Fashion forward

Lead image – Sinéad Burke views her Christopher Kane dress at the Body Beautiful exhibition. Image: Andy Catlin

Writer and inclusion activist Sinéad Burke is on a mission to make fashion more diverse. She recently teamed up with the National Museum of Scotland to create the first mannequins for little people – a part of the Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk exhibition ­– and was the first little person to walk the Met Gala red carpet in May

Interview: Cheryl Caira

Congratulations on being involved with such a brilliant exhibition. What is your biggest hope in terms of the impact the Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk exhibition will make?

I’m so proud of Body Beautiful – for the visibility it gives to so many perspectives that we have, until now, been blinkered to. It’s the first of its kind and while that is an achievement worth celebrating, I’m hoping that this historic moment influences other artistic institutions to not just curate and conserve garments and objects based on beauty, but also because of their inclusive and cultural values too. I also hope that many people change their perceptions on what fashion is and can be, and perhaps people who have never been to a fashion exhibition before will venture in to one for the first time.

One of the catwalk ensembles on display at the exhibition – a bustier by Chromat designed for curve model Denise Bidot. Image: JP Yim/Getty Images for Chromat

You helped create the first mannequins for little people. Did it surprise you that these weren’t already in existence and do you see this creating a movement for more inclusion in the fashion world?

I have spent a considerable portion of my life wanting to see a body like mine reflected in cultural and fashion spaces – that feeling of exclusion is what first ignited my interest and advocacy in this space. There’s that phrase: “If you can see it, you can be it.” My ambition is that this mannequin will spark the curiosity of retailers, customers and anyone who might work in the fashion industry to question the types of bodies that have yet to be reflected and to then push forward and transform those spaces as we know them.

Wearing a custom Burberry trench coat. Image: Tim Walker

Where did your passion for fashion stem from and how do you approach customising your wardrobe?  

From the earliest of ages, I understood fashion as a powerful tool of influence for the wider world. I wear what makes me feel good, what gives me confidence – particularly when I’m nervous, I wear clothes that illustrate my personality and I wear clothes as armour. I try to build my wardrobe sustainably, purchasing clothes that are well-made and ones that I will wear many, many times. I bring the clothes that I have finished wearing to charity shops and before buying something new, I question if it’s something I need or want.

What is your wardrobe staple of the moment?

I have a beautiful ankle-length plissé skirt that I wear a huge amount. It offers such freedom of movement and I can wear it to almost any occasion.

Tell us about your experience at the Met Ball. Was it how you had imagined it to be?

 I was so nervous, but what an incredible, unimaginable experience. The Met Ball is a fundraiser for the Costume Institute at the Met but it’s a symbol of acceptance within the fashion industry. I was so appreciative of The Met, Gucci and Vogue for their help with my accessibility needs and in thinking creatively on what more can and should be done.

You were the first little person to attend the fundraiser. Did you see that as a significant step towards progression and diversity in the industry?

I was very proud to be the first little person, but with every first, one must question why now and why not before. Working with Vogue, Gucci and The Met on accessibility for the Met Gala, it gives me hope that more disabled people will be invited and be able to access the event fairly in the near future.

Sinéad Burke poses with a Christopher Kane outfit she has loaned for the Body Beautiful exhibition, displayed on a bespoke mannequin cast from her body. Credit: Neil Hanna

What work do we still need to do to increase diversity within the world of fashion?

There is so much work that still needs to be undertaken. We need to challenge young designers to think through a broader lens, build diversity into the largest fashion companies in a targeted, specific way and encourage customers to support the brands that are making positive changes and taking a risk with their inclusive approach. We all have a role.

What are the biggest misconceptions – and assumptions – people still tend to make about being a little person?

My best advice? Embrace your curiosity, ask questions, become informed and practise being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk is at the National Museum of Scotland until 20th October