Irregular Choice’s Dan Sullivan on lightsaber heels, creative collections and designing footwear that’s utterly unique

Created by Dan Sullivan back in 1999, Irregular Choice has firmly established itself as creative force in the world of footwear, known for its unique, fearless, ‘out-there’ designs.

In the firm’s recent history, licensing has entered the scene, with Dan and his team welcoming collarations with brands including Star Wars, The Muppets and more recently, Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch.

Hi Dan! So to kick us off, how did you first get into shoe design?
It goes back quite a way! It started off with my parents; they were in the shoe industry when I was growing up.

Through the Seventies and Eighties, my Dad had stores on the King’s Road and in Covent Garden. When punk was coming through with Vivienne Westwood on the King’s Road, he used to do mad crazy shoes back then. My parents always did creative products; they used to design for people like Red or Dead, Vivienne Westwood and Bella Freud, as well as doing their own crazy products as well.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
So I was brought up in the shoe industry, but I got out of it in my late teens to go off travelling around the world. I worked in bars and things like that, and in my mid-twenties my Dad said to me: ‘look son, you’re not doing much with your life, why don’t you get back into the footwear industry and see what you can do?” At the time, my Dad was doing products for British Home Stores and firms like that, creating more standard things rather than anything too out there or creative.

So your Dad got you back into designing again?
Yes – I started working with him, but I was getting more and more bored with it because we were working on pretty boring products! So I went to China, found some little factories and started building more creative stuff – because that’s what my Dad used to do.

I launched Irregular Choice in 1999, and after it started taking off, my dad stopped doing the basic stuff and joined me – this was back in 2001.

Did the Irregular Choice of 2001 look much like the company of today?
Well we were doing lots of wholesale for everybody. In 2007, I was finally getting fed up with wholesale-people just picking and choosing what they wanted from our collection. I wanted to open up our own stores and by having our own site, we were able to reach people from all around the world. We’ve stayed irregular and been able to grow our fanbase to succeed over the years.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
You mention staying irregular there. For anyone that maybe hasn’t come across Irregular Choice before, what does that mean? How would you describe the Irregular Choice style?
First of all, it’s irregular. That’s the name of the brand after all and it’s what we like to do! We like to do something different, something unique, something that hasn’t been seen before. We like to come at things from totally different angles.

“We like to do something different, something unique, something that hasn’t been seen before. We like to come at things from totally different angles.

We’re product-led, we’re not brand-led. We’re all about the product, but because I come from a family who worked in footwear, it’s also all about the fit and the comfort. There’s no point having a beautiful shoe that’s not wearable or that won’t last very long. It’s got to be something that someone can actually wear.

Yes! The shoes look so incredibly creative that it’s easy to overlook the technical aspects!
Absolutely, but there are certain things in a woman’s wardrobe that are very technical. Lingerie is very technical, watches are very technical and footwear is very technical.

Women are dancing on these heels all night long; they’re pounding them into the ground. These shoes have to stand up to the beatings they get from being walked around streets.

How do you marry those technical aspects with the Irregular Choice-style?
We’re all about taking the conformity of a shoe and making it irregular. We add garnishing and colour and lights and music to our shoes to make them as interesting as possible.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
They do look absolutely incredible. So when did licensing first enter the scene for you guys?
It was actually at my sister’s birthday party! She was friends with a HR person at Disney. We were sat there in the garden and she said “I should put you in contact with the right people at Disney as they’d love to do some sort of collaboration”. She spoke to Disney’s Suzanne Larkin who said she’d love to do something with us.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
When she approached us, she wanted us to do something with the Disney Princess collection. I was happy to do that, but it was around the time that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was about to come out and I’m a big Star Wars fan! So I asked if we could do something with Star Wars first, and then do Disney Princess!

And it worked?
Yes! We got chatting and they were changing how they tackled licensing, in terms of wanting to do some more collections aimed at an older audience than the kids’ market, so it was great timing for us to work together.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
The range looks like a match made in heaven.

It really was; we wanted to do something different. We had a lightsaber heel that lit up and made sounds like the swoosh of a lightsaber – we wanted to do things that no-one had done before!

Very, very cool. I’m interested, does you approach to design change when creating shoes based on a brand versus when you have total freedom?
We try and make it as creative as possible. I don’t like the style of licensing where you just stick a brand name on something. I’m not interested in just having Star Wars written across some shoes.

I want to capture what the name Star Wars conjures up for you. It’s lightsabers, Yoda, R2-D2; we wanted to get all that into the products. By then, we were already doing unicorn heels and bunny rabbit heels, so we were able to look at making R2-D2 into a heel.

“Some people look at a pen and think of the stories they could write with it; I look at a pen and think maybe I could make it into a stiletto heel.”

You mentioned earlier that your lightsaber shoe actually made the sound of a swooshing lightsaber; why was it important to go to that extreme?
Well that was actually the first time we ever did sound in a shoe. I remember watching the film as a kid and the sounds in film had such an impact, so we wanted to bring some of that into the collection.

We weren’t allowed to use the voices from the film, or the music, but we could use sound effects, so we embraced that. If I could’ve got the Chewbacca roar, that would’ve been great too, but we weren’t allowed unfortunately!

It’s all about taking aspects of Star Wars, or Cinderella, or whatever collaboration we do, and embracing the whole brand and what it means, rather than just plonking a logo or name onto a shoe.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
And since Star Wars you’ve worked with lots of different Disney brands, and recently Dr Seuss too. Do brands that have characters fit with Irregular Choice better than, say, a food brand?

Once you start doing licensing, then everyone knocks on the door, but it’s all about what the ethos is. Our ethos is happiness and rainbows; there’s no room for negativity. We’ve had video game brands that are super violent reach out, but that’s just not us. We’re not interested in that. It has to be fun, colourful and cute.

We wouldn’t normally work with food brands, but there are some out there like Coca-Cola that could work, especially as we do lots of Christmas themed shoes. They would be a great one to tie in with.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular ChoiceFunnily enough, one of our biggest fans is Whoopi Goldberg, and she loves PEZ, so she’s asked us to go out and do a PEZ deal where we have a PEZ dispenser heel and sweets could come out it! So fun, creative food brands, like Haribo, could be a good fit.

Well there we go – anyone from PEZ reading, please drop Dan a line! I could also see playful food brands like Ben & Jerry’s being a nice fit for your style.
Yes, playful is the word. There’s still a whole world of people we could approach to do fun products with.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
Delving into one of your most recent lines with The Cat in the Hat; what made that a good fit?

The main thing for me was the positivity of The Cat in the Hat. Although the book is over 60 years old, it’s still so relevant today, with themes of positivity and looking at life in a more playful, creative way.

I read the book as a kid and it inspired me to see the world a little differently, and I wanted to get to grips with those elements for the collection, as well as embrace the wonderful weirdness of it! It’s so out there! So yes, when the opportunity came up to work with Dr Seuss, it was great because for me, they epitomise creativity.

So we got to do The Cat in the Hat, and then we followed that up with a collection for The Grinch. It’s been great.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
One thing that caught the eye with those collections – and with most of your ranges – were the heels; one is actually the Fish in his bowl! Do you break the design process down into those kinds of stages, looking for what characters could double up as different parts of the shoe?

The fun part of it is sitting down and watching the films or reading the books again. I should also say I have a great designer who works with me called Vicky Theunissen, she worked on these collaborations.

We would sit down, read the books, watch the movies, and work out which aspects we can take into a shoe. For example, with our Care Bears range, we would look at which bear works for the heel, and where the rainbows could go and what prints we could use.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
We start with the details of each brand and we never like to leave an area blank. It’s not the case that if there’s something interesting going on with the heel, we’ll leave something else plain. We over-garnish everything. People say you should never over-design, but we like to put the bells and whistles on there.

The brands you’ve worked with have dedicated fanbases. Are there people that buy your shoes as collector’s items, rather than as something to actually wear?
Absolutely. We get people that buy two pairs of a shoe; one will go on display and two will be worn. We get a lot of people buying our shoes who may never wear them, but they are fans of a particular licence, and the product is so unique, that they still want to collect them.

The great thing about it is that it’s got us into so many different customer bases. Our Muppets range looked like it would be difficult for us because that wasn’t necessarily our customer base. But when we worked with Disney on it, we got it onto Muppet fan sites and it did tremendously well thanks to Muppets fans.

It may not have done fantastically with our core fans, but it took off once we introduced it to the Muppets customer base. And they stay with us too, and buy other products we sell.

Dan Sullivan, Irregular Choice
Away from your licensed collections, Irregular Choice has a very strong brand identity of its own. Have you ever thought about licensing Irregular Choice into other areas outside of your core ranges?

Well, we love that fact that if you wear Irregular Choice shoes, someone would look at them and know they have to be Irregular Choice, purely based on the design.

We did actually do bags with a licensing company and they just didn’t get it. It was very hard for someone to understand what we want to put into a licensed product, so it’s easier for us to just do it ourselves.

What do you think it was that they struggled to get?
We push the boundaries and push the factories and people struggle to get their head around that. Lots of people in licensing want to make an easy product that they can mass market and mass produce. They don’t always want to take the time to create something unique and to the level of detail that we like to put into our products.

If we found the right partner, then we’d absolutely be up for it, but I’d be nervous about who that is and making sure we push the boundaries in the same way as we do with footwear.

Before I let you go, I want to ask how you fuel your own creativity?
Travel, mostly. I’m sat here in Melbourne and we recently came out of a pretty harsh lockdown. We were in one since March last year, with a few weeks off in July before we went back into it. I found that very hard because I love travelling around the world.

“It’s all about taking aspects of Star Wars, or Cinderella, or whatever collaboration we do, and embracing the whole brand and what it means, rather than just plonking a logo onto a shoe.”

I love going to China to see products, I love going to Japan to see the creativity there and I love going to London and the US. The great thing about Irregular Choice is that it takes me all over the world and I’ll always make time to check out the local fashion scene. I find it so inspiring.

You’ll see something and it’ll enter your subconscious. It might just be a colour palette or a lamp shade or a cushion with some beautiful embroidery on it. I’ll think about how I can take that and incorporate it in a shoe.

A great example is back in 2004, I wanted to do a new lining and I was looking for inspiration out of the window, and there was a brick wall. I thought that could be a cool lining and so we used exactly that.

You use what’s around you for creativity. Some people look at a pen and think of the stories they could write with it; I look at a pen and think maybe I could make it into a stiletto heel.

That’s brilliant. Thanks again for making time for this Dan, I look forward to seeing what great new creative collections you guys have in store for this year.

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