Teacher turned activist Sinéad Burke is making waves with her fearless campaign for inclusivity in a notoriously exclusive arena – even the Duchess of Sussex is a fan. Laura Craik meets the woman who took on the fashion world and won.
A decade ago, Sinéad Burke was blogging about the Givenchy Couture her heroine Cate Blanchett had worn to the Oscars. Fast-forward nine years and the actress was kneeling down in front of 3ft 5in Sinéad congratulating her on winning a prestigious award at Milan Fashion Week. And she wasn’t the only one to be wowed: this month Sinéad was one of the 15 Female Forces For Change selected by the Duchess of Sussex for British Vogue’s prestigious September issue.
As Sinéad recalls her encounter with Blanchett, I can’t help wishing she’d told me this before I came to meet her. This is the first time I have interviewed someone with dwarfism and for days I’ve been worrying about how I should greet her. Luckily, she is sitting at a table eating lunch when we’re introduced, which rules out all but the most cursory handshake. But once we have settled to chat – Sinéad dressed in a black Valentino skirt, a purple Ferragamo blouse and black Gucci loafers, all custom-made to fit her – I ask what sort of greeting she favours. ‘I like being at eye level with people, but I’m also conscious that we’re in a tiled room, and the idea of my telling you to get down on your knees… The best way is sometimes that the person sits and I stand. But it really depends.’
For Sinéad, nuances like this are important – treating every person with respect regardless of their physical appearance. Born in Dublin in 1990, the primary school teacher and fashion lover has applied her formidable intelligence and conviction not only to changing the way retailers design clothes to make them more inclusive but to the design of buildings too. ‘I was born disabled and I’m very proud to be disabled. My greatest challenge is that I live in a world that wasn’t designed for me,’ she says.
When Sinéad first appeared on the front row at London Fashion Week, shimmying with dignity on to a chair not designed for her, it was a wake-up call. That Sinéad challenges the most heavyweight designers and retailers to change their mindsets is one of her many skills. That she does so with authority and good grace is why everyone who meets her falls for her charms.
Sinéad first rose to prominence in 2017, when her TED talk, Why Design Should Include Everyone, made the fashion and design industries take notice, so eloquently and passionately did she argue her case. In 2018, she was included on Vogue’s list of the 25 most powerful women working in Britain, and this May she became the first little person to attend New York’s prestigious Met Gala, hosted by US Vogue editor Anna Wintour and with guests including Serena Williams and Lady Gaga. Keen to bust taboos and stereotypes, she positively invites open discussion. I ask Sinéad how I should refer to someone of her stature and she tells me she favours being referred to as a little person (or duine beag in her native Irish – she has successfully lobbied for this term to be included in the Irish dictionary); others differ. ‘It depends on the individual. If I’m on the phone to, say, a cab company I’ll say I’m 3ft 5in, I have dwarfism, as it’s helpful for the driver. Lots of people in the US and UK use “dwarf”. I think that if anybody feels worried that they’re using the incorrect language, they should just ask. That said, “midget” is derogatory. Midget comes from [19th-century American showman] PT Barnum and circuses and freak shows, and was used as a marketing tool.
‘When I talk to children I say, “That was in an era where people like me weren’t accepted into society. We were the court jesters.” Things have changed. I have the right to live in the same way as everybody else, and if the world evolves, so should our language. I think the least people can do is take a term that causes upset out of their vocabulary. Language has the power to include or really hurt.’
Sinéad is one of the most articulate people I’ve ever met. She stood out as extraordinary even as a child. The eldest of five and the only little person in her family other than her father, hers is a close-knit family. Both parents raised her to believe that she could achieve anything. ‘I was really annoying as a child,’ she admits. ‘I’m never lost for words now, and I was worse then.’ Language and fashion became her most powerful tools. ‘I’d use the word “ameliorate” in a sentence, aged nine. It was the same with clothes; I employed them to prove who I was.’
From an early age Sinéad was interested in fashion and frustrated by the lack of choice available to her. ‘It was less about feeling the injustice and more being constructive about it, and thinking, “How can this change?”’ she recalls. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, Sinéad became a teacher, and still balances teaching with her other commitments. It was while at Trinity that she started a fashion blog, Minnie Mélange, the alter ego Sinéad gave herself when she was crowned alternative Miss Ireland in 2012. The blog soon attained a cult following. She demurs from answering whether she’s in a relationship but will say that she lives with her family in Ireland (‘It’s wonderful!’) and that she’d ‘love to buy a house’.
She says that the Met’s chair Anna Wintour has been ‘extraordinarily kind’. She first met the editor-in-chief of US Vogue three years ago, at a fashion show in New York. Before the Met Ball, ‘We all worked together to make sure that the evening was as accessible and as comfortable as possible, from auditing the stairs to making sure that the bathrooms were safe. Anna gave me approval to have a footstool made [which enabled her to chat to guests on their level]. That made an enormous difference to my independence. What I was worrying about that night was whether or not I had a hair out of place – it wasn’t about whether or not I could participate in the same way as everybody else.’
The luxury of merely worrying about your appearance, as opposed to whether you can actually reach a mirror in order to see yourself, is something able-bodied people take for granted. Are there any badly designed products that Sinéad would like to see overhauled?
‘Everything,’ she says. She goes on to explain the nightmare of using public bathrooms. ‘The only public places I’ve come across where I can wash my hands independently are at Dublin Zoo and in Ikea.’ It’s a question that she has been trying to get the fashion industry to address for years. While she’s delighted that Gucci custom-made her a gown for the Met Ball, and that she owns bespoke clothes by Burberry and Christopher Kane, ‘The solution is not just about me being well dressed. I’m grateful to those who create extraordinary clothes for me, but the constant question in my mind is, “How do we make sure I’m not the only one benefiting?”’
Sinéad has lent some of her clothes, including a custom-made Burberry trench, to Edinburgh’s Body Beautiful: Diversity On The Catwalk exhibition, which reveals ways in which the fashion industry is challenging conventional ideals about beauty and embracing inclusivity. ‘I asked how everything was going to be displayed. They said, “On a mannequin.”’ Cue Sinéad having her body cast in plaster. ‘I’m proud of the mannequin, not just because it’s in the exhibition, but because it’s available for retailers to buy and use.’ Her Met Ball dress is also on display at the Gucci garden (a store within the Gucci Museum in Florence). ‘It’s not just about one moment on the red carpet. Now it can be used for education.’
As befits a teacher, she is passionate about education, and knows first-hand that children aren’t born with prejudice. She cites her own experiences as an example. ‘Children will often say, “Look, there’s a little woman,” and an adult will shush the child, trying to save me from embarrassment. But if they just said to the child, “Yes, that is a woman. She is smaller. Why don’t you say hello?” by initiating a conversation, the child is, like, “Oh, you’re the same as me.”’
Sinéad’s own childhood sounds very grounded. Her parents founded the charity LPI (Little People of Ireland) in 1998, to offer education and opportunities to little people and their families, and she still works closely with it, as well as being an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She also helps parents who’ve given birth to a little person. ‘To be able to quieten their nervousness is huge.’
Next on the agenda is a podcast, As Me With Sinéad, launching next month, themed around intimate conversations about who we are as people (‘How do we feel, think and be who we are?’), with guests including Victoria Beckham, the actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Riz Ahmed and singer Florence Welch. I ask what she’s proudest of having achieved. ‘The sentence I hear most when talking to fashion brands or creative directors is, “We haven’t thought about this before,”’ she says. ‘I’m proud to be one of the voices asking questions that the fashion industry hasn’t had to consider.’
But she isn’t forgetting her teacher roots. ‘The best part of my work happens in the classroom. Have you ever had moments where you talk about the times you were left out and didn’t feel the same as everyone else? It’s a universal experience, but mesmerising to see that reflected back to you in the eyes of young people. It’s humbling that your experience can help someone not to feel so alone.’
From hot frocks to forcing change
Sinéad at a Missoni show – she has become a front row fixture.
On the cover of industry bible Business of Fashion’s print issue.
With Victoria Beckham.
Posing with her custom-made mannequin (wearing her Christopher Kane dress), which is part of the National Museum of Scotland’s Body Beautiful exhibition.
With fellow luminaries at the Business of Fashion’s Voices ideas seminar in 2017.
Sinéad on the cover of this month’s issue of British Vogue, as one of its female Forces For Change.
With Stella McCartney, wearing one of her designs.
With supermodel Adut Akech.
Giving the TED talk that made the fashion industry pay attention.
As Me With Sinéad, produced by Lemonada Media, is available on Apple podcasts and Spotify from October.