The good fight
The Irish activist and teacher has been making serious waves in the fashion world, and has no intention of slowing down, writes Deirdre McQuillan
‘ My life has changed drastic a l l y i n t h e l a s t 1 8 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.
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 t o step up [ t o t he 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
■ Sinead Burke: “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.”