Úna Burke is a leather worker and fashion designer whose creations have been chosen by such powerhouse shapers of popular culture as Madonna, Rhianna and Lady Gaga, to name but a few. Her distinctive style helped to create the look of perhaps the most iconic movie heroine of modern times – Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games; and her work was used by Taylor Swift in her music videos.
Úna is from the small village of Knockvicar, in County Roscommon in the West of Ireland. She studied Fashion at Limerick School of Art and Design and then went on to work with several fashion houses around Ireland, before moving to London in 2006 where she began a Masters in Fashion Artefact at the London College of Fashion.
In conversation with Tempy for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Úna talks about riding the waves of a creative life, grounding herself with her craft, and the importance of saying ‘YES’.
In this section we ask makers to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
ÚNA: “I suppose the beginning was when I moved to London for a design role in a fashion company and ended up getting fired after the company was taken over by financial backers. I was doing admin jobs but I had moved from Ireland to London to get away from that and do more design based work. I ended up without a job, in London, doing my masters in fashion artifact in 2007 and graduated in the recession. So I decided to start my own business rather than work in a shop which was the only work I could get then.
Then opportunity after opportunity arose – like being invited to show at London Fashion Week and Milan Fashion Week. Then the first commission I ever got was for Lady Gaga. I really did not expect any of those things and it wasn’t really in my plan – but it happened around me and I just rode the wave.
I researched and made opportunities happen: it wasn’t by sheer luck that the people from Vogue invited me to Milan Fashion week; they found my work because I was putting it out there.
And opportunities happened through being open minded and saying ‘YES.’ Like going to Cologne for a fashion event and an exhibition; being asked to loan the whole of my graduate collection for a photo shoot in an abandoned diamond mining village in the Namibian desert; all of these happened in the early days. There were the most obscure projects and meetings that you could never plan for.
“I took risks in life. I moved to a very odd living space that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with but it meant that I had really low overheads – so instead of spending all of my money on high London rents I spent little and could invest every bit of money I made back into the business and build it that way.
I don’t know what point in anybody’s life you can say ‘this is definitely right for me’ because life has to be reactive, you can’t control everything. I rode the wave and always felt like if the wave crashed at any point I would just be really happy to have had the fun that I’ve had, and had the experiences that I’ve had and met amazing creative people all over the world.
My life is evolving. I’ve now got a child and moved back to the Irish countryside. I was satisfied with the first project and I’m still satisfied now. It’s all about openness isn’t it? Being open to the flexibility is what makes us creative.
“If people ask I say I’m a leather worker because that’s first and foremost. I am a fashion designer – but my material is number one. I’m happy to take on other things like interiors projects – anything involving leather. I feel proud to be self-employed and to run my own business; it’s not an easy thing.
Different things at different times drive me: my soul sometimes, my stomach sometimes. They are both important. For a creative person you can’t survive without feeding your soul, but you also can’t feed your soul if you are worried about paying the bills or where your next meal is coming from. It’s almost a dirty word to say that we need to sell stuff but it’s not by magic that we actually survive. We need food and roofs over our heads. It’s not a dirty word, I’m not afraid to talk about money with potential customers. A lot of creatives can’t do it but when your back is to the wall and you are really skint, you have to learn.
“My mum taught me to make clothes as a kid so I was on the sewing machine since I was five. She also taught us how to make and grade patterns so we could make our own clothes. I learned loads from mum. When I was about fourteen years old I was really interested and good at art in school. I would try to go to sleep at night and in half waking dreams I would see models going up and down a catwalk, I would zoom in on the pockets and check out the stitching and see it so clearly. I grew up in the west of Ireland; we had two TV channels and had no magazines with fashion in them so it wasn’t anything I’d seen anywhere. That was when I realised I wanted to do fashion. Later on when I was doing my masters and already working with leather my aunt said ‘Oh by the way your grandfather was a cobbler and his father and his father before that.’ I didn’t even realise that working with leather was in the blood, but I suppose it was in the way family values were handed down. My dad was a farmer and set up his own businesses and was really entrepreneurial so all of those things fused to get me to the point that I’m at now.
In this section we ask makers to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
“In London we had a live/work space which was nice and big and there was a dedicated area for each process like the cutting room, the stock room, the office and a main making room with loads of tables for different processes.
Recently we moved back to where I grew in the countryside, so we don’t have that set up any more. I use a large spare room in my dad’s house – we might leave it there or set up somewhere in the local town. It’s all yet to be figured out. I left home when I was eighteen and I was terrified to move back. As a creative person I thought a bit differently and was reluctant to come home to those funny feelings after being bullied in school. I think because we lived in a big old house – not because we were loaded – but because my mam and dad worked so hard to keep the roof on and had two or three jobs each while rearing five children. But I think because of that I was still seen to be ‘the one from the big house’.
“What I try to do is work on projects that will be both creative and pay the bills. I try to be as creative as possible in commissioned work. I don’t do consultancy, so have to take on projects for money and then do some different projects to feed my soul. But at the moment we are in a position that what we are making, people want to buy. Even if they’re not the most creative visually – which I hope they are – I actually just enjoy the process of making.
As a designer I think you do have to choose sometimes between what’s going to pay the bills and what you’re going to enjoy designing. But I’ve got that middle ground as well, where I’m doing all the making and that is very therapeutic. There’s no order to my work day with a baby now, I just make it up as I go along pretty much. Leo is eight months old now and we are still figuring it out. I don’t think you ever stop figuring it out; but acceptance is the most important thing.
“Emmet, my partner and Leo’s father, has worked with me since 2014. He does the office side of things and I do the creative side. We are now in a position so when we’ve got products people want loads of, we can get a knife made so I’m not hand cutting everything. We have yet to invest in hydraulic clicking machines so we can use those knives. A hydraulic clicking machine is a pressure machine that, like a cookie cutter, will push the knife that’s in the shape of the pattern piece straight through the leather. We’re still on the lookout for one of those.
Now with Covid 19 we can’t access a workshop in Dublin where we might have got some of this cutting done for a big order we’ve been working on for a few months. I have all the hand tools, which is what we mostly work with, so it means we can still continue to work a lot provided we have the time with the baby.
From a financial point of view working together leaves us relying on the business which is quite tough especially when kids come along. But then it leaves the two of us to spend a lot of quality time with Leo. You can look at as a good thing or a bad thing but I don’t think either of us would swap it either, we could have got paying jobs but we have chosen not to.
Sometimes I do teaching and leather workshops. We have done some corporate workshops like going into the head office of Facebook in London and teaching them to make small leather products. Coming from their background of working on a screen all day and having a heavy workload, for them to come to spend two hours making something with their hands, they’re like changed people when they’re finished. I also do some teaching at universities on a workshop basis rather than a part time or full time tutor. But I’m still open to changing that because life has evolved. These are some of things we do to put some bread on the table.
BEING IN THE WORLD:
In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
“It’s all about the work itself really, not about me as a person. I want people to use the products and for them to develop in tandem with people. That’s the beauty of leather; it changes with time and with use and that’s one of the reasons I choose to use leather in our throw-away environment. It lasts the test of time and it ages beautifully. The fact that’s it’s used and seen, that it’s exposed to the elements and to peoples’ handling – that only makes the piece better. It’s almost like a collaboration – I’m the producer of the piece and I hand it over to somebody else who puts their hand on it and their mark on it.
For my art pieces, the interpretation is down to the viewers’ perceptions. Some people argue that art stands as it is and some say it’s nothing without the viewer’s eye; I’m inclined to believe the second. I always laugh when people think my work is to do with sex; it’s more that society has taught us that leather is to do with sex – it’s really down to peoples’ preconceived ideas. Some people will see my early work as something that restricts the body and some will be innocent to that idea which I actually was when making it. People commented after that it was really fetish and I hadn’t even seen that. We showed the kneeling piece in Dubai where religion is important and they called it ‘the praying suit’ which I loved. It just depends on how you choose to see it. It’s about openness; it’s all open to interpretation.
“When I graduated, giving time to getting my work out into the world was a massive factor. Now I don’t need to work so hard on that because it’s out there, but initially I worked really, really hard. I had just worked so hard on pieces that were really important to me, and what would be the point of keeping it all hidden in the wardrobe and nobody ever seeing it? So I really wanted the world to see it. I wanted to get a lot out of what I had created because it meant a lot to me; and I wanted to make some money back because I had thirty grand of debt and the recession had just hit and I couldn’t get a job.
I entered competitions, preferably ones without an entrance fee and with a money prize. I did get some financial help from these, for example the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland gave me a prize of €5000. I would also contact lots of magazine editors to have their stylists use my pieces in their photo shoots. I exhibited my work as much as possible; I said yes to every opportunity that came my way. Then later when I became a bit more established, I couldn’t do everything and I had to become a bit more picky. Some things are more worth doing and some are not worth the time involved.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?
“The fashion world is particularly brutal for publicly saying your work is shit or good, everybody’s got an opinion on it. In the early days I didn’t handle the pressure all that well; I put a lot of weight on peoples’ opinions and it was really hard. Maybe I don’t do Fashion Week anymore for that reason, but also it wasn’t financially viable or lucrative enough. We have found other ways now of making more money than when we did it.
Social media can be terribly detrimental – people can say things and make you feel like crap in the blink of an eye. I focus more on the fact that I’m a leatherworker and not a fashion designer and I’m always grateful for whatever does happen.
And I focus on the positives rather than thinking I’m not doing enough of something or I shouldn’t be here or I’m not good enough. I have had doubts I suppose, the same as everybody, but maybe I guard myself more now than I used to. I try and do my own thing. I just keep myself buried in the leatherworking and the meditative process of making. I think that keeps me sane.”