Taking everyday objects and upcycling them: for imaginative and sustainability-conscious designer Nicole McLaughlin, there are no limits
By Arwa Haider
A fluoro mitt crafted from tennis balls; a pair of trainers with built-in camping gear; hardy pocket-packed trousers created from old sports backpacks; a croissant bra that somehow radiates mermaid chic… these are just a few of the ingenious, irreverent and pretty avant-garde projects fashioned by New York-based upcyclist Nicole McLaughlin.
Nicole’s maverick designs are a hit on social media feeds (her Insta account currently has 748K followers). They also offer significant food for thought in an age where the environmental impact of “fast fashion” cannot be dismissed; according to the non-profit waste reduction group WRAP, the global production of clothing doubled between 2000 and 2015, while the average number of times clothing is worn dropped by 36% – and demand for raw materials is expected to triple by 2050. Nicole has been sought out for savvy collaborations with brands including Crocs and Russell Athletic, as well as becoming Canadian outerwear/climbing gear company Arc’teryx’s inaugural design ambassador.
“It’s not typically the most glamorous or sexy thing, to take something that’s second-hand and rework it,” says Nicole, brightly. “I was trying to make something a bit different but also relatable: using brands that were in most people’s closets, and trying to make creative solutions with them. I think that’s what grabbed people’s attention, and also made me think about what could be realistically transformed.”
Nicole’s own route to upcycling certainly wasn’t formulaic. She laughs that she was a “horrible student” at school: “I had a hard time engaging in things that didn’t interest me; my passion was more about how to communicate visually”. She was clearly a sharp self-starter – initially teaching herself sign language (inspired by her high school boyfriend, who was deaf) before going on to study it at college, and eventually switching majors to general media and design. Her aptitude was noted by sports giant Reebok, who gave the newly graduated Nicole a job in its graphic design department – which is where her upcycling adventures really took flight.
“Sport was one of my best memories of being a kid. I was always outside; I loved playing basketball and tennis – and it’s still super-important to me today,” she enthuses. Learning about the production side of the industry proved an eye-opener, in terms of the waste generated from “sampling stage” to final product: “There were piles of shoes, shoe parts, material and clothing swatches just lying around throughout the office,” she recalls. “I’m not jabbing at Reebok because this is every industry; it’s interiors, automotive, not just fashion. I was just curious, because the materials still seemed pretty good and useable but they’re gonna end up getting shredded, burned or thrown away.”
Her earliest upcycling experiments began after-hours: “I was grabbing little pieces of things that were in the trash, taking them home and trying to work with them to see what happened. I was probably 22, 23, and I would sit in my room and listen to podcasts, and try to see if I could take apart a shoe and put it back together again. I always think back to those times because they felt very ‘pure’; I didn’t have any expectations or skills. I was like: can I take this apart and put it back together in an interesting way, or swap soles on shoes? I was super-excited to go home to make stuff at the end of the day.”
Nicole taught herself to sew through internet tutorials, and scoured thrift stores for cheap sweatshirts and jackets that might provide inspiration. “I wasn’t sharing it on social media at first, but eventually put things out to my friends, and it took off from there,” she says.
She credits her graphic design background for the meticulous approach she still brings to her work, and her long-standing love of sport for ongoing inspiration: “I’ve always gravitated towards sports and outdoor wear, because of the nature of the materials and also the functionality,” she explains. “What people don’t realise about me or my work is that functionality is still at the forefront of what I do. Sometimes, my projects might look too ridiculous to function, but it’s actually the opposite.”
A couple of years ago, she took up rock climbing, which she describes as a “life-changing” sport for her: “Climbing requires a lot of problem-solving, which is my ideal scenario; you’re working out without realising it, because you’re so focused on the task at hand. The materials that go with it are inspiring to me, because you have to wear something that’s going to perform but isn’t going to get in your way.”
Nicole’s 2020 limited-edition collaboration with Crocs featured a surprising number of climbing keynotes: “The shoe’s ‘bootie’ insert is actually referencing a climber’s chalk bag; it has a loop on it where you would keep your brush, a rope, a carabiner, a compass, a bunch of different nick-nacks.”
Her studio space even features a ten-foot adjustable climbing wall. “It’s nothing too crazy,” she insists. “If I’m in between meetings, even just doing some pull-ups sometimes gets my mind going again. My approach to work can be completely different when I get off the wall and give myself time to rest.”
Nicole has always approached projects from outside the box – but what upcycled material has surprised her the most to date? “I’m gonna go with… bread,” she laughs. “In 2019, I made a bread ‘puffer vest’ using multiple baguettes connected with fishing line, and honestly, it was such an interesting material to work with. I liked the idea of the softness on the inside and the hard outer shell; in theory, it could function as something cosy but protective. The vest was quite heavy, but it functioned pretty well; it obviously didn’t last a long time.”
“Functionality” may be a fairly loose term, but the croissant bra she modelled surely couldn’t have been that comfortable? “I have to say, it worked very well; the only thing is, it was very buttery!” she laughs. “I had to definitely take a shower after that one, but it was my breakfast that day.” For all these surreal (and sometimes edible) twists, Nicole’s mission is to create upcycled pieces that feel inclusive, remixing accessible items and brands, often with a nostalgic twist (some pieces feature childhood toys and trinkets that Nicole has found online or at thrift stores). “All the things that I make, I would pretty much consider to be genderless,” she says. “I wanted to take a universal approach, where anyone could relate to it. Even though what I’m doing is pretty specific, the goal is reaching a super-wide audience.”
Nicole’s original upcycled pieces are not sold through her website; they are essentially designed as an antidote to mass consumerism – though occasionally a piece will be auctioned to raise money for a charity or non-profit organisation. She is particularly keen to empower the next generation of creators, and to connect sustainability-minded students with companies who have excess materials to spare. And in 2022, she hopes to focus further on giving upcycling workshops to budding designers and sports fans of every background: “Workshops are one of my favourite things to do,” she says. “I never want to lose the reason why I started upcycling, and this gives me the opportunity to share what I’ve found through experimenting. We’re gonna have to get creative in the future, so we should teach younger generations resourcefulness and craftiness: a jacket could become something else. I’m hopefully giving you a couple of blueprints, so at least you can take another look in your closet. You don’t have to be taking it to the extreme that I do; it is possible to appreciate the things you have, and use them the best you can.”