PHOTOGRAPHY BY FEDERICO CIAMEI
On a summer morning at the London headquarters of Jimmy Choo, creative director Sandra Choi is whirling around her office in search of her favorite pair of shoes—a difficult quest for a footwear designer. The room, unsurprisingly, is filled with rows of punkish ankle boots, bow-topped nude flats, and, of course, crystal-dripping killer heels. She holds up the Pasha, a black two-strap sandal from 2005 that’s no longer available for purchase.
“This symbolized a time-out,” the designer says. “Me just going off into the sunset.” Fast-forward to 2019, and she is far from throwing in the towel. Instead, Jimmy Choo is ushering in a new dawn, and Choi—who became her uncle Jimmy’s first employee at his bespoke footwear boutique in London in 1989—is leading the way.
“Jimmy Choo’s growing up,” says Choi, 47, who is celebrating 30 years with the brand, which was acquired by Michael Kors for $1.2 billion in 2017. “Jimmy Choo is always known for shoes. You don’t think of sunglasses. You don’t think of perfumes. But my dream is to be one of the ultimate luxury accessory brands.”
The first step in that direction is a monogram that took 23 years to get just right. Launched in October on the new Varenne handbags, the delicately intertwined J and C, seemingly locked in a lovers’ embrace, is inspired by the facets of a gemstone. “I think of Jimmy Choo being a jewel,” Choi says. “It’s precious and it’s multifaceted.” So why did the design take so long? “Because I’m fussy,” she says with a laugh, before explaining that she wanted to find a signature that stood out—a tough task in an ever-crowded market.
Last month, she also debuted the brand’s first collaboration with Net-a-Porter, a capsule collection of 10 shoes and three bags inspired by red-carpet style. The idea is fitting, as the brand has shod legions of starlets (Margot Robbie and Jennifer Lawrence), royals (Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton), and political grandes dames (Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Obama, who donned Jimmy Choo shoes for both of her husband’s inaugurations) for paparazzi-plagued events.
Given that Choi has worked only at Jimmy Choo, her ongoing enthusiasm for the job is noteworthy. “There is a tiny bit of insecurity, because I haven’t worked anywhere else,” she says. “There are times when I’m like, ‘Prada would do it differently.’ But who cares? This is how we do it, and this is how we make it, and it makes sense. We should be proud of every moment.”
Raised on England’s Isle of Wight and in Hong Kong, Choi attended Central Saint Martins in London to study fashion while working on the side at her uncle’s shop, where she answered phones, cut patterns, and fit customers—one of whom was Princess Diana, who would leave her car running at the double yellow line when she came into the shop. “She’d be like, ‘I need to keep an eye on the traffic warden—I might get a ticket,’” Choi recalls with a laugh. “She was lovely.” Choi soon realized she was more interested in designing shoes than clothes, so she joined her uncle full-time. In 1996, Choo went into business with former British Vogue staffer Tamara Mellon to co-create the brand as it exists today, with Choi becoming the company’s first creative director. (Choo himself was bought out in 2001; Mellon left in 2011.)
Choi has been picking up industry accolades ever since, and she oversaw Jimmy Choo’s metamorphosis into a cultural phenomenon when Sarah Jessica Parker uttered the infamous cry “I lost my Choo!” on an episode of Sex and the City. (Choi digs out the Choo in question, a delicate lilac heel draped with a white feather.) “I’ve given a lot to building the brand, and,” Choi pauses as her eyes mist up, “I think you have to rise above everything and just go with it.”
After all this time, Choi says it’s the Jimmy Choo customers who keep her creativity flowing. For fall’s Varenne collection, featuring jewel-toned leather bowling bags and clutches, she was inspired by the idea of a modern British heroine. “I was thinking about the woman who wears us and trusts us,” Choi says. “What do you need to give yourself even more confidence? Because,” her voice rises with excitement, “if you’re given a pair of the right shoes and the right handbag, you can take on the world.”