute Choo’s commitment to two projects he has pledged to do, one of which is to train students of Universiti Teknologi Mara following a meeting with Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed in London recently. 

“The apprenticeship of the UiTM students would be good as the exposure in London would be really beneficial. I believe there are many talented students at UiTM and certainly they deserve to be given a chance,” he said.  

Under the university’s Young Lecturers’ Programme, three students would be sponsored for training under Choo. 

UiTM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Seri Dr Ibrahim Abu Shah has also agreed to appoint Choo as a visiting professor and academic adviser, which is surely another feather to his cap. 

Choo himself attended a shoe college in London, the Cordwainers Technical College, now known as the London College of Fashion, where he is a professor. 

But that’s not all. Choo also plans to set up a shoe design institute, and he intends to make Malaysia the first country to house it.  

“I am Malaysian and I want to give something back to the people for the respect and support they have shown me over the years, that is the right thing to do,” he said. 

Aspiring shoe makers must understand that the talent to design alone is insufficient as they need to know about marketing, trends, promotions, accounting and business, which are all important parts of the industry, he said. 

“I want the young to understand respect for the elders, especially their employers and clients. They must always uphold confidentiality and be down-to-earth. 

“It’s about hard work and not just glamour. They won’t become millionaires or become celebrities overnight, so they must be prepared for the tough work ahead of them after they get their diplomas. 

“I want the young to work passionately, and it must not be just about money. It must be love for the work that will eventually help them become successful.” 

Choo spoke fondly of respect for his family members, his regular telephone calls to an octogenarian sister who lives in Prai, Penang, and his elderly in-laws in Hong Kong.  

More importantly, Choo, a devout Buddhist, said he believed in doing good for people and society, and stressed on the importance of karma and spirituality. 

As the dinner ended, Choo got up from his seat and walked towards the restaurant’s entrance, only to be stopped, again by other diners who wanted to be photographed with him.  

That was not all: even the waiters, who included several college students, wanted to be photographed with him even though he is no stranger there. 

Jimmy Choo is still as hot as ever.