As part of the launch of the Instagram Checkout feature, we worked with Nicole McLaughlin to drop a small run of her artwork. Keep it locked on our Instagram channels to be notified of the release.
It’s been a fast ascent for Nicole McLaughlin. Since first posting a custom slipper made from an L.L. Bean fleece in July 2018, the designer has drawn a massive following for her bespoke upcycled pieces. It began as a hobby, a place to work with her hands outside of her day job as a graphic designer for Reebok. Her numerous eye-popping creations include patchwork shorts made from Polo tee pockets, slippers made from tennis balls and volleyballs, and pants made with pencil cases. Now, a little more than a year after putting her craft in front of the world, she’s left her full time gig to focus fully on giving new life and new application to vintage clothing.
“I was doing this more for fun and to explore a new idea,” McLaughlin says. “I didn’t put it on Instagram at first. It’s actually kind of funny. I was doing these things just at home, and I eventually I was like, ‘You know what? This is kind of cool. Let me put it on Instagram, see what happens.’ Once I started doing that and was more consistent about it, I built kind of a fan base and following. And it was really exciting because I didn’t know if anyone was going to like it. I definitely never saw this becoming how it is today.”
How it is today includes a limited collaboration with Reebok, a published book of her work, and a place as prominent voice for sustainable innovation in fashion. To launch our Instagram Checkout, Highsnobiety is partnering with McLaughlin for a small run of Patagonia fanny pack bras, bespoke shoes, small pouches, travel vest, and bag. She invited us to her home studio in Bushwick flush with natural light and plants to discuss her budding new career and partnership with us.
McLaughlin keeps it real about the origin of her sustainable sourcing: it was cheap and accessible. Her Reebok office was flush with samples for the taking, and thrift stores were another low cost source of inspiration. “I would go to the store and get something that had a stain on it rather than buying something that was brand new because I felt less guilty about cutting it up,” she says. “And then once I started doing this I was realizing, ‘Oh, this is actually upcycling and this is considered a sustainable practice.’ And it honestly now is the through line of my work. And I think the reason why it’s resonating so much with people is because I’m not forcing sustainability down your throat. It’s almost like it’s made that way and people can appreciate that, but it’s more about the design and how design should just naturally be sustainable.”
Inspiration often comes to her in that weird lucid state just before she falls asleep, and then she’ll go out in search for products at thrift stores the next day or search on eBay. Flexibility is key, as her original idea may not work out, but the materials may be suited for a different kind of piece. After finding an entire box of air fresheners, she had an idea to make an umbrella out of them. It didn’t quite work visually, so she pivoted to a pair of shorts inspired by all-over print.
A three-month residency at the adidas Brooklyn Creator Farm, which saw her become the first reebok employee to come over, was a huge boon for her designs. “That’s when I got that mentality to just stay active and keep that part of my brain on because everyone there was super creative, working really hard, working late. When we’re in our day-to-day job it’s hard to just go home and work on those passion projects. And when I was there I always felt energized, and ever since then I’ve kept that same energy.”
That isn’t without its sacrifices, though. She likens her process to the routine of going to the gym, which the former college lacrosse player is ironically able to do less now. “I don’t just sit down and watch TV and just like hang out like I used to,” she says. “Even if I do that, I’m still like looking on eBay or tapped in in some way thinking about the next project.”
Despite working with shoes and apparel, McLaughlin sees her designs as more sculpture than product. Tom Sachs has been an influential figure, and she says she’d like to get into furniture and larger installations in the future. She’s also like to find away to repurpose materials from pop-ups after seeing the amount of things thrown away after the short runs are over. “I want to go bigger scale,” she says. “Because it’s not so much the product. It’s more the mindset behind it. It’s not really the medium that you’re using, it’s just how you can apply these ideas to whatever.”
Instagram has played a key role in her rapid rise, but Mclaughlin says joy doesn’t come from her 200,000 and counting followers, but from the community she’s found and helped foster. “The best part is doing the workshops and the panels,” she says. “I can meet people and have interesting conversations. I always encourage young emerging designers, or even someone who isn’t a designer but just wants to experiment, to just continue to practicing those things. They’ve sent me pictures. Maybe we only made like half a pair and they went home and finished it. That’s such a good feeling because it changes the mindset of a few people: what they can do with product and maybe things that are in their own closet and don’t really think about anymore.”