OxWIB Talk: Sinéad Burke

‘The fact I work in fashion,’ says Sinéad Burke, ‘is odd.’

There’s nothing odd about her résumé. A Contributing Editor of British Vogue, a former TED speaker, among Vogue’s 25 most influential women of 2018, dressed by Gucci and Burberry, profiled by Business of Fashion, and a four-time speaker at the Davos World Economic Forum, Sinéad Burke belongs in fashion. But ‘fashion is an industry I am told I cannot exist within.’ Born with Achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, Burke stands at three feet, five inches tall. ‘The industry decided I couldn’t take part.’ Sinéad Burke is out to change that. 

Burke’s drive for inclusion started early, at her first day of primary school. ‘I was four years old’, she says, ‘and I decided I wanted to be a primary school teacher.’ Encouraged by her parents, it wasn’t until university that Burke understood this would be a challenge: ‘would the world allow me to be a teacher?’ She opens the discussion to the audience. What would the problems be? ‘You would have trouble being seen,’ is one answer. ‘That’s a big one,’ she replies. ‘Think of health and a safety.’ Another hand goes up: ‘Controlling the class.’ At eye-level to the children, she explains, ‘the whole culture of my classroom changed.’ For the better, not for worse. The children had to work with her: ‘I couldn’t reach the light switch or the blackboard, hang up prints.’ This taught them lessons: how to participate, how to lead, how to empathise. She graduated in teaching at the top of her class, and is studying for a PhD at Trinity College, Dublin. The subject? Children’s rights in education at the primary school level. By re-designing the system to including herself, ‘I had an opportunity for a different conversation.’ And it’s a better one. 

‘One of the first things I wanted to tell you,’ she says, ‘is have your own voice. Use your voice.’ Growing up in a small Irish town, Burke taught herself fashion. ‘I knew everything about fashion. I read all the fashion sections.’ This was in spite of American Voguebeing too heavy to carry and read. Early on in her talk, it is clear she’s an expert. (‘The reason why you’re all wearing Stan Smiths is because Phoebe Philo wore them in 2015’) She started fashion blogging in Ireland: ‘the Internet has been transformative. People wouldn’t take me seriously because of my appearance. Online, people listened to what I had to say.’ She developed a platform to highlight the lack of inclusivity within the fashion industry – how design excludes those with disabilities. This culminated in a TED Talk last year: Why Design Should Include Everyone. ‘I want your perceptions challenged,’ she told the audience: ‘Who are we not designing for? How can we amplify their voices and their experiences? I want you to open your eyes.’ The video racked up 1.2 million views online. ‘I wanted to provide a lens through which the fashion industry could see and benefit from.’ She calmed her nerves, she tells us, by remembering two things. ‘One: Nobody can tell the story better – it’s your story. And two: TED could change your life.’ It did. 

She was immediately approached by Alice Delahunt, then global director of digital marketing for Burberry. Appointments were arranged in the brand’s Regent Street store to provide Burke with a Burberry wardrobe. Her fitting was just after Eddie Redmayne. ‘They had never dressed any one like me,’ she says. ‘The retail experience was inaccessible.’ It taught the brand how to accommodate others. ‘They cut off the table legs’. This has led to plans ‘that cannot be reported on.’ Further collaborations followed. ‘There was an article written in The New York Times’, Burke says, ‘written by Vanessa Friedman, the paper’s Chief Fashion Critic.’ The piece argued that disability is fashion’s final frontier. ‘The article included no conversations with disabled people’, Burke says, ‘so I emailed her.’ Expected to be blanked, she received a reply: ‘Of course. Let’s talk.’ This taught Burke about the importance of allies. She was at a fashion show for a designer ‘known for catering for those excluded. But I couldn’t see it. I needed a front row seat.’ Vanessa Friedman got her one. ‘I was in the background of every Getty image,’ she says. ‘I was given the same access and experience of everyone else.’ She found herself sat next to Edward Enninful, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue. Meetings followed, bagging her a role as Contributing Editor for the magazine. 

But why fashion? Why not advocate for inclusion in another field? ‘Fashion is incredibly important,’ she says. ‘Firstly, it’s an industry we all legallyhave to interact with – we all have to wear clothes.’ And our connection with fashion is tangible: ‘it’s the only industry that touches our skin.’ But most importantly, Burke explains, ‘fashion is an incredibly powerful tool for influencing people, for trying to include people. It is not just about glamour.’ Burke is, however, incredibly glamorous. Dressed in black Gucci loafers, black skirt, and black Burberry jacket, she’s been photographed by Tim Walker, dined with the Kardashians, and is a staple of fashion’s front row. But ‘you have to ask: What’s the point?’, she says. ‘How can I use that to push people. You must always be conscious of how your privilege and power could help others.’ There’s much to do. She points out the luxury brands that have revealed a lack of inclusion. Gucci’s black-face turtleneck; Prada’s black-face keychain; Burberry’s noose hoodie. ‘This proves the lack of diverse voices within the system. No one at any point queried these designs.’ What’s her strategy? ‘I get to cause chaos’, she says. ‘It’s about changing the entire system, not just the top. I’m trying to educate, to prompt people to think differently. We just haven’t thought about this before.’

A huge thank you to Sinéad Burke for coming to speak and Oxford Women in Business for organising the event.