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Incredible Women

Podcast guest Sinéad Burke on the power of fashion and her love of Christopher Kane

Irish teacher, writer and disability advocate SINÉAD BURKE talks to SARAH BAILEY about the sartorial milestones that will stay with her forever – from dressing for the White House to addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos. Here, we give you an insight into Burke’s love of fashion – and the work she does to promote inclusion in the industry – with an exclusive extract from our Pieces of Me podcast, which you can also listen to in its entirety below…

Dress (tailored for Sinéad), Stella McCartney; earrings, Sophie Buhai

“What changes hearts and minds is a human story,” says Sinéad Burke. “If I’ve learnt anything in my role as an advocate, it is that we are all challenged by something.”

A writer, academic, activist and front-row regular, Burke is a fashion-obsessive who has used her own story to challenge the industry to rethink what inclusivity really means.

Born with achondroplasia, a bone-growth disorder that causes dwarfism, Burke is, at 3ft 5in, a ‘little person’ – like her father. She was brought up and still lives in Navan (about an hour outside Dublin). The eldest of five siblings, all of whom are of average height, her lifelong passion for fashion was not something shared with her sisters. “I think the reason I loved fashion so much is probably because of its extraordinary ability to demonstrate to the world who I was.”

Today, as a potent public figure who has addressed the World Economic Forum at Davos (in custom-made silk Gucci) and fronted her own Ted Talk, Why Design Should Include Everybody, her fundamental love for the industry remains unabated. “Meeting Christopher Kane and realizing he knew who I was?” she laughs. “That was the best thing that had ever happened to me in my life!”

All the matching outfits my sisters and I wore in our childhoods

A childhood snapshot of Burke, in 1994

“As the eldest, I thought it was my responsibility to show my sisters the way through fashion – but very quickly realized they didn’t really care. If I had to distil a rationale for that, it’s probably because it came much easier to them.”

My custom Salvatore Ferragamo shoes

Burke, pictured here with one of her custom-made Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, in 2019

“Shoes are such a symbol of maturation, and the only shoes I could buy didn’t make me feel like an adult. They never allowed me to feel like a woman. I met the extraordinary Paul Andrew, Salvatore Ferragamo’s creative director, and kind of flippantly said, ‘You should do custom shoes for little people.’”

The ensemble I wore to the White House in 2016

“I went to the Riverdance headquarters in Dublin and met the costume team, who made me the most beautiful blue satin skirt, which was high-waisted and billowed to the ground, and a chemise that kind of gaped at the shoulders. I still have those pieces.”

My custom Burberry trench

Burke modeling the various stages of her repurposed Burberry trench, photographed in 2017

“The trench coat is one of those iconic pieces of fashion that almost doesn’t even come under the definition of style. It’s a symbol. I almost consider it as armor.”

The Christopher Kane dress I donated to the Museum of Scotland in 2018

“I have loved and admired Christopher Kane as a designer for as long as I can remember. We met at the Met Gala preview in 2018 – while looking at all the religious iconography. I heard my name being called by Christopher and thought, ‘This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.’”

The blue plissé Gucci silk dress I wore on stage at the World Economic Forum in 2019

“When you are not only 3ft 5in tall, but wearing a blue silk custom Gucci dress at an economic forum, you stand out – and it amplifies your message. More than anything, it proves the point that the luxury fashion industry can accommodate for inclusion.”

My closet staple – a sustainable RE/DONE leather biker jacket

Burke, pictured wearing her favorite leather jacket, in 2019

“I’ve worn it so often, I have replaced the lining three times now. It is the definition of form and function, while also appealing to my broader moral compass as a person.”

To listen to this and other episodes of Pieces of Me: My Life in Seven Garments, subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, and many more