Sunday 16 December 2018

How Irish designer Una Burke's 'mental' leather pieces suddenly came into vogue

Una Burke's designs have been worn by Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Partner Emmett Herbert is her biggest support

One of Una's acclaimed leather bodices
One of Una's acclaimed leather bodices
Una Burke, wearing one of her weather creations, and Emmet Herbert. Photo: Damien Eagers

Andrea Smith

As a teenager growing up in Roscommon, Una Burke spent her nights dreaming of clothes and models walking down ramps in fashion shows.

 As her mum Martina was a home economics teacher, Una (37) was taught to sew from the age of five and learned about pattern drafting from an early age.

She specialised in fashion at Limerick School of Art and Design, and gained experience working with her favourite material, leather, at Chesneau Design. She could hardly predict back then that her first commission would be from Lady Gaga.

"Talk about being thrown in the deep end," she laughs. "It was a full body suit with boots, arm braces and a face mask." Other pieces have been worn by Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Heidi Klum and Madonna, and closer to home, Una Healy and Kathryn Thomas. Pieces also appeared in The Hunger Games films and Taylor Swift's Bad Blood music video.

Tiny Una met her tall partner, Emmett Herbert (38), when she went to work at Michael H as a design assistant. He was working in the production end of things, and had previously worked for John Rocha. He was immediately attracted to the bubbly Una. "There was a fun feistiness about her and she has a lovely smile," he says.

Una loved Emmett's charisma and friendliness, but when he asked her to dance at the Christmas party, she turned him down. It wasn't personal, but she had prior experience of the perils of mixing a Christmas party liaison with a colleague. They got together in January 2005 though, and then broke up six months later, which made the work situation awkward. "It was torture," Una groans.

Happily they got back together after six months, but Una had already decided that she was going to move to the UK the following year to get leather design work. She was making handbags on a small scale but really wanted to get properly into it. She moved over to London in 2006, and she and Emmett thought it might be best to break up at that point. "It was terrible," admits Emmett. "I wasn't happy because I felt Una was picking her career over our relationship. We agreed to try long-distance for six months, which turned into seven years."

Una did a master's at London College of Fashion, but the recession hit as she graduated. She had to get a job in retail to service her student loans, while working on her own designs in her spare time. She then attracted the attention of fashion editors from the likes of Vogue, ID and Dazed and Confused, who wanted to use her graduate collection of "strange and unique" leather art pieces that fit on the body in their shoots.

Una Burke, wearing one of her weather creations, and Emmet Herbert. Photo: Damien Eagers
Una Burke, wearing one of her weather creations, and Emmet Herbert. Photo: Damien Eagers

While starting off was a financial struggle, Una's parents helped and she also got support from the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. As the invitations came in to show at London and Paris fashion weeks, she was able to leave the day job and focus on her craft. She decided to make leather bags, bracelets and belts to sell, and use her "impractical" bodices and "mental" show pieces for publicity.

"I was surprised that people wanted to buy the crazy stuff as well," she says. "That was a really nice surprise as they're the fun things to make."

While Una was building her empire, Emmett was knocked down and badly injured while away on a stag weekend here. He was rushed to Beaumont Hospital for surgery, and poor Una got that awful call in London from his parents, Tom and Etta, and rushed home in a panic.

"The doctor said they had to put his head back together like a jigsaw as the skull was completely shattered," she recalls. "Luckily none of the bone had pierced internally so she said he'd be okay."

Emmett made a great recovery but the situation reinforced the pair's desire to be together. When Michael H's production ceased four years ago, Emmett moved to London. He looks after the accounts and press and Una says he's a great support. The collection will enter Selfridges' new accessory hall in London tomorrow, which they're thrilled about.

They have also launched their short fashion film collaboration with director John Haugh, featuring Laura Rakhman-Kidd. Called Seduction, the film and an exhibition of Una's leather pieces and photography opens at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin in a few weeks. The film has already been short-listed for a fashion film award.

Una says that once Emmett moved over, her life became more balanced and they see a future and, hopefully, a family together. In the meantime, they're thrilled at the way it's all going. "I don't think Una realises quite how good she is," says Emmett. "She's just so modest."

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