What could lambing or calving possibly have in common with crafting luxury leather wear and accessories for artists like Lady Gaga, Rihanna or Madonna?
More than you might think, according to designer and farmer’s daughter, Úna Burke.
“Hard graft,” she laughs, “and that was part of what makes me able for the life I’ve decided for myself.
“Being a craftsperson, working with my hands; it’s physical labour and I love it. It’s very rewarding physically and mentally as well as being therapeutic as it is really incredible to create something from scratch.”
Irish Country Living is speaking to Úna from her studio on the family farm in Knockvicar, Co Roscommon. On the day that we chat, she is in the process of creating a new collection for Paris Fashion Week, and waiting for an email to confirm an exciting new costume commission; while in the midst of moving house with her partner Emmett Herbert, and their children Leo (4) and Florence (1).
“I have about a million things that I’m definitely not going to get done,” she laughs of her schedule, “but I always aim high.”
Úna returned to live and work in rural Ireland in early 2020, after over a decade in London where she built her brand in the recession. She did this while working in retail and surviving on toasted cheese sandwiches; until Lady Gaga came calling.
However, so much of her success is rooted in her farming background and influenced by her parents: her father John, a sheep and cattle farmer, and her late mother Tina, a domestic science teacher who also ran a B&B for six months of the year in their house (which had, at one point, been home to Hollywood actress, Maureen O’Sullivan.)
“Basically, that’s how they kept a roof on the house,” says Úna, “and they raised five children and put us all through college.”
Finding her superpower
Úna studied at Limerick College of Art and Design; but long before that, it was her mother who taught her pattern cutting and sewing at the kitchen table.
As a teenager, she also experienced what she describes as “vivid” dreams where her own designs would construct themselves as she slept.
“I’d close my eyes and then all of a sudden, this vision would come into my head of models walking up and down the catwalk and I’d zoom in and I’d see details of top stitching and different constructive details, box pleats and it was just really incredible,” recalls Úna.
Such a gift, however, did come at a cost. As a naturally creative person, Úna says she was bullied as a teenager because she liked to dress or think differently; which had a huge impact on her self-confidence.
“It crushed my spirit. I became very, very introverted,” she says.
“It’s like the two sides of the same coin. The fact that you can think differently is your superpower in a way and it’s what gives you the ability to be creative and to see the world differently and therefore, be able to interpret it differently. However, it also makes you susceptible to others not understanding you and feeling like you’re not on the same wavelength as other people. Which leaves you quite vulnerable.”
Her creativity, ultimately, would prove her salvation, as Úna poured herself into her portfolio for art college. During her degree, she also took time out to work with designers like Philip Treacy, Helen Cody and Lucy Downes and – perhaps most crucially in terms of her future direction – leather handbag and accessories designer, Edmund Chesneau, in Kilkenny.
After graduation, she spent two years with Irish fashion brand, Michael H (where she met Emmett) before moving to London for a variety of roles with brands like Radley & Co, Smythson and Burberry. By that stage, however, she knew she wanted to upskill in handbag design and decided to apply for a masters in accessories at the London College of Fashion and Design.
Unfortunately for Úna, the course was not available; but she was offered a place on the fashion artefact programme: which she explains was not just about the finished product, but the story behind it.
“It meant you could tell a lovely narrative through the production of these pieces,” she explains, “strong pieces that could sit as comfortably within the environment of an art gallery as they could be worn on the body.”
From the beginning, Úna’s was drawn to the theme of resilience, given her own experience of overcoming bullying, but also, the example shown at home by her mother.
“Mam had rheumatoid arthritis and I saw her fight every day to stay strong and to stay positive and to bring up a family and to work two jobs,” says Úna, “and so I chose to tell the story of strength and the story of human resilience and how we can be our own heroes in the world. And that’s the story that’s still coming through in my work today: reminding yourself of your own inner strength.”
While her graduate collection wowed, Úna still needed plenty of her own resolve to succeed after graduating in 2009 during the depths of a recession.
“With €30,000 of debt,” she deadpans. “All I could get was a job in retail, a high-street store, earning minimum wage.”
While the day job just about paid Úna’s bills, her nights were spent working on her own brand, entering design competitions and fielding emails of interest from the likes of Vogue Italia.
“Basically, a whole world away from what I was doing in the day time,” laughs Úna.
A major turning point came, however, when Lady Gaga commissioned a body suit, face mask, arm braces and boots for her Monster Ball tour. This in turn led to high-profile commissions from artists including Rhianna, Madonna, Janet Jackson and Taylor Swift (Úna’s work features in the Bad Blood music video) as well as in films including The Hunger Games and Star Trek.
While the celebrity endorsements generate publicity and in turn business, Úna finds it maybe even more meaningful to create, say, a bracelet for a customer who is going through a tough time, almost as a form of “personal armour”.
“That’s more important to me,” she stresses. “And I think that’s what makes the brand strong. It’s not frivolous: it’s sincere and it’s honest and it’s true, from the concepts and the storylines to the very means of their manufacture.
“Like, the physical effort that goes from my body into making something for somebody else, to give them strength. That’s what craftsmanship is about.”
Indeed, Úna explains that the creation of her products- be it an elaborate body suit or a handbag – “can be very, very physically laborious”, which is why they are priced at the higher-end of the market.
“After Leo [her son] was born, three weeks later I was down on my hands and knees on the floor cutting the shoulder of a cow into straps to make two handbags that were going to an exhibition in Switzerland,” she gives by way of example.
Leo was born in August 2019; just a few months after Úna sadly lost her mother to breast cancer. She and Emmett had been quietly considering a move home to Ireland, but these two major life events- along with receiving notice that the building they were living in was going to be knocked- saw them return to Roscommon in January 2020.
“Within six weeks, we had to pack up our entire home – and that was 10 years of living in that place and 10 years of running a business from there – and that was with a three-month-old baby! And it was really difficult,” acknowledges Úna; not least after they found themselves in lockdown just weeks later.
“We had gone from city living to living in rural Ireland, and neither of us drove because we were both intending to have a car and get our licences within six months,” she continues.
“It was two and a half years before either of us had a licence, so even when the lockdowns were lifted, we still couldn’t leave the house!”
Now well settled and with daughter Florence arriving last September, Úna divides her time between creating “relatable” products like belts and handbags for online and boutique sales, as well as her more theatrical creations for galleries, costumes or one-off commissions.
She would love the idea of working with leather from her father’s cattle down the line, but currently sources her materials from Italy.
“Maybe I need to tag one of dad’s cattle and see if it comes back to me, because that would be a great circular process. But the thing is, all of the skins from the Irish animals are shipped out of the country, so a lot of them would be processed in Italy,” she says.
“So- I don’t know – maybe it’s possible that I am using exactly that.”
Whatever the raw material, however, one thing is certain: Úna Burke will continue to put her heart and soul into every single piece that she makes.
“There is an honesty within them,” she concludes, “and they’re about being your own hero and your own strength.”
For more information, visit https://www.unaburke.com/