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The garment industry – fast fashion in particular – is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to negative environmental impact. Not only does it generate hundreds of millions of items that go to landfill every year, but its greenhouse gas emissions amount to more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Nuw is redefining what it means to wear something ‘new’, through the power of the circular economy. The brand has built a platform based on sharing and swapping that ultimately gives its thousands of users access to a communal wardrobe, allowing them to find new pieces, and part with those that they may otherwise have discarded.
We sat down with founder and CEO Aisling Byrne to find out more.
What is Nuw’s vision?
Fast fashion pushes 52 fashion seasons a year at rock bottom prices, but the true cost is paid by garment workers and the planet. In this cycle of buy, wear, and dispose we are losing millions in value by under utilising the clothes we already own. In the UK alone there is £30 billion worth of unused clothes sitting in wardrobes, and that’s just the UK… imagine what it’s like for the rest of the world!
This global problem presents a global opportunity by creating value from the clothes already in our wardrobes. And this concept is not niche. The secondhand clothing market is expected to triple in value to $64 billion, 1.5 times the size of fast fashion by 2028 and Nuw is front and centre of this emerging market.
Nuw’s globally scalable social network for sharing and swapping clothes encapsulates fashion’s biggest trends: access over ownership, sustainability, and thrifting. Users experience the joy of finding something that’s ‘new to you’ without the environmental cost.
What inspired you to start building the company?
Growing up I was obsessed with fast-fashion. I didn’t call it fast-fashion…. It was just ‘fashion’ to me. A new outfit for every event with not much thought of the clothing before it reached the shop floor and after it left my wardrobe.
In 2015, when The True Cost documentary was released, I knew too much and couldn’t enjoy fashion in the same way anymore.
I wanted sustainable alternatives. Alternatives that would allow me to still enjoy fashion but move away from the industry that didn’t represent my values, but everywhere I looked was unaffordable or simply far away. Sustainable fashion, and even just sustainability seemed to be a luxury.
It didn’t take long to realise we were already doing this in our own way. Any time there was an event coming up we’d borrow from friends. Clothes got passed around like ‘pass-the-parcel’ and by consequence, those clothes had a vibrant and extended life. Putting the wardrobes we already had to use with a community of people was liberating and empowering. There was no need to buy or rent our next outfit – there were more than enough clothes going around. We could all still achieve that feeling of wearing something ‘new’ because it was ‘new to us’. We could save money, experiment with fashion, make friends – all while reducing our environmental impact.
To really take on fast-fashion, and win. I knew we needed to go big; to make clothes sharing easy in a globally scalable way. That’s where Nuw began – the social network to share and swap high-quality but under-loved clothes with your community, and it’s been growing ever since.
How did your past professional experience prepare you for it?
All my skills and experience have poured into Nuw in different ways. I’m creative, a visionary, a born leader but I had never imagined I would become an entrepreneur.
I read music at Trinity College Dublin, so unsurprisingly I’m an award-winning pitcher. I’m most at home on a stage and in front of an audience. I also worked as a media planner for Ireland’s largest media planning and buying agency across high budget accounts like PwC, McDonald’s and Jack Daniels. So in the early days of Nuw, reaching our perfect early adopters came naturally to me (I met 70 of them in person for coffee).
Having spent time in India in the Summer of 2013, the same year as the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, I developed a deep understanding of fashion and sustainability and I began to guest lecture on this topic at the National College of Art and Design and at the London College of Fashion.
What was the most important thing you learned when starting the company?
If people don’t use a product when it’s bad, buggy, and breaking, they won’t use it when it’s good. So we definitely couldn’t go straight to building a fully fledged app before stress-testing the idea as manually as possible first.
Our first trial was walking around university lectures asking people to email us dresses they wouldn’t be wearing to that year’s ball, posting them up on a make-shift website landing page and arranging borrowing in WhatsApp groups. It wasn’t pretty but the idea really stuck with people and that was enough to start building.
Those early days are important. Being in those WhatsApp groups with sharers gave me insights into all the mechanics of how this would play out in better tech. You see first-hand all the possible barriers, human errors and bugs, but you also see what excites them most, how they interact with each other, and see the stories of the pieces being shared come to life. These are things you can miss in standard feedback channels as the product and business grows.
Why is now the best possible time for Nuw to grow?
The pandemic naturally brought things to a pause; no one was borrowing for events because they simply weren’t happening. We used the downtime to grow internally, building our team and product to become a platform that can cater to, yes, even a pandemic.
When the idea for Nuw first came about, ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘fast-fashion’ were still niche terms. Today the world is very different. Sustainable fashion and it’s polar opposite, fast-fashion are mainstream terms and ‘climate anxiety’ is rife, especially among young and conscious consumers. This along with the impacts of Covid-19 and an approaching recession is forcing the fashion industry to change rapidly.
According to the ThreadUp report, the secondhand clothing market is predicted to grow to 1.5 times that of fast-fashion by 2028, nearly tripling in value to $64 billion. Our target market, young women from 18-35, are becoming more conscious and thrifty. They have invested in their wardrobe and disposing of it doesn’t make sense, reselling can be hard and sharing or swapping with friends organically has become more difficult since Covid. Nuw is front and center of this global opportunity to rebuild fashion with a tech centered, contactless, and guilt-free solution.
What has growth looked like to date?
Nuw started as a small clothes-sharing web page trialled at the Trinity Ball at Trinity College Dublin. It grew to an alpha website at universities in Dublin, London, and Cambridge where students would borrow dresses for balls.
We took part in the Bethnal Green Ventures tech-for-good accelerator programme and this moved Nuw to London. We closed a £215k pre-seed round in April 2019 to build the Nuw app and bring the product to market which we did in January 2020, after a series of beta trials with a closed group of users.
Since our launch we’ve hit 4,000 users and over 1,000 shares amongst our community. After introducing our new swap feature and establishing partnerships with UPS and Lost Stock, we’ve also expanded Nuw across the UK and Ireland.
Over the next 6-8 months we plan to hit above 10% of consistent month on month growth of both users and activity, after which we will aim to close a seed round (early 2021) to focus on scale.
How have you improved your product based on customer feedback?
Some key improvements we added based on user feedback was our permanent swap feature during the pandemic. When lockdown happened, our community had different needs for their wardrobe. They were looking for more casual wear and long-term finds. So, we implemented swaps and expanded the platform across Ireland and the UK to ensure a wider sharing network. We were confident in implementing this new feature because of the consistent, honest feedback we get from our members.
Who is your target customer and how do you plan on reaching them?
We joke that our target women are all those with floordrobes and chairdrobes. Those of us with more clothes than wardrobes space, so the wardrobe extends to all other areas of the room.
Our target is the women who are always looking for something new to wear. They are still in a fast-fashion mindset and mainly shop high-street to mid-market but are eager to find sustainable alternatives. Most of our members are women and those who identify as women between 18-35. Nuw caters for the needs of Gen-Z (Mintel’s 2019 survey found 75% of 16-24 year olds in the UK have swapped fashion with friends or family in the last year or would be interested in doing so).
Our users live a lot of their life online so we reach them through targeted Instagram advertising, collaborations with influencers and thought leaders, and our brand ambassador network; super users who actively help to grow and promote Nuw to their social network and local area.
What’s one item of clothing you couldn’t live without?
A crisp white shirt! But it’s got to be a bit unique.
What’s the best vintage purchase you’ve ever made?
A vintage tweed Ralph Lauren blazer I found for $3 in a thrift store on Nantucket Island. Probably would have been good if someone had filmed my reaction when I found it. I was pretty excited.
To find out more about Nuw, check out the pitch now.