If the Choo fits: ambition that's sharp as a stiletto
Catapulted to fame by Sex and the City, Jimmy Choo's tale is a star-studded saga of money and controversy, says Frieda Klotz
Published 20/06/2010 | 05:00
The Jimmy Choo Story: Power, Profits and the Pursuit of the Perfect Shoe
Lauren Goldstein Crowe & Sagra Maceira de Rosen
Bloomsbury, Paperback, €10.99
Early in season four of Sex and the City, when Carrie Bradshaw is forced to buy her apartment back from her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, she realises she doesn't have enough money to do so, mainly because she has spent so much on shoes -- $40,000 in total. In one of the quips that she was famous for in the series, she says, "I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes."
Carrie's obsession with shoes helped to catapult Jimmy Choo to fame. Jimmy Choo and the rival brand Manolo Blahnik were almost characters in their own right -- shoes inspired a whole Sex and the City episode that was provocatively titled, "A woman's right to shoes."
The Jimmy Choo Story: Power, Profits and the Pursuit of the Perfect Shoe gives an account of the development of Carrie's beloved, wildly expensive shoe brand. It's a story of money-lust, ambition, and what this book calls "the democratisation of luxury", and it ties in with the worldwide boom and bust of the last decade that is so familiar to us. Even now, though, the shoes are pricey. Carrie may have worried about spending $485 on a pair of stilettos in 2003, but in 2010, she could expect to fork out $1,295 (€1,080) for the top shoe in the Choo range.
Two big personalities stand behind the Jimmy Choo story. One is Choo himself, a designer and tradesman from Malaysia; the other is Tamara Mellon, a London fashionista who pumped money into the company. In this account Mellon (nee Yeardye), is the brains behind the outfit. She started out as a London It girl, educated in LA and at a Swiss finishing school before working for Vogue in Hanover Square. Even to begin with she was incredibly wealthy, a daddy's girl, doted on by her father, Tom, who was a self-made man born in London and the son of an Irish nurse; he had made his name in London's Swinging Sixties scene. Tamara met Choo in London in 1995 and after perseverance and an injection of cash from her dad, began collaborating with him.
Choo's tale is more poetic. He grew up in Malaysia, the son of Chinese immigrants. His father had worked since childhood to become one of Malaysia's most famous shoe-makers, and Jimmy learned the trade from the age of nine. After an economic downturn hit the country in the Seventies he moved to London, where he studied at the Leather Trade School. From there he built up a modest shoe-making business in Hackney. His talent and flair gradually brought him to the attention of London's ladies who lunch, including Princess Diana.
The rise of Jimmy Choo is a star-studded tale -- the likes of Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant attend the firm's glamorous parties and launches, and many of the characters simply drip with money. This makes them interesting to observe, but hard to sympathise with. When Tamara meets her husband, Matthew Mellon, he is fresh from spending the first of 13 trust funds, which alone had contained $25m. As the company grows and prospers, the Jimmy Choo brand passes from one hedge fund to another, and the sums exchanged become more and more outlandish. In 2004 Lion Capital bought it for $183m; in 2007 Towerbrook Capital Partners purchased it for $336m. You can almost feel the clouds of world economic collapse looming on the horizon.
For Jimmy Choo himself, the story is rather sad. Choo took issue with the way Tamara and her father ran his company, and when they decided to expand to America, he refused to sign off on the venture. He didn't have enough power to veto it, and the move went ahead without him. As a result "Jimmy Choo" today refers more to the firm than to the man; by the book's end Choo is on the verge of closing his couture shoe business, which is now separate from and much smaller than the brand that bears his name.
As this suggests, the big players are ambitious. By the book's last pages, not only has Tamara sidelined Choo from his own company, she has also brought a court case against her mother in a financial disagreement.
The authors, Lauren Goldstein Crowe and Sagra Maceira de Rosen, mention these conflicts, but do not delve into them in depth.
In part, this may be because Choo signed an agreement that prevents him from griping to the press; but we're also told that Tamara first met her husband Matthew at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, without getting any information about her addiction to drugs.
One of the problems for Tamara's marriage was that Matthew wanted to compete with her. He founded his own shoe-design company for men, called Harry's of London, and seems to have done his best to piggy-back on her success. He later told the press, "When your wife makes $100m during the course of your marriage, it's quite a shocker. I felt my masculinity had been stripped from me. I was no longer the big man in the relationship." With so much money involved, envy and jealousy inevitably flourish and the final chapters of The Jimmy Choo Story are littered with relationship debris. Choo fights with his niece Sandra Choi, who had helped him build up his business. Sandra sides with Tamara.
Some parts of this book, especially those that deal with financial undertakings, are technical and locked in business jargon, but the book does give an interesting overview of Jimmy Choo shoes' astonishing success. How is the company faring now, when many luxury brands are struggling? The authors say it is looking to the future, its managers hopeful that Jimmy Choo will be "one of the key players in the new age of luxury". And in 2009 Jimmy Choo struck up a partnership with H&M.