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

The Irish Times Magazine - - FASHION -

‘ 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.”

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