A battle for fashion’s sole

AN ASIAN immigrant arrives in Britain in the 1970s without any English, works his way through cobbler school, toils every hour in a shabby workshop and ends up making shoes for film stars, socialites and the world’s best-loved princess.

The story of Jimmy Choo should read like a fairytale but every fairytale has its big bad wolf and in this case, that dark character is played by big business.

It makes its entry early in the saga and from then on, you just know the likelihood of a happy ending is shakier than a high-heel virgin in one of Choo’s classic four-inch creations.

But then this isn’t really the story of Choo, the Malaysian migrant turned multi-millionaire – the authors have only a smattering of quotes from him, all gleaned from other publications.

Rather it tells the tale of the woman who took Choo’s little-known product and turned it into an international fashion phenomenon in less than the length of time it would take to cultivate a decent blister.

Tamara Yeardye was the effervescent daughter of the colourful Tom Yeardye, a half-Irish property wheeler dealer who made his celebrity contacts on film sets as a stand-in for the likes of Rock Hudson, and his money through ventures such as a restaurant which served up nude artists’ models so that clients could eat and sketch at the same time.

“I wanted to bring art to the average man’s life,” he is quoted as saying. A noble ambition indeed.

Tom married Ann, a model for Chanel, and the pair produced a daughter for whom no Swiss finishing school was expensive, or effective, enough. Through connections, they got her into the fashion business and then British Vogue and, after a stint in rehab, she was ready for a new challenge.

It was 1995 and Jimmy Choo was also ready to take his modest shoemaking business in a new direction. It was hard to get suppliers to sell him the small quantities of materials he needed for his couture customers and he was tired of seeing what he regarded as inferior competitors making the breakthrough internationally, simply because they went into big-time production.

He needed a financial backer. Tamara needed a pet project. Their aspirations met across a fashion editorial in Vogue.

Other daddy’s girls get ponies – Tamara got hers to buy her a shoe company. Tom Yeardye agreed to fund the launch of a ready-to-wear range of Jimmy Choos in exchange for a 50% stake in the new company of which he would be managing director and Tamara would be president.

Choo would still own half the firm and remain the chief designer and he could also keep his couture business separate. After all, it wouldn’t do to tell his number one fan, Princess Diana, that she’d have to nip down to Harvey Nichols like everyone else.

Despite his initial enthusiasm for the project, it soon became clear that the artistic ways of Choo, a serenity-loving Buddhist, were not keeping pace with the marketplace’s demands for two new ready-to-wear collections per year.

By now Choo’s wife’s niece, Sandra Choi, was also working in the company and increasingly, she and Tamara came up with new designs to speed up the process.

Tamara and Tom also busied themselves securing outlets in the United States and they knew they’d made it in July 1998 when the characters in Sex and the City cooed over a pair of Jimmy Choos, beating arch rival Manolo Blahnik to the show’s first endorsement.

Of course it helped that Kate Winslet had worn a pair of Choos to the 1997 Oscars when she was nominated for Titanic. At the 1999 Oscars, 50 actresses including Uma Thurman, Hilary Swank, Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek followed suit – as did the Bush twins at their father’s presidential inauguration.

Film credits followed – notably with Cameron Diaz in In Her Shoes and with Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2. The celebrity world was embracing Jimmy Choo like a new religion and Tamara was thrilled to be seen as the shoe’s representative on earth.

It was while working the celebrity circuit that she met playboy Matthew Mellon, who had recovered from the usual addictions in rehab but was now addicted to his trust funds.

Marriage, rows, relapses, a baby, affairs, an attempt at industrial espionage and a divorce made in tabloid heaven followed and Mattie ended up charged with trying to steal Jimmy Choo company secrets.

Tamara sort of defended him, testifying in court that her ex was basically an idiot who didn’t know what he was doing. “Matthew can not even read a comic let alone a legal document,” she offered helpfully. It wouldn’t be her last encounter with the law. Between 2001 and 2007, the company was sold twice, leading to disputes over shares, titles, responsibilities and, when Tom Yeardye died, to a bitter row with her mother over ownership of his stake in the firm.

The contrast between the frothy chapters covering the adventures of Tamara and those detailing the behind-the-scenes business negotiations betray the less-than-seamless joint authorship of the book. One of the authors is a fashion journalist and the other an expert in luxury goods equity research for investment houses.

Still, it means the book has an appeal for the fashion nut and corporate analyst alike even if each might skim through the chapters more obviously intended for the other.

At the end of last year, where this book ends, Jimmy Choo the company was still growing despite the global downturn, Tamara was still president, juggling roles as businesswoman and celebrity It girl.

Sandra was still key to the creative side and Jimmy Choo the man was still in his modest workshop, handcrafting shoes for a small circle of super-wealthy customers.

But he was doing so under licence – he had to lease the licence to his own name by then – and he was talking about shutting up shop, the same problems with economies of scale that drove him to corporate clutches in the first place still causing him headaches.

If this is a fairytale, then it also comes with a moral: if the shoe fits, wear it but it’s better to be barefoot than suffer pinched toes.

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