Currently one of the most successful Irish fashion designers right now, Úna Burke is taking the fashion industry by storm most recently with her brand in the new Selfridges Accessories Hall. In her seven years of being a fashion designer her pieces have already been worn by the likes of Lady Gaga, Madonna, Rihanna, Daphne Guinness and the cast of Taylor Swift’s music video ‘Bad Blood’. The LSAD graduate has also designed for the two Hunger Games films, Catching Fire and Mockingjay: Part 1.
What made you want to become a fashion designer?
My mam made me aware of clothing when I was a kid because she would always make our clothes for us but it was when I was probably around twelve or thirteen when I realised I was actually really good at sewing. Then when I was about fourteen or fifteen I was doing my Junior Cert and I was doing really well in my art class and I started, y’know that time when you’re half-asleep half-awake when you’re trying to sleep? I always think of it as kind of Twilight. I would start seeing models walking up and down the catwalk and I could zoom in on their clothes. It wasn’t anything I had seen in magazines because you know Ireland in the 80’s and 90’s – there certainly wasn’t a lot of fashion inspiration around. It was within me. It was my subconscious trying to tell me what I was meant to do which was great because I felt really lucky knowing what I wanted to do. At that age, it’s a tough stage where you’re very young and you’re expected to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life. So that was the start of it and I started putting together a portfolio to go to art college and then I applied to loads of art colleges and I chose Limerick in the end.
What do you think could be done to improve the fashion industry in Ireland to make more of its designers want to stay?
One of the things that I always talk about is funding to help designers export. It helps to go overseas so that people from Europe buy an Irish product and therefore European money comes into Ireland. I know that at the moment the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland have some funding for that so I think that there needs to be as much as possible to do that because I mean the whole thing of people going “oh, there’s no money in Ireland”, there’s loads of money across the rest of the world and we just need to go get it. So that’s really important to have support financially for people to bring money into the country and it only adds up.
Also support for setting up studios and that kind of thing would help as well. I mean Design & Crafts Ireland are doing the best job of getting mentoring and advice and that kind of thing for young designers but as well as the skills that are within Ireland, it’s important to engage in European and international mentor programmes and that kind of thing.
After graduating from LSAD you worked with another Irish designer, Philip Treacy. How do you think he influenced your work at such an early stage?
I wanted to work with Philip because I was interested in how he applied culture forms to the body basically. I kind of knew I didn’t want to be a milliner when I worked with him and that was before I even worked with him. I wasn’t interested in millinery despite the amount of milliners in Ireland – there’s quite a lot. I was really interested in his running of the studio which is a bit of a weird reason to do an internship I guess people would want to do it for design reasons. But it was the fact that he had in-house production on such a small scale for such a world renowned company. I was interested in that so I had taken a lot of his business set up and applied it to my own business. Everything is made in-house here. We have just a small little team but it’s an efficient little operation. So those were the things that were of interest to me when I worked with him.
What made you want to specialise in designing leather pieces specifically?
I have a lot of respect for the material. It’s so strong and it’s so strong nature. I love working in a hands-on sort of way, it’s kind of person that I am and the upbringing I had and my parents influence and my respect for heritage and craftsmanship. When you’re working with leather there’s a physical connection, there’s no denying it, there’s no way around having a physical connection with the work that you produce and the final product. I really detest the fast fashion disposability and lack of respect ways of the fashion industry can be especially with the high street. It’s working in a way that’s opposite of that and creating pieces that in design and material are very much long lasting pieces. They’re not trend safe, they’re just pieces – they are what they are.
My great grandfather was a shoemaker. Obviously I never met him but it’s funny, it’s the values that are handed down through families, which are key to what craftsmanship is about. Even though my father never worked with leather my father’s respect for heritage and antiques and that kind of thing are things that are really important to me as well.
I’m after buying some new machinery – I bought two new machines and they’re like my new babies. One of them is from the early 20th Century, it’s not even working right now but the smell of the old machine is just so beautiful and the clicky noise when you rotate the handle. I also got another machine which was a prototype so it’s a one-off and it’s really old as well. Those kind of age-old ways of working are important.
Is making wearable pieces a priority for you or do you prefer making figurative art pieces?
I love creating the figurative art pieces to be quite honest but then I equally love creating pieces that I know somebody will wear and feel really empowered by wearing. It’s really honestly a gift. It’s an honour to create something and know that you’re making somebody else feel strong and proud. Through my work, it’s great to feel like you make somebody feel really good about themselves and that’s really important.
What advice would you give to those looking to start a career in fashion design?
First and foremost you’ve got to be prepared for a lot of hard work. It’s very glamorous to the outside world but when you’re the person doing it it’s really hard work. You have to be prepared to be passionate about it and give it your all. That’s the main thing but don’t be afraid to do something different and be brave. It’s easy, especially in Ireland, to be told that you should do this and that and it becomes more commercials but you can do some commercial stuff but also make some really creative stuff. You have to feed your soul. You have to feed your stomach and your soul. So if you can manage to do a bit of both then you will be happy in the end because you won’t feel like you’re selling out but you can put bread and butter on the table.
Sign up to the TLM Newsletter