Teacher-turned-designer Sinead Burke: Thinking big in changing fashion industry

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Sinead Burke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year. AFP

Despite her tiny stature, Sinead Burke has become a force to be reckoned with in the world of fashion, pushing for designs to become accessible for all.

The 29-year-old Irishwoman, just 1.05m tall, has not gone unnoticed at London Fashion Week.

Burke was in the front row at the Victoria Beckham and Roksanda catwalk shows, sitting just a few places away from Anna Wintour, the high priestess of fashion.

She cuts a surprising figure amidst the models, movie actors and pop stars – yet she too sports luxurious outfits.

Before the Beckham show, Burke was wearing some of the former Spice Girls singer’s creations, donning a canary yellow blouse decorated with a black flower, and a straight brown skirt.

But there is plenty more in her wardrobe that she could have chosen from.

“There is some Gucci, some Prada, some Dior, some Balenciaga, some Victoria Beckham, some Christopher Kane, some Burberry,” she said.

How did the school teacher from Dublin end up on the cover of Britain’s Vogue magazine?

The journey started in March 2017 with a TED Talk – the online ideas conferences – and a speech entitled “Why design should include everyone”.

Her talk went over the obstacles she faced in daily life in the designed world, from the height of locks on toilet doors to the available range of shoe sizes.

The video, which has been viewed 1.4 million times, seems to have triggered some changes.

“That seemed to be a moment when people were listening to design and accessibility and thinking about this industry in a different way for the first time, so there has been progress,” said Burke.

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Burke (right) has also collaborated with the Open Style Lab, an organisation which works on creating wearable clothes for people with disabilities without compromising on style or comfort. AFP

Vogue cover star

Burke did not leave it at that. At London Fashion Week in February 2018, she introduced herself to British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enniful, tugging on his sleeve at a Burberry show.

Then she ended up on the cover of the magazine’s September 2019 issue, chosen by guest editor Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex as one of 15 female “forces for change”.

Top designers have created custom-made outfits for her – something she considers a “huge privilege and an honour” – but that was never her goal.

“What I want is just that people understand disability as customisation, which the fashion industry already is familiar with, and make that a tool that is available for everybody,” she said.

More than just the symbolism of disabled people on catwalks, she wants long-term systemic change so that “an 18-year-old who is at university, who studies marketing, who is a little person like me, can understand that he can work for Victoria Beckham or for Gucci”.

Burke hosts a podcast where she conducts interviews on the theme of identity and difference.

She has also collaborated with the Open Style Lab, an organisation which works on creating wearable clothes for people with disabilities without compromising on style or comfort.

“The idea of this is not necessarily that that collection would be marketable and commercial,” she said.

More so that the young designers would learn from working with “different types of bodies” and take that forward into the companies they go on to work for.

“Change has to happen at the most senior level with the chief executive and creative directors but also with the new generation” of designers, said Burke.

Little by little, representation and visibility of people with disabilities was improving, she said, citing the example of 18-year-old Aaron Philip – the first transsexual, black, disabled model to have joined the books of a large modelling agency, Elite.

There is still a long way to go to transform “the most exclusive industry in the world”, she said, though she remains optimistic.

“I thought I would be a teacher for ever and here we are, in London Fashion Week!”