Footwear brand Irregular Choice’s founder Dan Sullivan on why Star Wars and Alice in Wonderland are fighting it out to be his favourite collection.
As we work so closely with China, as soon as I get up I check my emails to see if any development or production questions have come in overnight from our factories over there. Because of the complex nature of our heels development is difficult, so there are always questions and problems with production. Then at night I need to be looking out for emails from the retailers we work with over in the US, such as Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s.
I travel overseas two to three times a month. In any given week I could be vising our factories in China, jetting off to Tokyo or Paris, or travelling to a trade show in Las Vegas. I love to visit the vintage stores in LA, which are the best in the world. I can find inspiration in anything from a 1970s top with lovely embroidery, to a 1950s dress. There really is so much history in vintage clothing.
I look after 80%-90% of the designing. I sit down with the concept, draw up the character or print by hand on pencil and paper and then my team translate things into CAD. I also have with a designer who works solely on Poetic Licence, Irregular Choice’s sister brand, which we set up nine years ago. In total there are 20 people at our head office in Brighton from quality control to merchandising, sales and distribution.
Our seasonal collections span 150 patterns in two to three colours each. Our limited edition capsules are smaller, like our autumn 15 Star Wars collection, which I absolutely loved. The range spanned 14 styles and took one and half years to finish, whereas normally a collection would take say 10 to 11 months. As we were working with Disney, we needed to audit our factories and adhere to its strict processes. When I was designing the Star Wars range, I asked all the guys in the office for their ideas and through that discussion we came up with the Darth Vader, Yoda and R2D2 shaped heels.
I thought Star Wars was going to be the best collection yet and then Alice in Wonderland came along for spring 16. The 18-piece collection has been one of our biggest ever sellers, I think because the characters are so iconic. Take the Cheshire Cat – I didn’t like it because he reminded me of Bagpuss, but everyone else in the office said I just had to do it. So we designed a whole Cheshire Cat shoe, complete with a tail.
You find inspiration from looking at everything around you. Take the Alice in Wonderland collection. The book was written in Brighton, where we’re based and the there’s a walkway under the road where our office is located that leads to the beach, which inspired Lewis Carroll to create the magic tunnel Alice fell down in the story. You have to use inspiration from everything around you and then think about the material, fit and technical structure of the shoe. We start with a commercial toe and last so the shoe is comfortable, but then we can go really crazy with the heels. Like for the Alice in Wonderland collection when we developed a wedge in the shape of a rabbit.
I am currently working on spring 17, which will be delivered next January. The office is stacked with fabrics, swatches and leathers. I will then visit our suppliers in China to work on product development. I’ve always believed in trying to get product to market as quickly as possible. If you hang around too long the trend has moved on and also I get so excited once I see the designs, I want to get the shoes made.
There are certain shoes we revisit every few years, like Abigail’s Party [an ankle boot with ribbon laces] which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary and it’s still one of our bestsellers. I remember an iconic shoe for us back in 2001. We developed this little low-heel almond-shaped last, which we sold to Office and Kurt Geiger. It sold 100,000 pairs and turned the company around, so it has to be one of my favourite shoes.
I never thought I would be able to have a career where I could be creative and successful, but it’s amazing that 15 years later I’m still doing what I love. The other day I had a letter from a woman who has a prosthetic leg and she couldn’t find any shoes she liked and now she wears Irregular Choice all the time. It makes me happy to see people looking at our shoes with a smile on their faces.
Along the way I’ve learned you need to stay true to your vision and trust yourself. So many people want to give you advice, but you need to do things in your way, believe in yourself and don’t give up.
The last thing I do at night is come home and spend an hour playing with my son and daughter. Then I tend to check my emails and watch TV. I like anything I can lose myself in, like the new season of Game of Thrones.
I’d own and run West Ham United Football Club. We’ve got a great new stadium and we’re growing a young fan base. My first signing would be Gareth Bale because he really understands the English game.
Dan Sullivan’s CV
April 1990 Opens footwear store, Transport, Covent Garden
1995 Transport expands to nine stores/concession acros the UK
1995 Travelling in Asia
1999 Founds Irregular Choice