How Sinead Burke is making the fashion world wake up to disability

Sinead Burke wants disability to be recognised on the catwalk – and her calls for inclusivity are going global, writes Carolyn Moore.

Sinead Burke: 'I believe in the transformative power of fashion.'

The first time I met Sinead Burke, she had popped in to have a look around Dublin’s Loft Market, a fashion and design co-operative I was involved in at the time. 

Sinead is 3ft 5in tall, and it was instantly apparent to me that — like most public spaces — the Loft Market was not set up to cater to somebody of her height.

As a little person, Sinead is a vocal advocate for the disability community at large. 

That afternoon, watching her navigate a space that was built and stocked without any consideration for her needs, I noticed how she seems to tackle trying situations with a disarming blend of tenacity and grace, as she seeks to assert herself in a world that wasn’t built with her in mind.

As co-founder of the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC) with US disability advocate Liz Jackson, Sinead is bringing that tenacity and vision to a new project, and it’s one that’s about to put her on a global stage. 

If the world wasn’t built with her in mind, the fashion world in particular seems oblivious to her wants and needs, but Sinead is bringing them right to the doorstep of the industry as the IFDC adds their voice to a growing chorus calling for greater inclusivity in fashion.

Liz began to experience the onset of a neuromuscular condition in 2012, affecting her vision and her mobility. 

While she had no problem finding stylish glasses, she found the only canes on the market were very unappealing. 

What began as a challenge to the fashion industry to produce nicely designed disability aids became a desire to completely change the system of fashion. 

“Disability is an $8 trillion emerging market,” says Liz, “and nobody’s making or marketing products to us.”

Liz wanted to create a space where fashion meets function in a way that considers the needs of disabled users, and to give those users a voice when it comes to the design of products from which they require greater functionality. 

The IFDC — the first fashion trade association for people with disabilities — was born.

Across the Atlantic, the internet had given Sinead the autonomy and agency to insert her voice into a conversation she had previously “felt really left out of”. 

Through social media and her blog, she had established herself as an authority on fashion and inclusivity, so when both Liz and Sinead were on the lineup at Inspirefest in Dublin last summer, a mutual acquaintance suggested they should meet.

“Sinead just approached me with an ear-to-ear grin,” recalls Liz, “and by the end of that day I was in love with her! A mentor of mine had told me I was a freight train, breaking everything in my path to get to where I’m going. 

"He said, ‘Always be a freight train, but find someone to pick up the pieces. Find your other half.’

“The day after I met Sinead, I said to her, ‘You’re the other half of this.’”

“I believe in the transformative power of fashion,” says Sinead, “and I think the disabled community has been deprived of that for quite some time. And it’s not the only community that’s been excluded.

“For so long, the fashion industry has designed almost exclusively for a particular woman with particular measurements, and they’ve never really been challenged on it,” she says. 

“We’re all consumers, yet we’re rarely given a voice within this industry that dictates what we wear.

“Liz and I share many ideologies and beliefs with regard to disability and fashion, and my encyclopedic knowledge of fashion and Liz’s advocacy background are a great mix.”

Naturally, Liz jumped at the chance to be involved with the IFDC. 

“Sinead and I both subscribe to the social model of disability,” says Liz. 

“The medical model states we are disabled by our bodies, but the social model states we are disabled by the world around us. In that sense, the social model of disability is very design orientated. We can be enabled or disabled by the way something is designed.”

“Small design decisions have a huge impact on people’s day-to-day lives,” agrees Sinead. “They can make the simple act of getting dressed more difficult than it needs to be, so why can’t we change this?

“We want to challenge designers who traditionally haven’t been thinking very diversely, to work with people with disabilities, and find beautiful solutions to these problems. Aesthetics are so important, but if you look at products specifically designed for the disabled community, they’re quite ugly.”

Not one to do things by halves, Sinead’s first event with the IFDC was at the White House. 

“We launched at an event called Design For All last September,” she says. 

“The Obama administration wanted to highlight the intersection of fashion and disability and give us an opportunity to have our voices heard.”

Mingling with Nike’s head of innovation; directors of IMG (the modelling agency that signed Jillian Mercado, a model with muscular dystrophy); and the curators of New York Fashion Week, it was an opportunity for the IFDC to set out its stall and establish its objectives — which include an ambitious plan to stage a show called Rampway during New York Fashion Week.

Partnering fashion designers, who are trained experts in form, with persons with disabilities who are life experts in function, Sinead says: 

“It’s the first step in a very long-term plan looking at how we can challenge the lack of diversity in fashion and give people with disabilities a voice within that space.”

They’ve enlisted the help of the New York Times’ fashion editor, Vanessa Friedman, who’s been opening doors to some of fashion’s biggest players. 

“I’ve been reading Vanessa for years,” says Sinead, “and now she’s helping us reach out to designers, introducing us to huge brands like Calvin Klein.”

Recalling her meeting with their senior vice-president of communications, Sinead says: “Sitting in the boardroom of Calvin Klein’s headquarters in New York I was thinking, ‘Gosh, 16-year-old me started a blog because I felt left out of the conversation, now here I am at the epicentre of everything.’”

They’ve spoken with Christian Siriano, who has had diversity on his agenda for a number of years; and with Prabal Gurung, who recently affirmed his commitment to inclusivity in an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter.

Given the current political climate, Prabal says that “celebrating diversity in every form — shape, size, colour, ability, class — is more important than ever”.

He says: “I understand what it’s like to feel different. It’s something I am well acquainted with from my upbringing in Nepal, where my goals, passions, and dreams diverged from that of mainstream society.”

Because he was fortunate to have a family who supported him, Prabal says: “Now I feel a duty to pay it forward, to use my platform to advocate for those who don’t have a voice. Our differences are what make us unique, what inspires creativity.”

Inspiring creativity in designers is exactly what the IFDC hopes to do, but in celebrating and accommodating those differences, Sinead and Liz are determined their work won’t be dismissed as ‘inspirational’. 

“Tokenism is something we definitely want to move away from,” says Sinead. 

“We’re very explicit in that. We want to be inspirational for the work we do, not the fact that we do it despite somehow being disadvantaged by society.”

Acknowledging the changing political climate, she says: “Thinking back to being in the White House, I don’t think I fully realised the importance of that moment. Looking at how things might be under Trump is scary, particularly when a pinnacle moment in his campaign saw him mocking and belittling a reporter with a disability.”

But as Sinead knows from experience, fashion can be a powerful force. As she heads back to New York for fashion week, her reasons for doing so are resolute. 

“When FKA twigs became a Calvin Klein brand ambassador, she introduced the tagline ‘I excel in my Calvin’s’. That word really resonated with me because it articulates everything I believe fashion can be.

“It’s not about bettering a person,” she says, “but simply allowing everyone the opportunity to be his or her best self.”


More in this Section

Product watch: The best long-wear beauty products for the party season

Meghan Markle’s sparkle sets the stage for must-have fashion items

Four personal shoppers select the perfect festive party outfit

How to wear it: The leather skirt


Lifestyle

Review: N.E.R.D - No One Ever Really Dies: Their finest album to date

Everyone's mad at Google - Sundar Pichai has to fix it

Scenes from the analogue city - Memories of Limerick from the late 80s and early 90s

Ask Audrey: 'I heard that Viagra fumes from Pfizer’s were causing stiffys below in Ringaskiddy'

More From The Irish Examiner