New York-based Nicole McLaughlin is as much an artist as she is a designer.
Her bespoke upcycled pieces could just as easily sit on a gallery plinth as sell in a store. What started as a side hobby while Nicole worked as a graphic designer at Reebok has become a full-time gig garnering her almost half a million Instagram followers and a steady stream of collab requests. Not only are her ingenious creations insanely cool, her ethos around reimagining existing materials and ‘upcycling the already upcycled’ offers a fresh take on sustainability in fashion. From basketball pump shoes to Gatorade bottle chairs to Lego shorts, her one-of-a-kind inventions make you rethink how you see and use everyday objects, and why everything you own deserves a second, third, and fourth chance.
Hey Nicole! First things first, when did you start designing your own pieces?
I started experimenting and making my pieces when I was working at Reebok as a graphic designer. At first, it was about figuring out how things worked together. But as I delved deeper into my explorations and became a bit more confident, the designing aspect became much easier. It’s more about patience and persevering through those frustrating moments when things just don’t seem to work.
What was the initial inspiration behind repurposing/upcycling pieces and making them into wearable art?
Repurposing and upcycling was the direct result of a lack of materials. I had to use what was available, and that mentality has stuck with me.
Although you make all kinds of pieces, you tend to gravitate towards chairs and slippers the most. How come?
I’m not a trained footwear designer, so doing slippers seemed like a good way to ease into that space. It’s become a signature of mine now. And I like chairs, but I don’t get to make that many.
Can you explain what your design process is like?
It usually starts with the material and what I can do with it. Sometimes I have an idea already in my head, but I tend to go straight in with no mood boards.
Do you kind of view everything now through a design lens? Like, does every object you see suddenly become potential material?
I think the design aspect is essential, but it is also about the potential everything possesses. Everything you see is a potential material for creation. That’s the mindset I try to instil in my work—’You can make anything from everything.’ Also, less emphasis on permanence and more about the lifecycle and what it could become.
Impossible to pick a favourite, but if you had to name one or two of the designs you’re most proud of, what would they be?
I don’t have favourites because everything I look at shows how I could have made it better. But I do like the volleyball and tennis ball shoes, which were early experiments.
How important is sustainability to you as a designer, and also as a consumer?
As a designer and consumer, I tend to focus on usage instead of just buying it because it’s branded ‘sustainable.’ Don’t forget that these ‘sustainable products’ not only ask you to purchase something but also to replace what you already have. That causes waste. So before you throw everything out to start over, remember that being sustainable is about being mindful of the actions we make.
Do you wear your own pieces on the daily?
Many of the pieces you see don’t exist long enough to be worn daily. I usually take them apart and make them into something new the next day. As I mentioned earlier, it’s less about permanence and how we can continue to create with what we have. Upcycling the already upcycled!
I noticed you give away a lot of your work in charity auctions and fundraisers in collaboration with certain brands. How do those kind of things come about?
Giving back is a priority for me. So when I can, I’m happy to do it. I’m also fortunate that I have an incredibly supportive following who is interested in buying my work. I use that to raise money and awareness for charitable organisations that need help, and so far, so good.
Finally, where can we buy your ingenious creations? Take our money!
I’ll be doing another auction soon, so keep your eyes peeled.