Úna Burke is one of Ireland’s most talented exports. An award winning leather accessories designer and artist, her creations have been worn by some of the most famously eccentric dressers in the world – we’re talking Lady Gaga echelons. The designs themselves are highly intricate, specialised pieces and the ideas behind them are always highly conceptual and personal to Burke. Duality and the questioning of preconceived ideas is a constant in her work, whether that is the struggle between East and West or the fluidity of Male and Female, Burke’s work lies at the intersection of whatever dichotomy of whatever subject she chooses. Not only is Burke talented beyond belief, she’s a workhouse to the point of being a self-admitted control freak – but she’s working on it! Her passion for leather as a material runs deep, from a childhood spent growing up with animals on a farm and her respect for the craft is relentless. Not only is she all of the above, she’s also sound as a pound.
Leather is historically an inherently masculine material. Would you disagree with that statement? And how were you drawn to working with leather?
It’s a tough material, so maybe people put tough down as masculine as opposed to delicate or feminine. I mean I never really put it down for one or the other.
My reasons for being drawn to it though, it’s hard to pin down. I was just drawn to it. It’s like saying why do you like something? There’s things about it that are important to me and I guess that’s at the base of it. Obviously there’s the history of it and the heritage. The quality, the longevity, the fact that something ages well, rather than deteriorating over time. Leather products become more beautiful with age. The material responds to the wearer and responds to it’s use. It’s almost like a fingerprint. A second hand pair of shoes always has the shape of the first owners foot in it.
That’s probably a disgusting example so don’t use that! [Laughs] I guess it’s a very personal relationship that people develop with a leather product.
That’s from an emotional response to the material. Whereas from a technical point of view, I like being able to create sculptural shapes and sculptural forms and this material is perfect for it. Particularly the vegetable tan leather that I use, because it’s got a firm handle so I can achieve a interesting forms with it.
You spoke about longevity and heritage, they seem to be quite integral to your brand. How do you honor those values in your work?
The traditional techniques that I use, they bring that through. They’re age old. I like to think that it’s timeless because it’s not something that’s being put into one trend or another from the fashion world. And that’s deliberate on my part, I don’t want to make a flash in the pan kind of product. I want this to be kind of like the tough girls heirloom pieces. I grew up on a farm with that appreciation for the life cycle of an animal and the skin of the animal and the body of the animal after it’s death even. A respect for, if you’re going to take the life of an animal use every single part of it and do respect to the animal in it’s death and so it’s that kind of mentality coming through.
You touched on the fashion industry a little bit there. The industry itself is in a state of flux at the moment with gender fluidity being a massive topic of discussion. You’re work is elegant and decidedly feminine in it’s form, but there’s also a significant element of androgyny. I wanted to know how important it is for you to subvert traditional codes and expectations in your work?
Well since day one I’ve been trying to make people question preconceived ideas and that I think factors in gender issues as well. So, within the pieces, men or women can wear them. They are actually fitted on a female manikin, but I’ve had some guys wear them already. Both the bodies pieces and the cuffs and the bracelet type pieces. It sometimes even just changing the colour. You can have the exact same piece in a different colour for a man to a woman.
I’m very much open to whatever anybody wants to wear. That’s no problem, I’m happy with it! I really liked to see people being creative with the things I wear because I make the piece and then I hand it over and somebody else interprets it and styles it. Y’know whether it’s a photoshoot or a piece they’re wearing. So, I guess I just make objects and whoever wants to wear it. I’m happy with that.
You previously designed a unisex collection for Unconditional. Was that something you might pursue in the future with your own brand?
To be quite honest, they were the same pieces made with a wider waistband in a different colour worn by a man. All I need to do is take the pieces I’ve already made and photograph them on men and then I’ll have a menswear line. I know others brands that have done that as well. Y’know they’re already there. It’s more to do with the photography and the direct decision to inform the public. I just haven’t had the time because I’ve had so many other projects. I’ve even had guys contact me by email and ask ‘do you make stuff for men’ and I’m like ‘yeah have a look on the website, at all the bracelet kind of cuff pieces can be worn by men’ and they get back to me and say ‘I can only see men’s on there’. But because they’re photographed on a man they don’t get it. I’ll stop going on more tangents! But yes, it is something I want to do, But yes, at some point when I get the time to do it.
Another aspect of the fashion industry I wanted to ask you about is the fast paced fashion schedule system and how it seems a change is on the horizon. As a slow luxury goods company, does it still affect you?
Yes because I’m still trying to keep up with the seasons. You have to think about the fact that it’s a business and I have to make my sales when the buyers have the budgets. Otherwise, if you become so transeasonal that you don’t do the shows. Then they don’t have any specific time when you can take an order from them, if you don’t show them the collection at the time when they have money. So from the logistics and the cash flow point of the view, it’s important do But actually this season I decided to take it out. I didn’t do a collection for Autumn/Winter ‘16 but at the same time AW16 hasn’t arrived yet so we could easily launch. Because as you said the seasons are changing. Already it’s been a case that we can make a collection, show it at fashion week and then make it for a customer immediately. We’ve already been able to do that. It’s just more awareness of that now. It’s been really good actually, to take a season off from Paris Fashion Week because all of our friends are doing it at the moment and it’s just that tensity. It’s really intense and it’s really stressful so it’s great to just have a season off and take a break, take a breather and step back and develop some stuff, some of the pieces in a more slow and calm fashion. Rather than developing a collection in a real hurry just for the demands of the fashion industry. I know some other brands that have taken it off just because it really makes sense. It’s interesting how the whole industry is changing and it is difficult for smaller brands you can;t afford to produce to sell straight from the runway to the stores but for someone like me who can get an order and produce it. It depends on supply and materials and that kind of thing but if you work with local suppliers, it is doable for some small business. It’s quite fascinating!
Simons likes to have a hand in all of the designs, whereas someone like Karl Lagerfeld is happy to just creatively direct. How was your role evolved within your own company as the brand has grown?
I’m very much hands on as well. With the creative stuff, I will take past styles and dismantle them and start developing new pieces based on that or I’ll take a piece of leather and get new knives made to kind of shape it out. I basically play around with the leather, building it up on the manikin itself. So it’s a very sculptural kind of approach with the forms evolving. I’m not much into sketching stuff before I start working. Sometimes I’ve gotten people who are working with me to play around with the leather on my behalf and trying out constructions techniques. And I’ll take those and apply them properly. Recently, I’ve had the first person I would say to definitely help me on the design and development of things. She helped me to develop some small leather goods. That’s another reason why taking this season out has been good for me. I had time to develop those small leather goods. And that’s a much more easy product to sell because the products I currently sell are very, very niche and a high price point. So I’m looking into how can we maybe start developing more accessible products.
You said you work directly onto a manikin rather than sketching. So do you have a concept built up in your mind before that happens?
There’s kind of the same idea coming through all of the collections. It’s like one collection weaves into the next conceptually. If there’s something strong within the storyline of the collection. For example AW12 I was looking at ships and my tumultuous relationship with water so I was looking at boats and headpieces. So yeah, the concepts feed into the shape of the pieces themselves.
There was an exhibition in the Science Gallery here in Dublin recently called “Trauma” which explored the link between the body and the mind and whether trauma can ever be purely physical or psychological. These seem to very much be perimeters in which you work. How does psychology influence your work?
I’ve always had a real interest in people. Maybe that’s just an Irish thing – I’m sure it’s not! I’ve always been really interested in psychology, psychoanalyzing people, trying to figure out what makes people tick. So it always comes into my work. There are always human stories at the back of every collection. For doing my masters collection, there were three collections and I read a lot of psychology papers to find out what were the common trends – not as in fashion trends! But the behavioural trends in the aftermath of a traumatic experience or at any stage during the event happening, the emotional aftermath during the healing, how people sometimes can go in a good direction and become stronger while others can fall apart and become really messed up as a result or you can become a combination of both but I feel like everyone kind of recovers in their own way. I mean we all kind of understand what trauma is. It’s not something that is exclusive. We all have our own relative traumatic experience that has happened to us at some point. So, I suppose it’s about using that and making something positive from it. So my aim was to take that subject and create something that was incredibly captivating and the world is divided over so many things but I think anybody anywhere could look at that and feel something. A lot of people think it’s related to sex, which it’s not it’s so much deeper than that. It’s in the gestures associated with the human body and things that cross boundaries and culture and religion.
Your work was featured in another SHOWStudio exhibition “Sex Sells” which featured work by female artists and their interpretation on the female body. Thus eliminating the sexualisation of the male gaze. Would you consider your work to be feminist?
When I made that work it wasn’t at the front of my mind, because I think trauma isn’t for men or women, we all know it. It wasn’t initially which is why when they were asking me all the feminist types questions I was like “Oh? Maybe!”. I felt like am I being a hypocrite now, tailoring my answers to please the ears of these people. It wasn’t deliberately. I mean I was really pleased to be part of that exhibition but what I found funny was that about that exhibition was, I don’t know for what reason, but a lot of the imagery that was featured was kind of sexually exploiting women so I don’t know if it’s that women exploit women in the same way that men exploit women. It could be, or maybe we exploit ourselves or maybe we’re also just influenced by the media. Even the name of the exhibition. I was isn’t it supposed to be the opposite? Maybe it was a taboo kind of title.
The concept behind your latest collection ‘Remembrance’ is about rebirth and new doors opening. What was the motivation behind it?
I was feeling a little lost and needed to get back to my roots. You start of with a really clear vision and then you get exposed to this and you get pulled in so many different directions. Then I thought screw this. I loved my first work and I don’t think I’ll ever beat it. Because it was so true and sincere, from the bottom of my heart and the bones of my fingers and the tears in my eyes! Everything I put into that. My heart and soul. So I don’t want to ever beat that work anyway. So I basically went back to everything that was fresh and pure. So that’s why I had the nude tones and the creams. All the kind of natural nude tones.
Did you feel creatively revitalised after that collection?
We’ve done loads of collaborations instead of collection this year. That’s been really fun. Maybe I just needed a break from myself.
What is it about the collaborations. Do enjoy the aspect of being given a confined theme to work within?
I was just getting a bit isolated. Too much inward thinking. I collaborated with Teatum Jones that have just won the Woolmark Prize which has been won in the past by Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. I made some pieces for blanket carriers and rucksacks for them. Then I did a collaboration with a Russian couture brand and I’m doing a project with Swarovski. So those kind of projects have been great and it’s making me want to go into more kind of design areas.
Your designs have been worn by some famously eccentric dressers such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Daphne Guiness have worn your designs. Does it take a certain kind of person to wear your designs?
I think it takes a certain kind of person to wear some of the designs. It takes a very confident person…..and rich! I couldn’t afford it! Nor actually do I wear the big pieces because I don’t like to be the centre of attention. I prefer to wear a belt, a bag or a bracelet.
When you’re designing, do you think about how do you want people to feel in your clothes?
Yeah. Protected and strong, kind of like a warrior. People sometimes dress in outlandish things because they want people to focus on the clothes rather than the person inside. And it’s almost like an armor. Like a psychological armor. I know of a guy who dresses in absolutely mental stuff because he doesn’t actually like himself that much. He’s very shy.
Who else would you like to see in your clothes?
Bjork. And Tilda Swinton, I really like her. Or maybe Bono! I nearly had a project with him, but then they had a tour and it didn’t happen. But I’ll get him yet!