Her Dutch grandmother’s high heels clacking on the floor of her home in the Netherlands is one of Gayle Poppers’ earliest memories.
“My granny worked as a costume designer and was always glamorous — in an understated way, not in a Marilyn-Monroe-glamour kind of way. She wore very good quality clothing, always had her nails done perfectly, made sure she always wore a scarf,” recalls Poppers, who was raised in Galway during the 1980s.
While her granny gifted her high heels when she was eight (“I loved them! They sparked my first fashion desires. I used to sew dolls’ clothes”) — Poppers was embarrassed by her mum’s fashion sense. “She was very hippy-like.” But — passionate about fashion — Poppers credits her mother with sowing the seed for her other passion: sustainability. “My mum, even before sustainability was a word, was very forthright about being better in the world, about not wasting…”
Today Poppers runs her ecommerce site, The Sustainable Studio, promoting circular fashion and sustainable shopping. It sells high-end, preloved clothing and accessories — and handmade upcycled jewellery.
Having studied fashion design, worked at everything from waitressing to teaching yoga, created a fashion label, and opened a studio for independent designers in Galway, sustainability began to tug more insistently at Poppers’ heart within the last four years.
Mum to three girls aged 11, eight and two-and-a-half years, she says: “The amount of clothes coming into a house with children! Sometimes I feel I’m drowning in kids’ clothes. There’s such waste involved. So I started researching the fashion industry and a light bulb went off — this actually hugely impacts the environment. I thought ‘where’s my part in this?’”
The more she researched the preloved market, the more Poppers saw the luxury resale industry as vibrant and sensible. She finds classic luxury designers — Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Dior — particularly appealing.
“Selling pre-loved, well-made products is sustainable and viable. People can sell designer items on to me, keeping these pieces in circulation as part of a circular fashion economy, and facilitating more conscious consumerism. The quality’s impeccable. I’ve sold vintage clothing from the 1960s that hold their value better than modern clothes.”
One day Poppers came across a bundle of used Louis Vuitton padlocks on eBay — and just knew she could do something with them. She now satisfies her creative spirit making jewellery from vintage designer charms, which she also sells.
Shortly after the 2013 Bangladeshi garment-factory disaster — which killed more than 1,100 people — Aisling Byrne was in Delhi, volunteering with Irish NGO Suas: “Alongside volunteering we were learning about global issues. For me, what jumped out was the fashion system — especially how polluted Delhi was with the amount of production there.”
Then aged 19, the Malahide native realised just how much is wasted producing clothes that never get a full life. The imperative not to overuse resources during our short time on this planet hit home — the “need to be able to replenish our natural resources”.
The experience convinced her that the cheapest clothes — fast fashion — are actually the most expensive: “The destruction they cause is so incalculable, the conditions the clothes are made in so exploitative.”
Back home, as a penniless college student, Byrne still felt she had to shop on the high street. She recognised the biggest barrier to sustainability: affordability. “The way we talk about sustainability is very political. It’s hard to translate into people’s actual lives. I wondered what I could do to make my friends change their habits, with the clothes they already had, the money they had.”
Around 2017, TCD graduate Byrne got students using WhatsApp to exchange ball gowns that they’d worn to the Trinity ball and wouldn’t wear again. With friends, she ran weekend swap events on Abbey Street, where people could exchange clothes — and the Nuw concept was born.
Launched in 2018 Nuw is a digital platform for exchanging clothes that are value-less in the re-sale/rental markets.
“Nuw is a community of people who swap their clothes. Very simply, you use your clothes as currency,” explains Byrne.
“You have something you don’t want — someone else takes it, gives it new life. Every item on the platform is worth a silver or gold ‘coin’. You upload an item, you get a coin — your currency. Every time you request an item you spend 99c — how Nuw makes money. You cover the postage cost.”
Byrne wants to disrupt the fashion industry. Fast fashion’s built on driving the price down, but it’s practically impossible, she says, to price fast fashion lower than originally priced. It becomes so cheap people think the clothes have no value. “So if price is a barrier to giving clothes new life, Nuw takes price away. People then value the clothes because they like them.”
She wants customers to still enjoy the thrill of experimenting with fashion, that getting-something-new joy. But she’s redefining what ‘new’ means. “Marketing makes us believe something new has to be from a package. With Nuw, it means ‘new to you’.”
Last April, Nuw (the team comprises five women including Byrne) raised €1.3m in funding, led by NextView Ventures, a US venture capital fund for early-stage start-ups. “They think we’re the next generation of re-commerce — in preloved, second-hand clothing. Because when you swap, you can exchange way more fast fashion than you can ever re-sell.” With 68,000 downloads of its app to date, Nuw increases the sell-through rate of second-hand clothing by 60-70% above industry average. “We’re live in the UK and in Ireland. We launched in the US in February. 83% of items that go on Nuw are requested,” says Byrne.
Dubliner Sharon Farren was living in France when she got the idea for Kokoro Zenwear, the brand she co-founded in 2018.
“I’m a swimmer. I love the sea. My friends at that time were all about ecology and keeping the beaches clean.” For personal reasons Farren returned to Dublin, still pondering how she could contribute to easing pollution. A fabric lover from early on – “my mum was always making our clothes, hot-pants and petticoats in the 1970s” — Farren remembers her first purchase with her school-holiday summer-job money: a pink denim jacket.
In the 80s, she was making beautifully-patterned hair scrunchies from gorgeous fabrics and selling to Brown Thomas.
So, around 2018, it was natural for Farren to look to fabric for sustainability answers: “I spent 2018 doing R&D, going to textile fairs, meeting textile engineers in Europe, testing lots of fabrics. I kept coming back to bamboo.”
Fabrics made from bamboo are temperature-regulating, antibacterial and comfortable against the skin, says Farren, citing bamboo’s sustainability credentials. “More than any other plant it sequesters carbon. And it replenishes itself — once cut from a developed plantation, it comes back within 24 hours.” Fabrics used by Kokoro Zenwear — not just bamboo but ethically-sourced cashmere and organic cotton — are 100% eco-certified and sustainable. Garments are made in Ireland. For Farren it all comes back to how wearing bamboo fabrics doesn’t harm the world’s oceans.
“We need our oceans to absorb carbon. If they’re full of plastic they can’t. When you wash polyester-containing clothes, all these chemicals are broken down into nano-plastics and end up in the sea. Whereas when you wash bamboo fabrics, no plastic goes into the ocean.”