'A lot of it was a dream come true... but none of it was accidental' - Sinéad Burke
She started her twenties as an unknown style blogger but now, as she celebrates her 30th birthday with a new book for children, Sinéad Burke is the fashion world's leading inclusivity advocate. Here, in an exclusive interview, the former teacher tells Ellen Coyne why she's ready to take her fight to a whole new audience
Sinéad Burke is stretching her arms out to either side. "My arms look different to yours," she says. "Mine do not stretch out straight."
The 30-year-old teacher, writer and activist is just short of touching the edges of the laptop screen that frames her as she speaks over Zoom from her family home in Navan. She is wearing a striped, sleeveless rollneck jumper - something which she concedes she might not have had the confidence to wear five years ago.
For someone who has always been obsessed with fashion, she's only relatively recently been able to fully enjoy it. The clothes she wanted were never made for her. Because she has dwarfism, she had to advocate to be able to get dressed. People just didn't make clothes for people like her. Burke started a blog - and used the internet to call out fashion. In the process, she changed her life.
"Having access to clothes that fit physically, but also that fit my personality, has only strengthened my relationship with my body," she says.
Sinead wearing bespoke suit, blouse and tie, Gucci; headpiece, €500, made to order Sorcahoraghallaigh.com. Photo by Eilish McCormick for Weekend magazine, October 2020
Burke started her twenties as a relatively unknown fashion blogger, and ended the decade with her 30th birthday last month as one of the leading advocates for accessibility in fashion in the world. Her work led to her becoming the first little person to attend the Met Ball. She was the first little person to appear on the cover of Vogue, after being selected by Meghan Markle for a special issue on forces for change, and she was invited to the White House during the Obama administration as part of an event on inclusivity in design. Burke is now a contributing editor at British Vogue, as well as being a member of the President of Ireland's Council of State. She set up her own media- diversity organisation, called Tilting the Lens, and also started her own podcast, As Me, on which she has interviewed the likes of Victoria Beckham and Samantha Power. She is credited with getting the term for "little person" - "duine beag" - into the Irish dictionary and was recently appointed to a government commission examining the future of media in Ireland. And now she has written a new children's book called Break the Mould.
Burke's social media is littered with pictures of her talking to chief execs from major fashion houses, in conversation with Prince William and Kate Middleton, as a guest on Kelly Clarkson's or Seth Meyers' chat show, or posing beside Victoria Beckham at one of her fashion shows. When Lizzo played Dublin last year, Burke was a guest and met the international star backstage afterwards. She's interviewed Saoirse Ronan and Jamie Lee Curtis. She's discussed equality with Jacinda Ardern at Davos, where she also hosted a dinner with Will.i.am. The custom Gucci dress that Burke wore to the Met Ball sits on a mannequin, made from her bespoke measurements, in the Gucci museum in Florence. She's been a castaway on Desert Island Discs.
"It does feel surreal," Burke says. "A lot of this was a genuine dream for me."
She reached stratospheric levels of success from her activism in the fashion industry, which she describes as a "serious business". "We all get dressed," she says.
Her achievements also came with the personal bonus of affording her more access to clothes that fit her, and suit her. She explains that's how she feels comfortable wearing things like her striped top today, which has no sleeves.
Sinead Burke wearing bespoke suit by Salvatore Ferragamo; bespoke camisole, Gucci, bespoke boots, Salvatore Ferragamo, all Sineád's own. Photo by Eilish McCormick for Weekend magazine, October 2020
"I think I have strengthened my journey with my body acceptance by being able to use clothes that demonstrate who I am to the world," she says.
Her new book leans heavily on Burke's achievements and uses them as examples to inspire children who may feel different or unusual in some way. Break the Mould reads like a pre-emptive self-help book: it gently teaches children how to deal with discrimination, possibly before it's even happened to them. "Before the biases of the world come about," Burke says.
The book, which is illustrated by Natalie Byrne, regularly features "unsung heroes": people who children may not be taught about at school. It also makes a clear and conscious effort to be as inclusive as possible. It tackles issues like race, religion, sexuality and disability. Burke describes it as teaching identity politics "without being trite".
She wanted to write a children's book, rather than an autobiography, because she remembered, as a teacher working in Ballymun, what a difference it had made to girls she taught when they read a book that was set in their area. It was called Christy's Dream and it was about a boy in Ballymun who wanted to buy a horse. Burke says she wanted all children to have a similar experience. (She also has fond childhood memories of the library in her own school - because it was one of the few libraries where she could reach the shelf.)
Readers are encouraged to make a list of dreams and aspirations, like the incredible ones Burke has managed to tick off at a dizzying pace over the last decade. It's now not unusual to see full-length shots of Burke's three-and-a-half-foot-tall body adorned in ultra-luxe clothes designed specifically for her by the leading designers in an industry that previously pretended little people didn't exist.
This is a deliberate way for Burke to make her body the centre of attention, but on her own terms. It's starkly different from the times in her life - which she recounts in the book - when other people made her body the centre of attention against her will. She recalls strangers leaning out of car windows to take photographs of her as she walked down the street, and parents who rushed away in silent mortification after their children loudly pointed her out in the supermarket.
Burke is famous enough now that most of the time, people pull out a phone when they see her because they want a selfie. But she still faces some of the same kinds of discrimination that she describes in the book.
"It happens a little less, but it still happens," she says. She repeatedly describes fashion as a kind of "armour" against this. "[Fashion is] a really deliberate attempt to have agency over my own physicality within the world," she says. "When I go out in the world, I lose a sense of agency because people have their own assumptions or conditioned biases that come to the fore when they look at me. And clothes give me tools by which I can say: 'You can think that all you want, but this is who I am.'"
Burke was born and raised in Dublin as one of five children in a very close family. She credits her parents with always encouraging her ambitions, and not allowing her to consider her dwarfism as a barrier to anything. She watched her parents found LPI (Little People of Ireland) when she was a child, in 1997. When Burke started school, her mother and father worked to make a coat hook, desk and chair that were small enough for her. As a consequence, Burke loved school so much that she declared she wanted to go to school forever. She followed that dream and initially trained and worked as a primary school teacher. Later, her online fashion advocacy eventually led to a 2017 Ted Talk called 'Why Design Should Include Everyone'. It has so far had 1.4 million views online. A speech at Davos and a shared magazine cover with Kim Kardashian followed, and soon she had become a worldwide force for fashion advocacy and inclusivity.
Sinead Burke wearing bespoke dress, Gucci, Sineád's own. Photo by Eilish McCormick for Weekend magazine, October 2020
In the book, Burke talks about her relationship with her body as a young woman, but never as someone who was overly insecure or self-conscious about her physical appearance. Burke explains that when she was younger, she was so excluded from fashion and beauty narratives that she also missed out on the unhealthy expectations that other teenage girls tend to suffer.
"I couldn't compare myself to the models on the magazines. There was such a difference aesthetically in how we looked that it didn't feel like something I had to be concerned about," she says.
Besides, her relationship with her body had already changed drastically at the age of 11, when she decided against having limb-lengthening surgery. She says she was a child, deciding she didn't want to be friends with people who would only be friends with her if she was tall. Burke didn't realise then what a monumental decision she was making. But in the end, it did help the way that she viewed and accepted herself. So she accepted herself, but fashion didn't.
"I couldn't understand how I could be so comfortable within my own skin, but yet the industry couldn't and didn't acknowledge me."
She says there is some "valid" criticism of her fashion activism. Yes, she is making leading fashion designers more conscious of accessibility, but that change is happening at a price point which she describes as out of reach for most people. Why not start talking about accessibility with a cheaper brand that could ultimately have a broader benefit?
Burke points out that if she'd started campaigning at a high-street level, she would have faced questions about sustainability. And she might not have changed anything. "If accessibility was something which high-street fashion embraced, there would be less likelihood that luxury fashion would follow: because luxury fashion leads. The high street rarely influences luxury - luxury always influences high street," she says.
Targeting high fashion was a strategic decision. Almost all of Burke's achievements have followed a clear plan. She explains very plainly that everything that she achieved -Vogue, the Met Ball - didn't happen by accident. They were things that were planned by her, rather than things that just happened to her. "There was a strategy to it - it wasn't accidental, but it was also down to the support of people around me," she says. "I've never been shy in articulating being ambitious."
There are some bleak contrasts in the book between the high-glamour moments Burke is best known for and the everyday discrimination which she still faces as a little person. One chapter sets out the depressingly complex routine she goes through when trying to use a public bathroom when she can't reach the lock. It often ends with her asking a random passer-by to stand guard. "My independence is rooted in strangers' kindness," Burke writes.
At this point in her career, Burke seems more interested in challenging the everyday inequalities like these poorly designed public spaces than the glamorous fashion activism she's so known for. She explains that she now wants to find a way to take these "grandiose" high-fashion moments, and turn them into advocacy that is "more granular".
It sounds as if she's trying to move away from fashion? "I think fashion is such a useful vehicle to be based in and then flourish from," she says. "I would like to not solely be based in fashion, but to use the skills and the knowledge that I have gained and the expertise that I have learned from working within that space to work in other industries."
I point out that a lot of her most impressive achievements start with the words "first little person to…". Without diminishing the importance of those achievements, is there a time when she wants her successes to not mention her size? Does she feel comfortable being defined by her body? She pauses for a moment.
"My disability and my personality are inextricably linked - I would be a different person if I wasn't a little person," Burke says. "I am very proud to be a disabled woman. I'm very proud to be a little person. And I think it's finding that space between acknowledging my disability and acknowledging my achievements, but also realising that the two are tied."
But she adds that "being the first little person to..." shouldn't be where her activism stops.
"I'd like to turn that into something that evolves further than me. Because being able to be the first in those moments is so wonderful, but true progress is seeing the second, the third, the fourth [little person] to do that," she says.
Before this year, Burke spent a lot of time travelling internationally. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, she's been at home with her family in Navan. She was approached in 2019 to write a children's book, but only found the time to do it this year once she was in lockdown. She started writing Break the Mould in April and completed the manuscript in three weeks.
The book is a beautiful and humane toolkit for children. It also reads, at times, like a gentle manifesto. Burke is already considered and polished enough in her answers that it wouldn't be hard to imagine her in national politics. In the spirit of a true politician's answer, she doesn't rule it out, but doesn't give anything away either, saying that there is a risk of being "conditioned by the system" once you become part of it, while acknowledging there are positives to being on the inside.
"I am very comfortable causing chaos from a more external perspective. But who knows? It's not something I'd say no to - but it's not something I'd say yes to right now," she says.
Her book starts with an effusive recommendation from President Higgins, who also selected Burke to sit on the Council of State. "A very important book, encouraging us all to celebrate, as it does, the uniqueness and gift of our own and others' differences, while recognising all of that which we share in common," the President writes.
In any of their conversations, has President Higgins ever recommended or prompted her to consider a run for the Áras?
Burke laughs. "No," she says, conclusively. "I would have remembered that conversation."
It would be hard to imagine her not ending up in some sort of domestic political role, given her plans to spend more time in Ireland during her thirties. Despite her significant international success and profile, Burke says that staying in Ireland would be her preference, even if a global pandemic wasn't keeping her here for the moment. She describes seeing Ireland from afar as a country with a natural sense of justice and fairness, which she says is mainly down to "the ordinary person".
"The ordinary person who is willing to make themselves vulnerable at their dining-room table to talk about their desire to get married, to talk about their need for reproductive rights," she says, referencing the two major referendums on marriage equality and the Eighth Amendment. "And I think we are far more equitable in our individuality than we give ourselves credit for. The idea that the majority of society are so wanting to make this country a more inclusive and welcoming place is behind my overwhelming desire to live here forever."
But Ireland isn't perfect. She is critical of "positive change" that politicians appear to gift to disabled people - when in reality such change only comes to fill a press release or to give the veneer of progress.
Burke is also passionate about media representation for disabled people. "I would love to see us thinking about diverse individuals as not just having stories to tell, but perspectives to share," she says. Because she's been back hom since March, she has been able to watch the emergence of a chilling national narrative which suggests that vulnerable people essentially opt out of society to "shield" themselves from Covid-19, while the economy recovers and moves on without them. This includes a lot of disabled people.
"It is not too long ago where we would institutionalise disabled people: we would take them out of our communities; we would place them in spaces where they could be better cared for, where there wasn't such pressure on their families or communities to provide support for them," Burke says.
"What stage are we at when we erase an entire group of people by defining them as 'vulnerable' or defining them as having 'underlying health conditions'? What effect does it have when we say to people, 'Stay where you are - we need to continue without you?'" she asks.
"When do we say to disabled people, 'Please come back to your community, you're now welcome?'
"And that's what really worries me, because I don't think there will be a moment where we can stop and pause and reintroduce people to society."
Disabled people like Burke who had been advocating for a long time for more accessible societies were often told that the things they were asking for weren't possible. Then Covid-19 hit, and the very changes they asked for seemed to happen overnight. More space in shops and restaurants, more flexibility for working from home, increasing numbers of pedestrianised streets, and sign-language interpretations at press briefings appeared. Burke is patient and understanding about this.
"Any time when the result benefits the majority, change happens much more instantaneously," Burke says.
But she adds that the decisions and changes that Covid-19 has forced governments to make must be viewed as an opportunity.
"We are now investing resources into redesigning places and spaces. Let's do that with accessibility and sustainability at the heart of the process, because you might never get a chance to redesign the world for everyone again," she says.
Burke started her twenties with a list of goals and aspirations, which she achieved at almost breakneck speed.
"I did spend my twenties racing through this list of aspirations that seemed impossible at the very beginning of that decade. And as I somehow managed to achieve those accomplishments, being home and being grounded has given me the chance to reflect on that change," she says.
Someone who is so thoughtful and meticulous about her ambitions must have a similarly dazzling plan for her thirties, right? She says that she only has one "large goal" and she is worried that it might sound trite.
"I would love to have a place of my own," Burke says. "One of the things that I have not undertaken is renting, because I can't guarantee in any property that I rent that I can reach the light switch."
She explains that, in a rental market like Ireland's, it is difficult for her to find a landlord who would see her as a viable tenant worth modifying a property for. So Burke can make a name for herself all over the world, but she still struggles to find a place she can call home once she is back in Ireland.
"And I think, in that way, I have been very lucky and privileged to be at home with my family," she says.
"I would really like next year to be able to have a space of my own where I can do simple things like reach the countertop - or, you know, reach the light switches or have a wardrobe that I can access. And, for me, I think that would be such a personal accomplishment."
And professionally? Burke seems set to target the boardrooms and the corridors of power, rather than the catwalks.
"I would love to be able to, at the end of this next decade, to be able to discuss changes that have come about because of the quieter work," she says.
"I think I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing a different landscape, not just because of the work that I'm involved in, but because of the work that so many people are involved in now - when industries and people in power seem to be listening and interested in making change."
'Break the Mould: How to Take Your Place in the World' is published by Wren and Rook. Sinéad will be in conversation with Elaina Ryan of Children's Books Ireland on October 24 at the International Literature Festival Dublin. Tickets are €5 available online. Irish Sign Language: Aoife Harrington
Photography: Eilish McCormick
Styling: Aisling Farinella, assisted by Hannah Monaghan
Hair and make-up: Noeleen Cunningham @ EF Creative