Úna Burke

...turning inspirations of darkness into collections of beauty

by Karen Hodkinson
The spiritual, superstition and burial rituals are not themes that many designers would cite as inspiration. But for Úna Burke, these formed the basis for her Spring/Summer 2012 collection. Under her skilled hands, Úna creates fashion magic with leather. Using traditional leatherworking techniques, she sculpts her leather to become the embodiment of her conceptual ideas. Úna's affinity to leather can be traced back to her childhood in North County Roscommon (located in the west of Ireland). 'A country girl childhood' is how she describes it. After a BA in Fashion Design at Limerick School of Art and Design in 2003, she went to work in the design studios of Philip Treacy and Burberry. Both were important experiences that proved useful when it came to setting up her own label later. Úna then went back to her studies and graduated with a distinction for her MA in Fashion Artefact degree - her graduate collection won the London College of Fashion Off Catwalk Award for Design 2009. Most recently, she was nominated for the Breakthrough Designer Award at the WGSN Global Fashion Awards 2011.

Your designs are very amour-like. Could you tell me why you are attracted to such a strong and dramatic silhouette?
I am quite intrigued by military armour, uniforms, weapons and machinery. This interest is not so much for their practical uses but more for their decorative and structural nature. It’s quite ironic that mass destruction can be caused by often intricately beautiful and ornate objects. The structure and strength of armour and such silhouettes attract me as I admire people and things with a strong character.

Could you tell me about your relationship with working with leather? What kind of emotions does it bring out in you?
Having grown up on a farm I have had first-hand experience of the birth, life and death of animals so this has given me a great awareness of what a wonderful natural material this is, the skin of a creature which once had life in its bones. I think that it is a very important starting point, to have great respect for the materials that you work with and where they have come from. Huge contrasts can be achieved with this material, from incredible structure to soft and delicate forms. It has a very specific nature which the maker must adapt to and I admire this strength of character very much. I also have a great appreciation for the heritage of leather and its distinct characteristics of quality and longevity. Because of this it has played an essential role in the development of our world, especially in transport and in industry. The way that it even improves with age, adapting and moulding to suit the wearer, means that leather garments and instruments become very personal and unique, helping to prevent waste in our current disposable society.

Working in design studios like Philip Treacy and Burberry, were those experiences important? How did they contribute to how you work as a designer today?
They were fantastic experiences as they showed me the various ways that a fashion business can be run. Burberry works on a very large scale, divided into departments and sections. In contrast Philip Treacy involves everyone working together and in a much more hands-on approach. Both ways are very effective and distinct but I have chosen the style of the latter and my pieces are all made in my South London Atelier.

Would you have been a different kind of designer without that experience?
Seeing the evolution of collections at both of these companies was certainly an education however I think that these experiences have affected my business approach much more than my design process.

There are some elements in your design which remind me of Alexander McQueen. Was he a designer you admired? If so, why?
Yes, of course he was, and still is, an inspiration to me, as he is to so many designers of my generation. He broke boundaries and taboos and turned inspirations of darkness into collections of beauty. This is something that I do in my own work in fact, often taking subjects which are often quite dark and creating objects of beauty from them, bringing important topics to the foreground using the fashion industry as a platform. McQueen’s life however, is every bit as much of interest to me as his work is, especially how he has used his past experiences to fuel his work. He was a true artist, telling stories through his collections which went far deeper than just the facade of fashion, and in this, he retained a purity and exquisite beauty in everything that he created.

Are there other designers you admire who are a big influence on you?
I love the work of: Hussein Chalayan as he uses elements of science and interior design in his fashion collections. Victor and Rolf, who use fashion as a platform for social commentary. Yohji Yamamoto has also been a great inspiration for me; I especially love how he plays with form, volume, layering and proportion.

Rihanna wore your shoulder holster piece for her performance in Nivea’s 100th anniversary celebration this year. How did that come about?
My collections are stocked in a store in LA called Curve. Rihanna is one of their regular customers so they ordered this piece especially for her knowing that she would love it. Apparently she did and she ended up wearing this pink shoulder holster to an exclusive performance for Nivea’s 100th anniversary in Hamburg last May. She looked super sophisticated as she wore it with a flowing silk gown.

Your S/S 2011 collection was your first commercial collection. What was the turning point that made you decide to do a commercial collection?
I was invited to exhibit during London Fashion Week by Martyn Roberts of Vauxhall Fashion Scout so I decided to develop a selection of about five or six pieces to create a small display. However once I got going, the collection ended up being three times the size and I immediately made sales in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Your works are very conceptual. How does your creative process start? Could you describe your creative process? And do you enjoy it?
My process starts with a lot of thinking and an awareness of things around me. I love people-watching and I often observe behaviour in myself and in others around me. I am interested in the co-existence of good within evil, positivity within negativity and vice versa. I enjoy the creative process, turning ideas and feelings into real physical objects.

How do you then start turning that concept into something tangible?
I love metaphors. So these moods and observations usually develop into some visual or physical equivalent, for example, armour refers to protection and flowing chiffons refer to the spirit.

Your S/S 2012 was inspired by spiritual, symbolic and superstitious burial rituals and your A/W 2011 by prosthetic limbs and medical braces. Where do you get your ideas and inspirations from?
SS12 was inspired by my thinking on our age old religious beliefs and our need for something more than this life, as if it wasn’t a great enough gift.
AW11was inspired by our constant awareness of ‘ideals of beauty’ and ‘norms’ and how the wearer of a prosthetic automatically loses their identity somehow to the prosthetic limb which is now attached to their body.
Both of these ideas come from a deep interest of mine into the human psyche and how it can be influenced by the media, religion and other forces. I find this very intriguing.

When you design, whom do you have in mind?
I don’t really have a particular person in mind but I think of strong female characters and women who appreciate quality.

What was your childhood like? How did you decide to be a designer?
I had an amazingly cheesy country girl childhood. I would wander the fields surrounding my home, picking wild flowers just like Laura Ingalls Wilder from Little House on the Prairie. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time by myself, alone with my thoughts, singing songs and looking at the clouds. My life back then was such a great big wonderful cliché.
I discovered that I would be a designer around the age of 15 when I would try to sleep at night and as I closed my eyes, all I could see was models on the runway. And on occasion, I could see the details of the garments down to the stitching on the pocket. It was great. I remember zooming in on that pocket and thinking that it was like I had a magic camera inside my eyelids. Of course I got up and tried to draw the clothes but the moment had gone, so from then on I just enjoyed it and didn’t stress about sketching.

How important are mentors for young designers?
I think that mentors are crucial for young designers as they need guidance through the maze of new territory that comes with the fashion business. It is a very complex industry with so many areas that you really have to master even though you’re just trained to be a designer. You need learn how to handle PR, marketing, sales, production, finance, among many other areas. I certainly believe that anybody who can help a young designer to prepare for all of these areas is a very important asset.

What do you find most challenging as a young designer?
I have found the business side of things to be the most challenging, and probably my time management, but that’s always been a problem really!! I work extremely hard, almost all of the time, but it’s very hard not to when at the end of the day, you are the person responsible for every single thing that happens within the business.

What advice do you have for aspiring designers?
Get experience before setting up on your own, you will most certainly need it.

What’s your greatest achievement so far?
Being completely self sufficient for the past year and a half.