Jimmy Choo OBE, the designer who helped define luxury footwear for a generation, wants to teach the next cohort of aspiring designers.
Industry figures often support aspiring designers through scholarship funds and mentorship opportunities. Choo is going one step further with an academy established in his name, which opens in September this year in London’s Mayfair neighbourhood.
Part-school, part-incubator, part-co-working and networking space for start-ups, the JCA London Academy of Fashion will teach courses in partnership with the University of West London, which will oversee and validate academic standards. Students can earn a foundation year diploma in fashion, bachelors degrees in fashion design, branding and entrepreneurship and fashion design and accessories, and a masters in fashion entrepreneurship in design and brand innovation.
The UK is known for its network of established fashion schools and programmes (including the University of West London, which offers degrees in fashion business, textile design and marketing), but Choo was drawn to the idea of founding his own institution because of the potential for international expansion and unique offering of an apprenticeship-style experience and incubator programme. Focusing on more than Choo’s specialism of footwear and accessories, the courses are intentionally broad to allow students to find their own milieu and identify market opportunities.
Choo, who will be conducting masterclass tutorials, also plans to offer personal mentorship and leverage his own network — particularly in manufacturing — for students to gain work experience. For the designer, a British citizen who is currently based in Malaysia and has worked with the British Council to promote UK education overseas, the academy’s launch in London is something of a love letter to the city that made him.
“If it weren’t for London, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Choo, who also views the city as a breeding ground for the next generation of talent. “If people want designers, or knowledge [of the industry], the first thing they do is go to London.”
With small class sizes (chief executive and founder Stephen Smith the says there would be fewer than 100 students in the first group) the academy will focus on holistic, apprentice-style training and entrepreneurship education with a rigorous application process.
“The bar is high,” said Smith. “We don’t expect you simply to have good previous academic qualifications. We expect you to have self-identity; we expect you to have some sense of direction; we expect you to identify yourself as a designer, not necessarily a learner.”
Once you have the skills of [running] a couture business, you can easily do your ready-to-wear business.
Tuition is £18,000 (about $24,500) per year — double the usual £9,000 to £9,250 — for UK students, with some financial aid available. Prospective applicants, who apply directly through the academy website rather than UK university portal UCAS, will be interviewed by an academic team and incubator team to better understand their strengths from a creative and business perspective.
The academy’s teaching ethos mirrors Choo’s own journey into the fashion world.
“I started [as] a couture business; it’s a foundation base,” he said. “When you start your house, if the foundation is strong [it] can last for hundreds of years. You learn the skills: how to talk to customers, how to understand what the customer wants, how to represent your designs to customers. Once you have the skills of [running] a couture business, you can easily do your ready-to-wear business.”
Born to a family of shoemakers on the Malaysian island of Penang, Choo moved to London to study at renowned footwear school Cordwainers Technical College (now a part of UAL’s London College of Fashion), graduating in 1983 before starting his own bespoke footwear business in London’s East End. His designs achieved widespread recognition thanks to generous coverage in British Vogue, championed by the glossy’s then-accessories editor Tamara Mellon, who later became co-founder of Choo’s namesake company and turned it into a global brand, which went public on the stock market in 2014 and was acquired by Michael Kors in 2017 for $1.35 billion. (Choo left the business in 2001, his niece and protegée Sandra Choi staying on as creative director.) Princess Diana, a frequent client, and the television show “Sex and the City” helped make Jimmy Choo a household name in the 1990s and early aughts, and the brand’s glitzy stilettos and clutch bags have been a red carpet mainstay throughout the years.
Since exiting the company in 2001, Choo has returned to his couture roots by running an exclusive handmade shoe business, which he says can fetch $10,000 a pair. Like all designers and entrepreneurs, he has had to adapt to the realities of the pandemic, turning to digital promotion and marketing of his collections to his global audience.
“We’re still selling to customers, maybe not as much as before, but we’ve kept our staff, we’ve kept our factory, we’ve kept our [business] going,” he said.
Today’s aspiring designers and fashion entrepreneurs are entering a very different industry to the one Choo himself navigated in the 1980s and 90s, but Choo’s advice and basic lessons still stand: success is a combination of raw talent, training, humility and a quiet willingness to learn from all facets of the industry.
High-heeled shoes will never die.
“I worked with fashion designers before I started my own name [brand],” he said, ”so, I saw what they were doing, how they came up with whole collections, how they [create] a story, ask stylists what trends are coming next year, getting PRs and sponsors.”
Even in a footwear market defined by the sneaker boom and comfort, Choo said that, if he was starting over, he would once again start with a couture business, albeit a digitally-driven one.
“What people are doing now, they’ve got more time,” he said. “They source everything on the internet.”
That includes couture: Choo cited some clients and friends who are looking for ways to dress up during quarantine, even if it’s just for their own household.
But he also believes that sneakers represent a reasonable and smart pivot for aspiring luxury shoemakers, and are a prism of creativity and elegance in their own right.
“Looking now, there are a lot of trainers in the market, but a trainer is not just a trainer,” he said. “You have to come up with something unusual as well, something pretty, something people talk about.”
That doesn’t mean his stilettos don’t still have their place. “I think, after the pandemic, people still want … weddings, events, parties, he said. “High-heeled shoes will never die.”
Applications to study at JCA London Fashion Academy are open now through summer 2021.
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