Irish designer Colin Burke is making ‘the closest thing to Irish couture’
11th Apr 2023
Colin Burke is making “the closest thing to Irish couture” – bespoke, handcrafted Aran jumpers with a flamboyant flourish.
If the Aran sweater is a traditional symbol of Irish craftsmanship, Colin Burke could be the harbinger of change. Unlike some unostentatious options, which often mirror the Irish sensibility for modesty and discretion, there is a dramatic flair to his thick Irish-made knits with their sculptural, hand-crocheted sleeves. They add a frisson of excitement to an often staid category. The momentum they’ve gained since he first debuted them five years ago has become a sort of quiet, but global, indulgence for a coterie of women hailing from a myriad of disciplines.
I meet Burke in the lobby of The Hardiman on Eyre Square in Galway, where, temporarily at least, the constraints of time elude us as we pass a few hours discussing lore, authenticity, and the future of a brand built on a recognisable signature. Burke is amiable and polite, piecing together the events of his life in the last decade, from studious schoolboy at Yeats College with an affinity for design to 2022, when his made-to-measure business is accelerating, and retailers are catching on. Unlike his designs, which are often paired with frothy Simone Rocha skirts and decadent Cecilie Bahnsen dresses in the windows of Havana in Dublin, Burke is unassuming with cropped black hair and all-black attire.
From barristers to judges and bankers, fashion buyers to fashion fanciers, and Glamour’s Irish editor-in-chief Samantha Barry, each of his clients meets him either in person or over Zoom, where he establishes the specifications they wish for their handcrafted garment made from Donegal wool. The closest thing to Irish couture: from the initial meeting, the bodies of the sweaters are typically constructed by one of the women in his network of knitters across Ireland.
The sleeves are hand-crocheted by Burke himself – notwithstanding the growing administrative aspect to the business – in his studio (his girlfriend’s house) in Knocknacarra in Galway. (Previously, he lived and worked at his parents’ old house in the countryside. In his current abode, the attic functions as a sort of stockroom.) With no machinery involved, a single piece can take a week or two to complete. “I wouldn’t feel motivated or passionate about it if I wasn’t trying to create something different and pushing the silhouette,” he says.
The story behind Colin Burke, the brand, is best heard from Colin Burke, the man, whose fondness and admiration for his late grandmother, Maureen, a fashion buyer and matriarch, is bittersweet. She was responsible for teaching Burke the essentials of knitting and crocheting, and training his eye to understand the importance of sartorial proclivities.
His fans include Ashley McDonnell, global digital media and e-commerce manager at luxury fashion and beauty conglomerate Puig, who has been following his work for a number of years. She says, “Colin’s use of timeless wool, patterns with modern twists and a luxurious finish featuring his signature puff sleeve allows for instant recognition. The combination of traditional stitches and Irish wool with fashion-forward styles results in a voluminous silhouette that makes a bold statement.” McDonnell, who is also from Galway, defines his practice as “a West of Ireland brand”, something that is not lost on Burke. He doesn’t wish to leave his native Galway anytime soon, constantly finding inspiration in the sweeping landscapes and family history. “Every time I meet with a client, they speak of a connection with Ireland, or how the garment reminds them of a parent, grandparent or ancestor. It’s that sense of home,” he says.
The brand is tethered to subverting historical tropes, with architectural inclinations. It is one of many things about Burke that illuminate how both his path to fashion and his subsequent career are untraditional. He specialises in a single garment, he doesn’t host shows or presentations during Fashion Week, and he doesn’t create with Instagram in mind. He eventually found fashion through the conduit of architecture, painting and textile design (which he studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin). He first courted luxury through his time as a retail assistant in Brown Thomas Galway, where he worked in both menswear and accessories departments, respectively.
Burke’s breakout, like many Irish designers before him, came from consecutive stints during Brown Thomas’s Create initiative that spotlights ascendant homegrown talent. Since, his work caught the eye of the sedulous Nikki Creedon at Havana, Dublin, who Burke says has been his biggest champion to date. Through her, his work has reached new heights, connecting with an audience who shop Junya Watanabe and Rick Owens, along with fellow Irish designer Simone Rocha. When Covid-19 closed the doors of retailers across the country, Creedon remained committed to Burke’s vision and continued to pedal his wares to her loyal customers. In Havana, he’s gotten first-hand insight into how customers respond to his work. Whether it’s shorter lengths or different colourways, Havana can keep his small business in a direct loop, which feeds into creative planning for future designs. His only other stockist currently is Dromoland Castle in Co Clare, where American tourists have taken to his creations.
Alongside Havana, Burke developed his profile with women across the globe, many of them with Irish connections. A woman in New York with a history in banking. One living in Paris for over two decades. Another with a legal background living in Dublin. Measurements are taken, finishes are taken into account. The Colin Burke you know from Instagram might look different to the acquisitions some women have commissioned.
Like every designer, the future is always on his mind. Sales of knitwear have skyrocketed over the last two years. In the world of high fashion, Celine, Stella McCartney, and Molly Goddard are making Aran sweaters. Simone Rocha tried her hand at them. On the high street, Uniqlo and Arket are churning out iterations. In Ireland, a host of names from Magee 1866 to Inis Meáin are propelling Irish knitwear to the global stage. Burke, with his elevated price point, and made-to-measure focus, stands alone in his approach.
“My initial impression of Colin was that he was a talented designer. He demonstrated this through a truly modern adaptation of heritage knitwear patterns,” says Irish retail consultant Eddie Shanahan. “Now some years on, I hope he’s ready to respond to changes and added competition with new ideas that will help realise his full potential.”
Burke is adapting, albeit slowly. He was encouraged by Creedon at Havana to pursue something lighter for the summer season, offering pieces in cotton cashmere instead of thick yarns. For private clients, he’s worked on tweed coats and even added feathers to his namesake jumpers. One wonders how he could translate this to future collections. But Burke is a perfectionist: his affinity for architecture and its necessity of precision and function is present in his sculptural designs. It seeps into other aspects of his work, too. For example, his next steps appear to lag behind that of others in the market, perhaps owing to his predisposition to careful planning, the reality that the pieces take a long time to make, but also that Burke is enjoying the process. The slow pace and the heirlooms born from it are his pride and joy, and that is hard to ignore.
“Every time I meet with a client, they speak of a connection with Ireland, or how the garment reminds them of a parent, grandparent or ancestor. It’s that sense of home.”
“I’m happy to be known for a Colin Burke special. I’m not doing hats, scarves, and gloves, a whole collection of things. I’m focusing on one area and I’m doing it well,” he says. “There’s a fantastic story behind it. I love how it operates and the fact that I still work on every piece – but I want to take it to the next stage.”
“My granny was from Enniscrone, Co Sligo. She was a fashion buyer for a store in town. As kids we would be sent to different boutiques in town to collect things for her to try on. She loved fashion. She would wear suits out and about and she loved to accessorise with big brooches.
“Essentially, she trained my eye. When I was at NCAD, I would come home every weekend and show her my work. She’d say what she liked and what she didn’t.
“She gave me her wedding album – I love the images, the fashion, the silhouettes of those garments. They weren’t Aran jumpers, but I was inspired to recreate those silhouettes with crochet and knit stitches. The wedding album itself has tassels hanging off the cover, which I incorporated into some pieces.
“I was in my final year when she passed away. My final year collection was called ‘Born in 32’, because she was born in 1932. It was dedicated to her. In this industry, everyone is looking at everyone all the time. But you have to focus on your own thing. That’s why my granny is always the driving force for me, because I have such a personal attachment.”
Colin Burke is available at Havana Boutique, Dublin 4, and Dromoland Castle, Co Clare; colinburke.ie
Featured photography by Tetyana Maryshko. This article originally appeared in the Winter issue of IMAGE Magazine. Have you thought about becoming an IMAGE subscriber? Our Print & Digital subscribers receive all four issues of IMAGE Magazine and two issues of IMAGE Interiors directly to their door along with access to all premium content on IMAGE.ie and a gorgeous welcome gift worth €60 from The Handmade Soap Company. Visit here to find out more about our IMAGE subscription packages.