Sinéad Burke’s fight to make fashion more diverse

One of the rumours that swirls around the disabled activist, advocate, educator, Vogue contributing editor and lifelong fashion obsessive Sinéad Burke is that she has a complete Burberry wardrobe. Not a collection tailor-made for her but clothes personally selected off the rack by Burke and then customised for her 104cm (3ft 5in) frame. The truth turns out to be even better than the gossip.

“I’m very fortunate to have a wardrobe full of beautiful, well-made clothes,” she says. “Not just from Burberry but Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo, Christopher Kane… As a teenager I’m not sure I could even have visualised it.”

As the eldest of five children, she grew up “envious of my sisters, who were average height. They had access to what I saw as the entirety of the fashion industry, even though they had far less interest than I did.” And now? “They look at my wardrobe and are like: ‘Would that fit me?’” She laughs.

Tim Burke took these huge scissors and cut the coat around me. It was the most explicit demonstration of what I need as a little person and my relationship with the fashion industry

We meet at the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, where an exhibition to celebrate diversity in fashion – billed as the first of its kind – will feature two pieces from that hard-won wardrobe. First, a Burberry trenchcoat that the British fashion photographer Tim Walker cut to size for a shoot last year, when she graced the cover of the industry magazine Business of Fashion. “He took these massive scissors and cut it around me,” Burke explains. “It was the most explicit demonstration of what I need as a little person and the relationship I have with the fashion industry… It wasn’t about hindering. It was about making something new.”

The second piece is by Kane, who like most designers – whether for clothes or chairs – had never designed for a little person. “We talked about proportions,” Burke says. Such as the fact that her condition, achondroplasia, the most common form of restricted growth, results in wider hips and curvature of the spine, which means hemlines ride up her back. “All you need to do is add two inches at the back, which looks uneven on a hanger but sits perfectly on me. How many other people with wider hips might benefit from an alteration like this?” she says.

The point Burke is making here, and in her 2017 Ted talk – Why design should include everyone – the one that kickstarted her stratospheric rise, is that greater inclusion is good for everyone and that people from diverse backgrounds need to be present at every stage. This is what led to that Burberry wardrobe, a place on Vogue’s 2018 list of the 25 most powerful women working in Britain, an appointment to Ireland’s Council of State, and an invitation to the Met Gala, in New York, where this year she became the first little person ever to attend the fashion bash.

Met Gala: Sinéad Burke in Gucci in New York this month. Photograph: Angela WEISS/AFP/Getty

Today she is wearing a navy jumpsuit (“River Island children’s department, age nine to 10. My mam picked it out for me… And the loafers are Gucci.”) The zip is, as usual, on the back. “I love jumpsuits, but functionally they are incredibly difficult. If I go to the bathroom I have to make myself vulnerable in a public place, because you have to almost expose yourself fully… That’s if I can reach the zip. And it’s not just because I’m a little person. Many people cannot get dresses on or off with independence. Clearly, they were designed by a person who did not wear them.”

She goes on to describe “the excruciating business” of using public lavatories, where locks, sinks, soap dispensers and hand dryers are all “out of my reach”. She talks about turning upended bins into precarious stools to reach locks or depending on the kindness of strangers to stand guard. The bathroom, of course, is only one example “where design impinges on my dignity”.

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