In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
The first time Sinéad Burke met Edward Enninful, she was a former elementary schoolteacher attending her first-ever London Fashion Week. He was the editor-in-chief of British Vogue. That would've been enough to intimidate plenty of people, but not Burke: She tugged on his sleeve, said hello and told him they should get coffee.
"I boldly introduced myself and word vomited at him about my big ambition for the fashion industry," she chuckles on the phone. "I was being terribly sincere, and he responded to it."
It's this kind of chutzpah — combined with a good dose of charm, earnestness and intelligence — that has propelled Burke from the front of a classroom in Dublin to the cover of Vogue UK.
Burke got her first big break in the industry giving a TED Talk about accessible design from her perspective as a little person. Since then, her advocacy has led to collaborations with brands like Burberry and Ferragamo on accessible design initiatives, an invite to the Met Gala and the aforementioned cover (in the publication's issue guest-edited by the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, no less.)
At three feet and five inches tall, Burke had historically not found the fashion industry particularly eager to cater to bodies like hers. She first started fashion blogging ten years ago because she was frustrated — especially as someone who understood and appreciated fashion's power as a communicative medium.
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"As a disabled woman, I felt excluded from the fashion conversation despite it being a tool that exonerated me from much of the vulnerability of having to explain to the world who I was," she says. "I wasn't in a place in which I could buy the things that I wanted, because nobody had considered me within the design."
These days, Burke is laboring to change that. Representing disabled folks on the red carpet and magazine covers is part of it. But working directly with companies to make their internal culture more inclusive is something she's passionate about, too — ultimately, she says, it's these shifts that will lead to lasting change.
"[It's about] looking at how we change the types of people who actually get to work in fashion," she says. "Because I think that will change the types of clothes we make."
When she's not in closed-door meetings with bigwig CEOs, Burke is working on her PhD in education and hosting her podcast, 'As Me with Sinéad,' where she interviews people like Victoria Beckham, DeRay McKesson and Adwoa Aboah about vulnerability and empathy.
We recently caught up with Burke on the phone to chat accessible design, the similarities between educating children and CEOs and the upsides of social media. Read on for the highlights from our conversation.
Your 2017 TED Talk played a big role in launching your current trajectory. What was that like, and how did it come about?
It was the most terrifying experience of my life. At the dress rehearsal, I forgot two sections, got the order wrong and literally said to the audience, "I don't know what my next line is." An hour before the talk, I locked myself in the disabled bathrooms and told myself: "No one can tell this story better than you because it's your story, and the reason you're nervous is because you've heard TED is going to change your life. But why don't you just enjoy this moment? You may never get another as cool as this."
Turns out there have been a lot of big moments since then. How has it felt to be the first little person on the cover of Vogue or at the Met Gala?
The most important part has been members of my community sending me photos of them with the magazine from all over the world. It's that notion of "if you can see it, you can be it" — not necessarily what it means for me and what a lovely compliment that is. It's incredibly humbling and I can only hope that the second person who looks like me gets to be on the cover of Vogue much sooner.
I'm proud because of what it might mean to other people. And I'm very proud about getting to go to the Met Gala; that was something that had been on my list for a long time. It was personally a huge deal and I was very nervous that morning. I rang my dad and I said, "I don't think I can go. The world is watching. I'm the first one like me ever to go." And Dad was like, "It's a party in a museum. You'll be fine." And he was right.
Education's clearly central to what you do. Where does that love for teaching others come from?
I fell in love with education as this catalyst for change. People's assumptions about whether or not I could be a good teacher based on my disability were unfounded — what the classroom taught me was that respect is not about size, gender or physical presence. It's about relationship and a connection. If you give it, you often get it back.
I still see myself as an educator, whether I'm facilitating learning for 12-year-old boys in the inner city in Dublin or CEOs and creative directors of enormous fashion companies. I deliberately use my education skills to not only facilitate learning, but to mediate and scaffold what's next. It's easy in modern society to say, "All of these things are wrong." But part of my skill as a teacher is about working in collaboration with those who have enormous power and being really constructive in a way that's consumable but also progressive.
How did fashion come to play such a big role in what you do?
Fashion has such a tangible impact on me as a person. Clothes touch my skin. It's an industry everyone has to interact with. If I figured out who I was within the realm of clothes and fashion, it told the world who I was without me having to use language to do so.
I think there's very few people who don't understand the currency of the fashion industry. There are very few people who don't know what Chanel or Gucci or Dior are, even if most of us can't afford them. But that aspirational branding and marketing has power. So what does it mean when fashion brands step up for the disabled community? I'm working in collaboration with them to make a difference. I genuinely believe other industries will follow.
You've had some amazing opportunities open up just because you're bold enough to ask for them. Besides meeting Vogue UK EIC Edward Enninful, what else has happened that way?
It's rooted in sincerity — it's never about targeting somebody or being exploitative. At the Met Gala this year I got to meet Florence Welch for the first time and we bonded over both being disgustingly nervous. Then she agreed to be a guest on my podcast.
And at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Milan I sat next to Paul Andrew from Ferragamo. We were talking about custom shoes and how that was the basis of the business when it first began, and I said, 'You should do custom shoes for little people.' That led to me going to Florence and having my foot measured and now Ferragamo is in Ireland at the Little People of Ireland Convention to build out a measure for the community globally, seeing the differences between our foot sizes and the rest of the population and how can we actually accommodate for that.
That's such a great example of you using your platform to not just get a big brand to dress you — which feels in some ways like a victory on its own — but to actually spread those benefits to other people who don't have your platform or visibility. Where else are you seeing that happen?
The solution for me was never looking at being dressed by brands as a resolution. I think it's a wonderful advantage to the work, but it's merely a starting point.
I'm having this very explicit conversation about disability inclusion and adapting HR policies. I'm asking questions like, "When you bring somebody for an interview, are you asking if they have any access requirements? Are you open to having interviews translated through sign language? Are you ensuring that businesses and the headquarters of various global brands are happening in accessible buildings?"
It's about going internally and trying to transform the culture more than just creating a line of clothes for little people. I think that's one solution, but what I really want is systemic change. It's also about working with larger fashion companies to create bursaries and sponsorships within design schools. Because if we can change who gets to study fashion, that will help change the system.
You have a lot of optimism about what fashion can accomplish. What do you see as the limitations?
It's an industry that has existed profitably in its current state since time immemorial and what I'm asking is for it to be transformed dramatically, in a way that possibly will risk profit margins.
Fashion is an industry that's always been slow to change. It was one of the last industries on the internet and to use social media. But if fashion decides to make changes and tries to implement them tomorrow, that change will probably be targeted for publicity rather than actually creating something that's really embedded within the system.
So for me, it's teetering on these two tectonic plates of understanding that I need the fashion industry to build in change in a deep way and that will take time, but not being complacent.
What do you think folks need to understand about designing for little people? And is there anyone out there who's already doing it well?
Tommy Hilfiger has an adaptive line that is definitely a positive start. But I don't think the solution is creating a line of clothes for little people, because I think what we need is ultimately about customization.
What I need on the jacket I just bought is for the sleeve to be altered. I may be able to bring that to a seamstress, but what if that was part of the actual purchasing process? This needs to be part of the mainstream proposal. It needs to be an embedded principle within the design and purchasing and sales model, rather than isolating it as a specific collection.
Because I think what we've seen, even from plus-size clothing, is that in an attempt to be inclusionary, we're being further exclusive because we're saying you are an "other" and we are allocating you the most marginal portion of the store. Constantly having to prove the economic value of a person in order to be valid just doesn't sit comfortably.
How does this emphasis on accessible design intersect with other ways the fashion industry needs to change, like the growing need for more environmental responsibility?
What I would really love to see going forward is sustainability and accessibility coming together. Because often the decisions that are made in terms of building a more sustainable world and planet come at the cost of disabled people. I don't think that any one move for equality should profit from the exploitation or the exclusion of the other.
A very simple example of that is the elimination of plastic straws. Lots of disabled people require the use of plastic straws for independence and even when this movement was gaining acceleration, lots of disabled people were raising their voice and saying, "This is what I need in order to physically occupy a coffee shop for two hours. And that is the only place in which I leave my home."
You've accomplished a lot already. What are you most proud of?
I helped with an exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland called 'Body Beautiful.' It was the first-ever exhibition on diversity and fashion in the entire world. I got my body cast and we built the world's first little person mannequin from it.
It was important to me because so often within the fashion system, we have these conversations and then designers will say that they can't make [these designs] because buyers won't buy them. You talk to the buyers and they say we'd buy them, but we've nowhere to display them. You talk to the mannequin companies and they say we're not making these mannequins because nobody will buy them.
It becomes the circle of exclusion where nobody is willing to take a risk. But now that mannequin is available for retailers to use in stores. As I've gotten older, I realized the power and the potential of fashion to not just change itself, but the entire world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.