Over the past few years, 27-year-old designer Nicole McLaughlin has become somewhat of an icon on social media, amassing nearly 600,000 followers on Instagram. Her feed is filled with images of her upcycled and wearable art pieces, made of an assortment from household items, repurposed clothing, and food. Among her designs are a bra made of croissants (a “brassant”), a shoe crafted out of a volleyball, a bread mitten, and a pair of pandemic-appropriate Purell glasses.
“I’ve always been mindful of waste and sustainability,” says McLaughlin, who previously worked as a graphic designer for Reebok, and has since collaborated with them on a limited-edition collection. “It wasn’t until I worked in the sportswear industry that I became aware of the sheer volume of ‘throw-away’ production.” In her own practice, McLaughlin deconstructs the majority of her pieces and reuses the materials, though some items are kept or sold via raffle on her website.
The New York–based designer’s interest in product design and construction was fuelled by her time spent exploring the Reebok archives. When the brand moved its operations to a new headquarters, plenty of product was left behind and thrown away. McLaughlin saw an opportunity in that discarded merchandise: “I collected as much as I could and started making rough prototypes.”
When she started creating her own pieces, McLaughlin says, her financial situation determined the materials she was able to work with. “I was broke,” she admits. “But having limitations allowed me to think about what I wanted to make and how to approach it.”
Since 2019, McLaughlin has been working on her own projects full-time. She has brought her unique approach to sustainability and upcycling into fashion-related collaborations with Allbirds, Chinatown Market, and Crocs. She also recently finished working on a project with Hermès. “It was a bit daunting,” she says of working with the luxury house’s iconic Birkin, Kelly, and Constance bags, “but lots of fun.”
Through her work, McLaughlin aims to raise awareness about the importance of sustainability in a way that is both enjoyable and easy to digest. She also hopes her creations will encourage people to look at old or previously loved items in a new light. “It’s more crucial than ever that people are made aware of the limitations of this planet,” she says. “We cannot downplay our unsustainable production and consumption habits.”
In addition to her personal projects and collaborations, McLaughlin leads workshops where she can teach people “how to approach sustainability and upcycling in a fun way, and provide them with a safe environment to fail without fear.” She has also been developing a non-profit organization that will provide design resources to young creatives. With this endeavour, McLaughlin hopes to give people better access to materials and guidance by connecting them with large companies.
Thanks to her past experience working in the sportswear industry, McLaughlin says she realized major apparel brands have more to offer than just products for sale. “They have fabrics, samples, deadstock and overstock. They often don’t know what to do with it. So, let’s bridge the gap.”
McLaughlin wants to be hopeful that more sustainable practices will also extend into the fashion industry, though she expresses some hesitation. “Brands often say they want to do better, but they treat sustainability as a marketing gimmick. These are not the types of ‘practices’ I’m looking for the industry to embrace,” she says. “We want to see action and positive intent, which requires energy, time, and resources if we’re going to create change.”