The elite step onto the Choo bandwagon

Footwear: Jimmy Choo creations have wit and style and now cachet, as the most stylish women pay $300 to $2,000 a pair to wear them.

July 23, 2000|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

As Sarah Jessica Parker races to catch the Staten Island ferry on an episode of "Sex and the City," one of her flashy stilettos falls off. Hopping and holding her foot, she cries out, "I lost my Choo!"

No, television's leading glamour girl isn't tongue-tied. She means Choo, as in Jimmy Choo shoes, the hottest high-priced high heels around.

"Jimmy Choo shoes are sexy, they're lightweight, ... their colors are excellent," says Patricia Field, fashion director for "Sex and the City."

You want thick platforms? Then walk the other way, honey. Slide on shoes that are aggressive yet ladylike.

Think 4 1/2 -inch heels. Think pointy toes and sultry straps. Think neon animal skins, from python to pony. Think elegant embellishments, bold boots and big, big bucks: $300 to $2,000 a pair, to be precise.

Now you're thinking Jimmy Choo.

"I want to do things that are outrageous, that people haven't done," says Sandra Choi, who designs the shoes for Jimmy Choo Ready-to-Wear. "One season we could be doing diamonds, the next, skins. It's feeding what they want out there."

The London-based company is named after Choi's uncle Jimmy Choo, an established shoemaker. He lent his name to help launch the brand. After only three years, the company is standing on its own.

Many striking celebs, from Cate Blanchett to Kim Basinger, have slipped their feet into a pricey pair. Choos are featured in Vogue and other high-fashion magazine spreads and are runway regulars, used by Randolph Duke, Tommy Hilfiger and others. Choos were also a favorite of the late Princess Diana.

Choo-appeal isn't limited to moneyed fashionistas -- or the people who play them on TV.

Ruth Shaw in Cross Keys and Vasarri in Pikesville both found success with the brand this spring. Shaw says she started out the season with about 60 pairs, and is down to three.

Vasarri's fall collection of Jimmy Choo shoes features vixenish details like lace-up legs, snake prints and open heels and toes, says store owner Gail Kandel.

Fashion-forward locals have discovered the sweet, sexy shoes with the cutting-edge buzz.

"They're just fun-looking and frivolous, and they're very feminine," says Rhea Feiken, host of Maryland Public Television's "MPT on Location." "I think I deserve a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes at this point in my life."

Choi's creations are also available at such stores as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. And London, New York, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills all have free-standing Jimmy Choo boutiques. Choi, 27, originally intended to become an architect, but edged into the shoe business when she went to live with her uncle after dropping out of art school. Her well-connected friend Tamara Yeardye, formerly of Vogue, encouraged her to branch out with the brand, which also includes handbags. Now, Yeardye is the president of the company. Choi designs the shoes, which are all handmade in Italy.

"They make a statement, and that's what intrigues me about them," says Kathy Hillman, director of marketing for the Becker Group, a decorating firm located in Mount Vernon. She's got a pair of orange sling-backs and bright-green cobra mules with a "sweet little bow."

Hillman and Feiken's Choos are among Choi's more conservative designs, which include flat, Hamptons-ready sandals, street-smart mules and even men's shoes.

But it's the opulent supermodel styles with their skinny curving heels and pointy or open toes that have become Choi's trademark, despite the lack of practicality.

"Don't tell me wearing a stiletto heel is not painful," Choi says. "It is painful."

Although Choi herself doesn't like wearing extreme heels, she still pays homage to them.

"Stilettos ... add a lot more power to you," she says. "It's really sexy, and it's quite frightening to the opposite sex."

The love affair with Jimmy Choo is further evidence of shoe obsession as cultural trend.

"Buying a pair of shoes is like buying jewelry now," Choi says. The all-purpose pump has been replaced by more daring and faster-changing styles that have drawn attention to the industry and put footwear at the forefront of fashion. Manolo Blahnik was the first name in indulgent footwear in the late '90s. Dolce & Gabbana, Stuart Weitzman and Gucci are among the better-known of the delicate, decadent shoe set that Jimmy Choo is beginning to conquer.

Designer clothing, Choi says, is so easily and quickly knocked off that women no longer need to drain their wallets for clothes. But these women, she says, still crave some kind of wearable status symbol. And that's why they willingly shell it out for shoes.

Shaw's take on the obsession with pricey footwear is much different. The shoe is no longer an afterthought. "It's part of the overall look," says Shaw, who owns six pairs of Choos. She reasons that if a woman is willing to spend a couple of thousand dollars for an outfit, it follows that the shoes should be comparably extravagant.

Phyllis Minkove, a sales associate at Vasarri, says she had to do some in-store counseling for a young woman who practically had Choo-induced panic attack. The woman tried on a pair of brown python heels and black leather heels before Minkove revealed the price. They fit perfectly. But once the customer learned the two pairs would run her just over $1,000, her pulse started racing, and she fanned herself with her hand. Minkove offered her some Perrier.

"She sat down and went, 'No, no, I'm OK,' " Minkove says.

She regained her composure and quickly handed over her credit card. Then she looked away and asked Minkove to swiftly proceed with the transaction.

When it comes to shoe love, affordability is rarely a factor.

"People who love Fendi don't care," Minkove says. "People who love Jimmy Choo don't care."

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