Ahead of her Leather Design Workshop in Aras an Chontae this Saturday, multi-award winning leather designer Úna Burke spoke to Dan Dooner about her Roscommon roots and the inspiration for her globally acclaimed work.
Could you tell us a bit about your links to Co. Roscommon?
I was brought up in Knockvicar, Boyle, with my three older sisters and my little brother. My parents have a farm where they reared sheep and cattle. I helped my dad a lot with lambing season and loved nursing sick animals back to health. We have had both calves and lambs sleep in our kitchen!
I was terrified of the cows, although not as much as my sister who used to run away when they came near her, much to my dad’s dismay.
I visit home as much as possible and luckily I’m involved in lots of exhibitions and events back home in Ireland so that allows me to visit quite often, flying in and out of Knock airport which I love.
What first inspired you to choose a career in fashion and design?
I was lucky enough to know from an early age that I wanted to be a fashion designer. My mother taught me to sew on the sewing machine when I was very young. Then when I was about 14 years of age, I began dreaming about fashion. I would see models going up and down a catwalk and I could zoom in to see such detail as the stitching on the pockets. I hadn’t seen these clothes anywhere in real life as I didn’t grow up surrounded by fashion magazines or fashion TV. I was surrounded by fields and flowers and animals so it was very strange for me!
I guess that watching my mother sew our childhood dresses must have influenced the visions though, as it gave me a knowledge of garment construction and my grandfather was a cobbler, so the love of leather must have been influenced somewhat by him.
Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
My inspiration comes from many different aspects of life. My early work was influenced by my research into mental health and human resilience, especially relating to the subject of trauma and recovery.
My intricate construction techniques and the structural forms of my work are inspired by military references, and particularly medieval battle armour. Armour museums worldwide have been visual research points for me, from the Tower of London, to the Wallace Collection to a wonderful museum in Valetta, Malta. The intricate construction of battle armour is just mesmerising and something that I wanted to translate from metalwork into leatherwork.
You’ve worked with some global stars and received acclaim worldwide. How has this affected your work and you as a designer?
I would like to feel that this hasn’t affected me too much as a person. I’m not too interested in celebrity obsession but it works for me to have them wear my pieces because they have high profiles and can expose my work to a bigger market. They are just people too though and I am as happy to have somebody completely unknown wear my pieces as long as it makes them feel good.
My designs are not affected or based on famous people unless it’s a specific commission for them. It comes from my mind, not theirs and if they like it, great, but first and foremost I try to stay true to myself as a designer and hopefully the rest will follow.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“We are not saving lives!” was once said to me when I was very stressed about work. It put things in perspective and took the pressure off so that I could think straight.
What one person would you love to design a piece for and why?
Bjork. I feel she is, and always has been, on the very edge of fashion and just wears the most amazing outfits. She doesn’t conform to any trends and shows her feelings through her outfits. I have always been a huge admirer and hopefully will get to make something uniquely for her.
What can those attending this Saturday’s Leather Design Workshop expect?
Attendees can expect a quick-fire tutorial on the many different techniques that I use. There are many techniques that are used to construct even one small piece. People may be unaware of these. They will get a chance to use the tools that I use and to learn about the specific ‘vegetable tanned leather’ that I use too.