Sinéad Burke: From classroom to catwalk
The Irish activist and teacher has been making serious waves in the fashion world
Sinéad Burke: “My physicality shaped my personality and ambition as an academic, writer and advocate.” Photograph: Yumna al-Arashi
‘My life has changed drastically in the last 18 months, and the space I get to occupy,” reflects Sinéad Burke incredulously during fashion week in Milan. It is hours before the Green Carpet Fashion Awards gala event in La Scala in late September, where she was presented with a Leader award by Gucci chief executive Marco Bizzarri. The award is in recognition of her advocacy and tireless campaigning in raising public awareness of design and disability and for her decade-long support of diversity in fashion.
It comes in the wake of the Irish activist’s growing visibility internationally, her social media success with 34,000 Instagram followers and her new role as a contributing editor of British Vogue online.
On the Sunday morning before the event we are accompanying her to an appointment in a busy shopping area of Milan and heading down the street when a guy distributing leaflets singles her out, confronts her, blocking her way and asks where she is from. “Ireland,” she replies tartly trying to avoid him. “So what’s your name?” he retorts. “Sinéad,” she says, sidestepping him. As we walk briskly on, she turns to us commenting dryly, “welcome to my world. It happens all the time”, the response resigned rather than rancorous.
Since Burke delivered her powerful, heartfelt TED talk “Why Design Should Include Everyone” in New York in June 2017, racking up 1.2 million views online, she has been continuously in the spotlight.
Sink or swim
The only Irish female delegate at Davos in January (and dressed in a bespoke Burberry wardrobe specially tailored for her), she spoke four times at the global forum on challenging thinking around design and inclusivity in various panels including Unicef and hosting a dinner with will.i.am, the American rapper and philanthropist.
The experience was life-changing in terms of her self-confidence. “Davos was a moment in which I realised I had to reflect on my own self value and I remembered making a decision to step up [to the challenge] of being in a room with the most powerful people in the world and I had to sink or swim. Those were the options and I decided to make sure that I was going to bring them with me.” she recalls. Her Burberry wardrobe, she later wrote in the Financial Times, “with its emphasis on fit and tailoring mirrored my inner confidence”.
It all began for the 3ft 5in activist 10 years ago when she started her fashion blog Minnie Melange while a Trinity student; she has been passionate about fashion since childhood. “It was my way into the industry. I was not interested in trends, but felt left out, I was not considered within the architecture of the industry,” she says.
Encouraged to write a blog following a college tutorial, she wrote about Cate Blanchett wearing Givenchy couture to the Academy Awards and suddenly found her voice. She was not to know then that 10 years later, the actress would be kneeling down to chat to her backstage at the historic opera house in Milan, praising her “brilliant” speech. “Cate was predictably wonderful, curious, kind and hilarious. A highlight of my few days in Milan . . . if not my life,” she said afterwards.
When she was 18 she entered the Miss Alternative Ireland competition with an ironic take on the Snow White story dressed in a golden conical bra, black lace tights and wig. A fan of Madonna at the time, she also sported the outfit later at the singer’s Dublin concert, “but it lashed rain and I got totally soaked and the wig was ruined”, she recalls.
She won the competition – 2012 was to be the last year of the gay event and Panti Bliss still refers to her as the reigning Miss Alternative Ireland Emeritus. The reason for her entering it “as a straight and fixed gender” person was because she felt safer among the LGBT community particularly in social situations. “I have been in nightclubs where strangers have thrown me up in the air and behaved abominably or made unsightly lewd gestures when drunk and I remember feeling unsafe.”
Her first experiences, however, in The George were different. “I remember getting up to dance and being nervous about the crowd’s reaction and whether they would “other” me, but they didn’t and allowed me to party in the same way as everybody else and that gave me such confidence. So for that reason and as a gesture of thanks to the community and their courage in accepting me I entered the competition”.
Born in 1990 with achondroplasia, (a disproportionate form of restricted growth) like her father, Burke is the eldest of five and the only one who inherited the condition. Her father, who grew up in the United Kingdom, met her mother when they both worked in theatre in Dublin and Burke has many memories of spending time with him when he was acting in the Gaiety and has inherited his theatrical flair and timing.
A close-knit family, with whom she still lives in Navan, they continue to be a huge, fundamental support for Burke. Her talented siblings are all professionals – actuaries and optometrists. “My parents always instilled in me a belief that I could do and achieve anything and everything that I wanted,” she once wrote.
In 1998 her parents founded a charity organisation LPI (Little People of Ireland) to offer support, education and opportunities specifically for little people and their families. This year marks its 20th anniversary and she will be joining others for the celebrations in Meath.
In her TED talk, she outlined how forcefully design impinges on people’s lives and how challenging the everyday physical world is for a small person. Flying to New York and travelling alone for the first time was for her a major achievement.
She spoke about airports, for example, and the fact that door locks, sinks, hand dryers, mirrors and soap dispensers in bathrooms are all out of reach so she must travel everywhere with hand sanitisers. She gave insights into how the physical world impacts in other casual ways too. Ordering coffee, for instance, and how reaching up for one served without a lid can be a dangerous experience. Elsewhere design affects the clothes she wants to wear, “clothes that reflect my personality, but not having to buy children’s wear which was infantilising”.
Accessibility was a key point. She commented later that full accessibility in design goes beyond the conventional engineering training in ergonomics, design and human factors. One immediate effect of her TED appearance was an invitation to give a talk to the third-year engineering students in TCD which she did the following October, causing one student to decide to take up an aspect of her theme as a PhD thesis. She has toured schools and workplaces talking about languages, difference and disability.
Since then, along with Meghan Markle, Amal Clooney, Stella McCartney and Blue Planet presenter Orla Doherty, Burke has been listed by Vogue as “one of the 25 most influential and aspirational female figures in Britain shaping 2018” and as one of the Business of Fashion Global 500, a professional index of people shaping the global fashion industry.
Her portrait has been has been taken by celebrated photographers, notably Tim Walker, known for his whimsical, magical imagery, and by Yumna al Arashi, the Yemeni born film-maker whose thought-provoking imagery of Muslim womanhood reclaims the female gaze.
She has been pictured in clothes from Burberry, Christopher Kane, Vetements, Rochas and Richard Malone, is feted at fashion weeks sitting front row in London and Milan. She has partied with the Beckhams and Carine Roitfeld (former editor of French Vogue now with her own magazine CR), exchanged ideas with Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of Oxford, Queen Rania of Jordan and other world figures. She has described some experiences as surreal, her assessment of some high-profile names, sharp and incisive.
This new-found visibility has further strengthened her campaigning ambitions as one acutely aware of the limits of design and how to shift them.
A contributing editor to Vogue online, her first column described how she chose to embrace her disability and her pride in being a small person. In her latest, she discusses issues with former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, one of her role models. “I was born the year she became president of Ireland. Seeing a woman hold such a position of power, it meant I could do it too,” she tweeted.
Fame has not gone to her head – except, perhaps, for sharper haircuts.
She has an engaging personality, is bright and perceptive, a fluent speaker with a mischievous sense of humour and unfailingly considerate and courteous to everyone she meets.
“I have empathy so finely tuned that I see the world through a different lens. I listen and ask questions which some people don’t think about because they never have had to. Also I have a real ability to find the transparency in people because when they meet me, their biases or lack thereof are exhibited quite plainly. I get a concrete sense of who they are,” she tells The Irish Times.
She once considered a tortuous limb lengthening procedure, but declined to go through it to please other people’s perceptions. She can talk about the slurs and the taunts she has suffered but doesn’t dwell on them, though demeaning slights are remembered.
“My physicality shaped my personality and ambition as an academic, writer and advocate. Most of the time I forget that I am a little person unless there is something I cannot access. It is the physical environment and society that reminds me. I like thinking of myself as organised, creative and articulate.”
Like Blanche duBois, she depends on the kindness of strangers “for my own independence whether it is ordering a drink at a bar [she doesn’t drink alcohol] ordering a coffee or whether it is in a hotel where you can’t reach a seat”.
Highlights in this whirlwind year “have been having conversations with so many of my heroes at eye level metaphorically and literally – people who transform and shape the industry. Edward Enninful [editor of British Vogue] has been so good to me and so has Imran Amed, founder of Business of Fashion”.
“There are so many other people who are not household names but who use their power to transform my experiences like Daniel Marks of The Communications Store in London whose support has changed my life, Alice Delahunt of Burberry who now works with Ralph Lauren and Ruth Chapman of Matches.” In her acceptance speech in Milan, Burke paid tribute to them and others who have gone out of their way to help her.
Her growing confidence and composure was evident in the La Scale speech in which she threw down a gauntlet to the Italian fashion industry – with all the major figures present in the audience – “to use their platform and privilege and immeasurable power to think more broadly about who they serve and to whom they give confidence when they are designing beautiful clothes.”
And her campaigning shows no sign of slowing down. She will appear in Elle next month, in US Glamour wearing Irish designer Richard Malone and in Vogue Poland in December. She will play an important role in a major new project in London currently under wraps, recognising the needs of disabled people.
A qualified primary school teacher – she wanted to be a teacher from the age of four – she also won the Vere Foster medal (awarded by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation to students who obtain the highest mark in teaching practice and/or curriculum areas of education).
She quickly became a force to be reckoned in the classroom with her young and inquisitive pupils, and with her blog. She also completed an MA in broadcast production for radio and television, developing her skills in producing, writing, editing, presenting and directing, culminating in two radio and television documentaries, one about the development of computer programming for children, the other based on her life as a little person.
She is currently engaged on a PhD in TCD on human rights education, researching the voice of the child within the school environment, which she hopes to complete next year.
These days a normal life studying and teaching, living and eating at home with her family has become one of unpredictability. For instance, at the Green Carpet Awards, she met Pierpaolo Piccioli the much lauded creative director of Valentino who invited her to come to his catwalk show in Parison September 29th and said he would dress her for the event, flew her to the French capital to sit front row at the Grand Musée des Invalides.
So for now, she is riding on a wave of success, a small person with big ambitions who can communicate clearly and effectively and knows how to win over an audience. The Minnie Melange blog, now on hold, allowed her access to a business that was blinkered to her existence and created awareness of a community whose voice is often unheard. “For me,” she says in Milan, “clothes are one thing that we each have in common because everybody has to get dressed and clothes are a powerful tool for armour, for self expression, for confidence. They save me from translating my own vulnerability when I am wearing a full length red silk Rochas dress,” she says with a smile.