Careers in the arts: how The Nu Wardrobe is revolutionizing the consumer landscape

Aisling Byrne talks to Trinity News about her career so far, sustainable fashion, and a new-found consciousness in our society

Since emerging as graduates from Trinity in 2015, Aisling Byrne, alongside her good friend, Ali Kelly, has gone on to establish The Nu Wardrobe; a social enterprise which caters to ecologically aware consumers. The campaign provides a platform with which people share and borrow clothes, offering buyers an affordable and sustainable alternative to fast-fashion shopping. During a time when we are all too familiar with the brutal truth behind mass production and constantly looking for ways to save our plagued environment, The Nu Wardrobe is thriving now more than ever.

The Nu Wardrobe is an online public wardrobe which can be accessed via the company’s app, Nuw, or via its website. Members, for as little as six euro a month, can borrow top quality clothes and accessories from other members and share their own, gently used or potentially overlooked items hiding in the back of their closets. This fashion organisation also runs swap shops around Dublin from time to time. While sustainable shopping can often be an expensive option, The Nu Wardrobe gives leeway for durable items to become “as accessible as possible,” inviting us to be both stylish and environmentally friendly concurrently.

“Before we shop fast-fashion, we need to stop and ask ourselves: Do we need to own everything now or do we just need to be able to access it?”

Byrne studied music in Trinity from 2011 to 2015, during which time she recalls being constantly torn between her love for music and her passion for fashion before ultimately dedicating her studies to music. During her time in college, she took part in the Overseas Suas Volunteer programme in India in 2013. There she taught in a school in a very impoverished area where child labour was an all-too-familiar sight. She noted that if the Suas volunteers hadn’t been there to teach the children, they likely would have ended up working for very low pay often in a mass-production garment company. While in India, she was forced to confront the behind-the-scenes exploits of major fashion brands. “The fashion industry is a mess,” she adds, implying the trade’s unjust practices on a broad scale. She particularly notes the throw-away culture of western life, mentioning how Delhi markets allow businesses to sell mass produced, ridiculously cheap clothes reject items from America and the UK. Thus, she was inspired to become a sustainable shopper as fast fashion had proved entirely unethical. She also notes True Cost, a film documentary which explores the impact fast-fashion has on people and the planet, for further educating her on the topic and reinforcing a desire within her to do something about this reality.

Aisling met her business partner, Ali, in Trinity when they were both head organisers of Ireland’s largest student run charity event, Jailbreak. Ali had also taken part in the Suas Volunteer programme in India and she too had been horrified by what she discovered about the fashion industry over there. Their shared frustration brought them together and prompted them to begin contributing to the sustainable fashion world; though Aisling admits that something about sustainable fashion “felt quite exclusive,” and so her and Ali would often find themselves buying from fast fashion stores simply for financial reasons. As a collective, they knew that if they were going to make a real change, they would need to make sustainable fashion more accessible and affordable. It was from here that the idea of The Nu Wardrobe came into effect. 

Aisling and Ali found that they were always sharing their clothes amongst their friends; furthermore, a clothes-sharing service, which helps connect broad groups of people and allows consumers to borrow once-off occasion pieces, would be very useful.  Their first real trial was before Trinity Ball in 2017, when they got a group of girls to put pictures of their dresses from the previous year’s ball into a Whatsapp group chat so that the dresses could be lended to others for the upcoming ball. After the trial’s success, they decided to pitch their idea to the Trinity Entrepreneur Programme Launchbox, which is now known as Tangent, and from there Nuw became a viable business model. Aisling discusses how she “loved Trinity so much,” because there were “so many opportunities,” and there was always support available on campus. She mentioned that, despite their business being based in London, herself and Ali still often go to Tangent for help and advice.

“Although sometimes we may fall weak in the knees for a dress we see in the window of Zara or H&M, it is widely accepted that mass production in any medium is neither sustainable nor moral.”

Aisling remarks that the reason why The Nu Wardrobe has become so successful is because people today understand the need for sustainability. Although sometimes we may fall weak in the knees for a dress we see in the window of Zara or H&M, it is widely accepted that mass production in any medium is neither sustainable nor moral. Aisling mentions how research has been done to show that a five euro T-shirt in Penney’s certainly wouldn’t cost five euro to make. She remarked, “anything that is cheap somebody else is paying for it,” such as the underpaid child workers in garment factories in Bangladesh. Aisling believes that with this new conscious consumer mindset, it is only a matter of time before “hardcore fast-fashion chains” are at a “risk of completely folding.” As sustainable fashion becomes more accessible and affordable, “the need for fast fashion becomes obsolete.” Before we shop fast-fashion, we need to stop and ask ourselves: Do we need to own everything now or do we just need to be able to access it?

The Nu Wardrobe did a body of research with the London waste and recycling board, which revealed that each time an item is borrowed on Nuw, they offset 25% of the resources that otherwise would have been used in the production of a new item. The Irish company also developed an impact calculator, which tells you the carbon, waste, and water offset you create every time you share a piece of clothing. Byrne also talked about how we should stop waiting for big brands and corporations to make the decisions and acknowledge that each and every one of us are “able to be an agent of change.” Sustainable fashion isn’t “something we need to buy into,” we can take part just by using “what we have already.” Ultimately, everyone should be able to access and enjoy fashion in an ethical way, and joining The Nu Wardrobe is undoubtedly a great way to do so.