Like the coastal line, skills are disappearing in the UK. Designers lament how they can no longer work with factories in, say, Scotland. The machines and materials are there, but nobody knows how to operate them to the level of excellence. In contrast, look at a country like Italy or France and one witnesses a world of difference. Craftsmanship, savoir-faire if you like, has been the lifeblood of the nation. That’s why when we think of ‘Made in Italy’, we think of high-quality handwork, immaculate finishings, the place you go to get a luxury product made.
Without these artisans and their know-how, where would we be? Here’s a self-evident proposition: we need a bigger focus on the teaching of craftsmanship in the UK. (No, Rishi Sunak, not Reskilling in Cyber.) Even if specialised courses do exist – like Cordwainers for footwear or the Royal School of Needlework for embroidery – the problem may lie partly in today’s culture. Having observed and analysed the world of emerging designers for more than a decade we can confidently say that, in their majority, designers want to be creative directors. Influenced by social media, emerging creatives want to participate in the ‘me show’. This is nothing new, but it may now simply be on steroids. Where will the industry move without skill, in-house teams, a battalion of trained factory workers; basically without a network of cooperation beyond ego-satisfaction?
“My father taught me everything. We didn’t have machines – we cut the leather with a knife. If I didn’t have my skills, my shoes would have been no good, and the industry wouldn’t have been interested.” – Jimmy Choo
One of the smartest moves in this field has been the LVMH Institut des Métiers d’Excellence. Established a decade ago, they’ve been nurturing artisans across the conglomerate’s 150 different métiers – from hat-making down to wine-making – to ensure the group’s longevity and profitability. In a similar but altogether different vein, the Jimmy Choo Academy (JCA) opened in 2021 in London; though principally unconcerned with maintaining the longevity of the Choo empire. So what is its proposition? Choo is the first to admit that plenty of designers will come to the Academy because of the name attached. But where London’s top fashion schools pay more attention to the development of the ‘designer as artist’, JCA gets kinda down and dirty. When speaking with Choo, we were struck by his lack of pretence. Yes, most of what he told us is echoed in plenty of published pieces about the Academy. But what we were left with were a few key points. First of all, the genuine sense of generosity that Choo appears to embody. Unlike those with similar wealth and experience – the doyen(ne)s of fashion like Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Donatella Versace – he’s the only one to open a school. This beckons the question: in a time where there’s already ‘too much’ fashion in this world, what’s the point of starting another fashion course?
“In martial arts, they pass on the skill to a younger generation. Not to fight but to have a strong body and know how to defend themselves. Same thing with shoe or clothing design. When we learn an art or a craft, it’s good to pass it on,” he says earnestly. Choo himself is a graduate from Cordwainers where he formally studied shoemaking in the ‘80s. Prior to that, he worked in Malaysia alongside his dad. “My father taught me everything. We didn’t have machines – we cut the leather with a knife. If I didn’t have my skills, my shoes would have been no good, and the industry wouldn’t have been interested. And [on a production level] factories might not have time for you. But I have my skill. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“A lot of our students come to start their own business. A couple come from a rich family, so when they finish studying, they can start their own couture house.” – Jimmy Choo
Choo doesn’t play around either when we discuss those who come to the Academy. “A lot of them come to start their own business. A couple come from a rich family, so when they finish studying, they can start their own couture house.” What he believes makes the JCA a valid proposition is that it aims to prepare students for being their own businesses. To not just focus on the skill but also enhance their marketing and business acumen, which is what independent designers often lament they’ve missed out on in school. Here, though, we’d like to suggest nuance: an art education isn’t necessarily supposed to set you up with business skills. Too bad, for some. But think of the numerous students who have absolutely no interest in learning business skills but just want to dive into Maison Lemairié’s embroidery workshop upon graduating, or who thrive on being a cog in Phoebe Philo’s wheel, or who desire nothing more than learning the craft of pattern cutting at Rick Owens. But to have an option for a course that takes a craft-biz merger as its raison d’être, strikes as a valid enough response to the zeitgeist.
“If you want craftspeople, you need to take care of them and ensure that they love to do what they do for you. If they don’t, they’d go for a different career.” – Jimmy Choo
Further to this, a designer starting his own school comes with another layer of benefits. Students can get hands-on experience at Choo’s own brand(s) or at those of the people he knows – which, presumably, are many. Professionals come in to teach, including lawyers and accountants, alongside seasoned industry experts who make up the teaching staff. Choo himself comes around roughly every other month to teach. The Academy accepts only a small cohort of students – about 60 a year, with each studio class being around 20 people – and its main building in Hanover Square, opposite the now-closing Vogue HQ, is grand but offers a sense of comfort. Choo underlines that the student body is international and tight-knit, and this feeling recurs in his reflection on craftsmanship and how to keep it alive. “If you want craftspeople, you need to take care of them and ensure that they love to do what they do for you. If they don’t, they’d go for a different career. My people have been there for 35-40 years. We train the young, and we build a good relationship. You have to remember there’s a human being behind the skill as well. It’s not just an employee. We view them as family.” We can only hope that the collaborative and skill-focused spirit at the JCA is one that embeds itself deeper into the industry.