An Ex-Jimmy Choo Designer on Why She Left the Luxury Fashion World Behind

March 8, 2017, 5:20 AM UTC

It’s not easy to make Beatrix Ong squirm.

At 22, fresh out of design school at London’s Central Saint Martins, she was named to a top post at Jimmy Choo with one of the most coveted titles in fashion: creative director.

It was a glittering prize, an anomaly in an industry that’s known for a strict hierarchy, lots of grunt work, and an insistence on paying your dues. Ong is still asked about it many years on, and she insists she never felt out of place being the youngest in the room.

“Although people think 22 is quite a young age, I’d actually done loads of work experience,” Ong tells Fortune in an interview at Singapore Design Week’s Innovation by Design Conference on Tuesday, where she is being honored as an influential next generation designer.

“I felt like I was ready. I didn’t feel like I was going to overstretch, or I wasn’t experienced enough. I really felt comfortable in accepting the role.”

Ong still remembers the nerves that took hold when she heard that Jimmy Choo would be attending her final graduation show at the art college. “He looked at my stuff,” she recalls, and he moved on. “I didn’t really think very much of it.”

Later on, in an interview with Choo, she says he started off by playing coy about her future role, saying that the creative director job had already been taken.

“And then someone came in and just said, ‘Have you told her yet about being creative director?’” Ong laughed. “And it kind of happened like that.”

It was a couple years later that Ong decided to step out on her own. She says realizations about the production process and its effects on the environment began weighing on her conscience.

And from a design standpoint, it was almost too easy in a sense to have stayed on at the luxury world, Ong muses. She talks about needing the day-to-day to “count.”

“As a first experience, it’s wonderful, you know where to sort of push things,” she explains. But after a while, “you’re in the studio, when yeah, you are literally chucking diamonds on something, and knowing that it will sell. And so for me, it was about: ‘No, what if I’m not allowed to use diamonds?’ You know, what if I had to make this many shoes with just this amount of money?”

Much of Ong’s work now eschews the hallmarks of her former life. She heads up her own eponymous label, Beatrix Ong. Her collaborations range from producing SpongeBob SquarePants-themed accessories for Viacom to designing Chinese-inspired footwear for Nike.

A look at Beatrix Ong’s SpongeBob SquarePants collection in collaboration with Viacom. (Photograph: Courtesy of Beatrix Ong)
Photograph: Courtesy of Beatrix Ong

She talks about “democratizing fashion,” having worked at one of the world’s most renowned luxury brands. And her designs now often include unisex apparel, meant to adapt to as many different climates—and customers—as possible.

“I make a lot of decisions by gut,” Ong says. “It’s never really been a goal or ambition of mine to succeed in a career. I think for me, it’s more about pursuit of happiness.”