Aelen Unan sews at her Ninawa Zero-Waste Clothes stand at the Popportunity market in Starlight Square. (Photo: Ninawa Zero-Waste Clothes)

For the past two years, Aelen Unan has been both homeless and a small-business owner. Her Ninawa Zero-Waste Clothes shop promotes sustainable fashion by turning unwanted clothing into upcycled dresses and tote bags – but it too is about to be homeless as her time at the Popportunity small-vendor market in Central Square runs out.

“Ninawa” comes from Unan’s nickname meaning “original; creative; someone who thinks outside the box” in Arabic – fitting for someone whose dream job revolves around helping the planet from a 10-square-foot room in a women’s shelter and a table in the Starlight Square complex.

Unan said she has always had a passion for art and fashion, and loved going to thrift stores and refashioning clothes as a child. During Christmastime in 2019 – two years into her homelessness – she began to consider channeling her talent into entrepreneurship. In the meantime, she said, she spent the holiday upcycling baby dresses to donate to organizations that support pregnant women and single mothers in need; when the pandemic hit a few months later, she reused donated sheets and cloth to sew 200 cloth masks for homeless shelters and another 200 for senior homes. Since she lived in a shelter herself, the donees were pleased yet confused. Knowing she had little to her name, Unan said, they wondered why she was choosing to donate the items she put so much work into.

Though Unan has upcycled all sorts of clothing items and accessories since the launch of Ninawa, her star product is the tote bag. She has sold more than 400, she said.

A Ninawa upcycled tote bag using material from the Boomerangs secondhand shop. (Photo: Ninawa Zero-Waste Clothes via Facebook)

She begins by picking a fabric, which can come from a textile donation, a thrifted sheet or a custom item given to her by a customer. She washes, cuts and stitches the bag. Finally, she publishes a picture of it on her Instagram and promotes it at the vendor table she staffs Saturdays and Sundays at Popportunity. The process of making a single item can take up to two and a half hours, and Unan said she often falls asleep at her sewing machine at 3 or 4 a.m. while refashioning a bag or dress.

Unan takes a picture of every customer with their new tote. She often bumps into customers and is delighted to see them wearing a dress or bag she upcycled for them – some have sent photos as much as two years later. “I do this for my customers. They are my number one supporters,” she said.

Social and environmental impact 

Ninawa’s upcycled clothing gives materials a second life. (Photo: Ninawa Zero-Waste Clothes)

What makes Unan most proud is the one-of-a-kind nature of her products and giving customers’ sentimental materials a second life. She recalled fondly a customer who asked her to create a custom shirt and dress for her daughter using the remains of her grandmother’s napkins.

“I love that people want to keep their clothing’s memory, and while I am transforming it, I am giving it a new life and a new meaning for that memory,” Unan said.

Her primary mission, though, is to reduce waste that is sent to landfills, replacing plastic bags with reusable ones and encouraging people to recycle clothes, she said. According to an Environmental Protection Agency study in 2018, only 14.7 percent of textiles are recycled. With the United States producing 80 percent more garments than it did in 2000, textile waste in landfills has nearly doubled in that time, the agency said.

Eyes to the future

Finding a permanent home for Ninawa in Cambridge has been hard. The spot at Popportunity, where she sells alongside food, jewelry and skin care vendors, took nearly a year of searching, Unan said.

But Ninawa has slot at Starlight only until the end of July, when her space will be taken by another seller.

Update on July 26, 2022: Ninawa will be able to stay vending through October, and perhaps longer depending on the weather, Popportunity said.

“We are still working on a fair and impactful system when it comes to rotation of vendors,” says Manoucheca Lord, program director at Popportunity. “We only have 15 pods with over 100 applications. The goal is to provide more businesses the opportunity to test their product with the Cambridge community.”

Unan’s dream for Ninawa Zero-Waste is a permanent storefront, and she said she has applied seven times through local and state programs such as the City of Cambridge Small Business Relief Grant, without success.

A Ninawa tote bag is modeled in March at a Boston shop. (Photo: Ninawa Zero-Waste Clothes via Facebook)

She is waiting to hear back from the city on the most recent application but is not hopeful Ninawa Zero-Waste will be selected. Seeing that businesses in the recreation, personal services and tourism industries were encouraged to apply makes her wonder if a sustainability brand has a place in Cambridge’s economy, she said, although upcycling is increasingly popular in places such as California and New York as a form of new-age streetwear.

Customers encourage her to move to where her business is appreciated, but Unan wants to harness demand locally. “Why should I have to move from here?” she asked. “This is my home.”

Pardis Saffari, director of economic development in Cambridge, said that the city is “still working with business owners on their grant applications,” which had a final deadline May 31.

Educating the community

In the meantime, Unan is focusing on educating the community, especially eager younger generations, about landfill waste coming from textiles and how sustainable street fashion provides a part of the solution. After observing Ninawa’s work at Popportunity for more than a year, Lord said she was impressed. “Her mission to reduce waste has people really reconsidering how they dispose of their used items and potentially giving it new life,” Lord said of Unan.

Once a week, Unan presents a workshop at the Cambridge Women’s Center in Harvard Square, where she teaches about her craft and offers free clothing alterations.

To attend, she has to haul her heavy sewing machine across three or four buses from her shelter. But she said has no choice but to use every opportunity to promote her brand and spread awareness about zero-waste fashion.

For now, Unan just wants to be recognized.

“I would appreciate anyone who can believe in my small, sustainable business. Give me the chance, and this will open the door for people who have the same interest,” Unan said. “This will give me hope. I am hoping grants would help me get a permanent store, and this opportunity would change my life forever.”


This article was written in partnership with Cambridge Local First

This post was updated July 18, 2022, to correct the spelling of Aelen Unan’s last name throughout.