‘People make assumptions about my work because of leather’s association with sex’
Belts, bags and bracelets: The growing fashion empire of Irish woman Una Burke
Hunchback jacket worn as bodice by Una Burke. Photograph: Pascal Heimlicher
Down on all fours on the floor in her London workroom, Una Burke is slowly, skilfully and with great concentration strap cutting a blade of leather from a vegetable tanned cowhide. This will become a belt and forms just one item from a huge collection of leather accessories – belts, bags, bracelets, chokers and harnesses – heading to Selfridges in London for the launch on March 26th of what will be the biggest accessory hall in the world at 60,000 sq ft supported by a £3 million marketing budget.
It is her biggest order yet and another notch in the Irish designer’s increasingly successful career which has seen her work featured in magazines worldwide, (most recently various Vogues and even the Guards Club magazine for the Royal Box in Ascot) and whose high-profile fans include Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Madonna for her most avant garde pieces. Other current special commissions are for Lustgarden, an exhibition in the newly revamped Museum of Sex in New York opening in May, and another at the Venice Biennale the same month.
Another notch in her belt is a short movie Seduction made by Pull the Trigger Productions filmed in Ardmore about her work with the Irish/Indonesian model Laura Kidd and directed by John Haugh (who has worked on Game of Thrones and Vikings). It makes its debut next week (March 15th) at a private viewing in Dublin’s Windmill Lane and has already been shortlisted for a fashion film award.
Everything is made by hand in her studio, which is also the home she shares with her partner Emmet Herbert, in Wandsworth in south London. Like a tack room redolent with the smell of leather, it has all kinds of harnesses (including delicate affairs cut like lace) and belts hanging from rails above a shelf of her signature shell handbags with their meticulously finished overlapping layers of studded leather.
Leather work is in her blood: her grandfather John Francis Burke was a shoemaker (and a matchmaker) in Roscommon who made boots for the British army. Among the various tools of her trade, edge bevellers, clicking knives, hole punches and stitching ponies, her most treasured is an awl that belonged to him.
While her bags and smaller items are best-sellers, her body pieces project power and are a constant source of attraction for photographers. “I think it is the symmetry of the leather that visually attracts people – the organised lines and strapping are very theatrical and empowering – that’s the warrior element of leather,” she says. Admitting that she doesn’t wear these pieces herself “because I don’t like the limelight”, she also talks about a customer who started buying a bracelet, then a belt, then a more complex belt and then for a special birthday treated herself to a bag and more recently went for a harness. “She has become brave and I like the idea of somebody coming on a journey with you.”
The sexual aspect of leather and the confinement of corsetry is a subject in which she is well versed, her work having featured in various exhibitions including one on prosthetics in London and on fetishism in fashion in Arnhem a few years ago. “People make assumptions about my work because of leather and its association with sex. I work with the body and make full body accessories, for adornment or everyday armour. There is such a deeper level of thought and concept behind what I do that I have to work really hard to explain that and send home a message that sexual references are byproducts. People project their own interpretations based on their own preconceptions.”
She is proud of the quality of her leather – which is vegetable tanned in Tuscany using bark and berries – and the quality of the bolts and studs (about 500 are used in the classic shell bag) that are made from brass and steel and coated with gold, silver or gunmetal. She is also pleased that there are now some 30 people in Ireland using leather. “When I started there were only three and I made it my mission to spread the word about using it.”
As business increases, she and Herbert no longer need to show in Paris for orders. “We are taking it slowly and keeping it local to maintain control. We want to grow at our own pace and grow steadily.” That steady hand drives a steady heart and a steely determination.