Designer Nicole McLaughlin: ‘I upcycle my own upcycle’

She creates apparel out of the most unexpected items – shoes from volleyballs, bras out of croissants – in order to make sustainable fashion fun. And all the while she’s holding big brands to account.
Nicole McLaughlin 16x9 hero

Not long ago, Nicole McLaughlin was at an indoor climbing gym when she flipped off the wall and dropped to the ground. Falling on her arm, she let out a pretty brutal yelp. Most of us would have sought medical assistance, but Nicole decided to go it alone. ‘Facing the consequences lmao,’ she later posted on Instagram, beneath a picture of her arm in a colorful sling, which she made by stitching together scraps of secondhand North Face jackets. Like most of her posts, it went viral. 

The 28-year-old has been attracting lots of attention for her funny, sometimes ironic creations. In 2018, she was a graphic designer at Reebok and feeling like a cog in the machine. She made the jump and, three years later, has more than 630,000 followers on Instagram. Media outlets have variously described her as ‘one of the most interesting designers in the world’, ‘an upcycling sorceress’ and ‘the future of sustainable streetwear’. Her first book, a self-titled anthology of her recycling projects, sold out within a few hours. This was followed by the outdoor brand Arc’teryx announcing her as its first design ambassador.  

Nicole’s rise has been rapid. Yet for those coming across her work for the first time, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what she does. ‘I don’t consider myself a fashion brand, even though a lot of people put me in that category,’ says Nicole from her studio in Brooklyn. ‘I make footwear and apparel. I also make chairs. It’s confusing for people. Sometimes I say that I’m an artist but my medium happens to be fashion.’ 

Either way, Nicole spends a large chunk of her time transforming sweet wrappers into shorts, oven mitts into jackets and shuttlecocks into slippers. Stranger still, she has made a pair of shoes with vegetable peelers for heels, and bras with cups fashioned from lemon juicers or croissants. Some pieces are glued or stapled together in minutes; others, such as the jacket she made for Puma out of goalkeeper gloves, can take up to 40 hours on the sewing machine.  

Everything that Nicole makes is wearable – sort of. This is partly because her pieces rarely go on sale and partly because she takes them all apart after photographing them anyway. ‘People always look so upset when they find out that barely any of my designs exist any more,’ she says. ‘Consumerism has been so deeply instilled in all of us... it’s scary. 

‘But you don’t have to own everything you see on the internet,’ she continues. ‘I could quite easily set up a factory to make all my stuff, but it would go against everything that I stand for. Part of what makes my work special is that no one can have it, and I like to prolong the lifespan of materials in fun ways. I upcycle my own upcycle.’ 

‘You don’t have to own everything you see on the internet.’

For Phil Chang, a creative director and brand strategist whose clients range from Nike and Netflix to Bottega Veneta and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, this important aspect of Nicole’s work is often overlooked. ‘She transforms secondhand and seemingly random objects into something high-fashion-like and, for want of a better word, hype,’ he says. ‘For a lot of people, that’s where the analysis stops.’  

Seeing for the first time the gilet that Nicole made out of Hermès bags, Phil’s initial reaction was, ‘Holy shit! Who gets to slap luxury bags on to a tactical vest like that? How many rappers are going to beg her for it at any cost?’ 

But her quick-witted pieces go much deeper than that. ‘New forms of consciousness are guiding upcoming designers, and maybe none more so than Nicole,’ says Phil. ‘Under the surface, she is helping individuals and brands to have conversations around sustainability in ways that they weren’t before. Collectively, she’s helping us to come to a eureka moment. And her reach is snowballing.’ 

Yet Nicole faces a monumental challenge. The global fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, producing about 114 billion pieces of clothing annually. Most of this is manufactured using huge amounts of natural resources, and often by workers who are subjected to poor conditions. Then it has to be packaged and transported all around the world. 

There’s also a limit to how altruistic brands can be. After all, the prevailing message that the more sustainably minded brands like to peddle – buy less, use less – isn’t a scalable strategy for the planet. 

On top of the designs that she posts to Instagram, Nicole does a lot of brand consultation. But with greenwashing on the rise, how does she choose which brands to work with? 

‘“Sustainability” is such a buzzword,’ Nicole replies. ‘But I’m talking about everything that goes into sustainability: your factory, your wages, your packaging, your shipping. Brands that decide to celebrate Earth Day by producing a one-off capsule that’s 2% recycled cotton? No. Just no.’ Warming to her theme, she adds: ‘But I don’t shut people down without having at least one conversation with them. I need to see that they really are committed to change.’

Her biggest piece of advice to people starting out in business is to get it right from the start. ‘It’s much harder to backtrack when it comes to sustainability,’ she says. ‘Since I did work at a big company [Reebok], I know how complicated it is for them to take a truly sustainable approach. Of course, we should be holding brands accountable. But I try to stand somewhere in the middle. I understand their timelines and the capabilities of their factories – my mission is to work with big brands to help them reach smaller, achievable goals. Times are changing and brands have an opportunity to slow down for a minute. They need to ask themselves: is this product really going to make a difference in the world?’

Surprisingly, perhaps, she says a lot of giant brands are already doing great work in this regard. ‘But they choose not to talk about it. Because as soon as they say they are going to do something sustainable, people jump in and make them feel like they need to overhaul everything. Sometimes that isn’t possible.’

Starting a business on your own is hard. Turning down money can be even harder. But Nicole is adamant. ‘If a brand comes across as performative, I won’t get involved,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter how much money they throw at me.’ 

Those who work closely with her back this up. Joy Yoon was leading a design workshop for Adidas when the pair first met. ‘Nicole was still at Reebok, struggling to find the confidence to quit,’ says Joy. In fact, Nicole eventually left only after she was in a meeting with a freelance client pitching for a big Reebok campaign. Without knowing who Nicole was in real life, the client included some of her Instagram posts in his pitch. ‘I only had a couple of thousand followers then. It was so awkward,’ says Nicole. ‘But it was also a real now-or-never moment. It helped me to realize my work was gaining traction.’ 

‘There’s a lot of imposter syndrome in this industry,’ adds Joy. ‘It’s feast or famine. But Nicole was working around the clock when no one else was in the workshop, relentlessly teaching herself how to make things. One time she had an accident, puncturing her fingers on the sewing machine, yet she carried on without any fuss.’ 

Today, Joy is Nicole’s business manager. On the face of it, managing someone blowing up must be nice work. ‘I love it,’ says Joy. ‘Nicole is a one-off, but she doesn’t take the check. She has no problems walking away. It’s a fine but very special balance. People say to me: “You should put your foot down and take the deal.” I reply: “But if Nicole compromises her morals now, what does it mean for her future?”’ 

Someone else close to Nicole says she once turned down ‘six figures’ for a sponsored Instagram post, ‘but she’s very modest, and won’t like me telling you that’. 

Raised near the mountains in New Jersey, spending her childhood in the small town of Verona, not far from New York, Nicole has always loved the outdoors. She remembers her mum zipping her up in Columbia jackets and Patagonia fleeces, and that early brand awareness lives on in her designs. 

‘I was never an iPad kid,’ she says. ‘I always did lots of sports. It’s important to my backstory and to my process in general.’ So important, in fact, that she built a climbing wall in her studio, which takes up a significant amount of space. 

Nicole had a hard time focusing at school and ‘scraped’ into college. ‘Learning was always tough for me,’ she says. ‘From a young age, I gravitated towards things I could visually understand.’ And this is key to her success. Her approach to sustainable fashion is cheeky. ‘I take discarded items and turn them into something else,’ she says. ‘It gives the materials new meaning and opens up how people think about sustainability. I do well at explaining things visually. I try to make it fun.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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