In the hands of designer NICOLE McLAUGHLIN, old packaging, offcuts, tool belts and pencil cases find new purpose as quirky one-of-a-kind concept pieces. “I get so excited by things that people throw out,” she tells us
Photographed by Zoë Ghertner Styling by Brian Molloy Text by Rana Toofanian
Nobody can deny that Nicole McLaughlin successfully captured the internet zeitgeist. Even if you’re not personally following her Instagram account, one of her wacky upcycled inventions has almost certainly made its way onto your feed at some point over the last year. Repurposing vintage sportswear and discarded consumer goods into offbeat, viral prototypes – a shirt fashioned with Dover Street Market tissue paper, a sweater stitched outof thrifted Carhartt beanies, a slide cobbled from an old Ikea shopping bag – the enterprising 26-year-old amassed her under-the-radar following while working as a full-time graphic designer at Reebok. Her talent derives from her uncanny ability to unsettle her audience’s relationship with consumerism, design and even taste. A slipper fabricated entirely out of packing peanuts is unquestionably whimsical and attention- grabbing, but there’s nothing light-hearted or satirical about the young designer’s intent to challenge us to think more on the materials that surround us.
You’ve since left Reebok, but when you began moonlighting as a product designer, at what point did it collide with your nine-to- five job there?
I didn’t come from a product background, but at Reebok I was surrounded by it. I started dabbling in making things, stapling or gluing things together, and learning how to sew. There wasn’t really a plan. I was just making pieces and thinking, “Oh, that’s kind of cool,” and then posting them on Instagram under my own name. No-one really knew what I was up to. The moment things started to cross over was when outside partners were proposing to work with me in decks, and suddenly it was like, “This girl already works here!” During my time there, I was able to get them thinking about upcycling their own gear, making new collections using old samples, and introducing them to more sustainable practices.
Most of your creations are hyper-utilitarian; are these items meant to be viewed as exaggerated parodies or are you actually just into extreme functionality?
I always bring sport and practical equipment into my work as I’m very inspired by the idea of being active and outdoors. I was getting tired of seeing the same products within sportswear and streetwear, though. Once I started to explore trends, I realised a lot of them hadn’t been pushed far enough, so I started to make things that were excessively functional. I don’t come from a traditional product design background so had no fear attached to being the person to put a tennis ball on my foot and call it a shoe!
Where do you source all your items and materials?
Anywhere. Sometimes it’s on Ebay or at thrift stores, sometimes it’s something I already have in my house. It’s funny because secondhand has become a motif in my work but originally it was just a cheap way to work with fabrics while I was teaching myself to make things. If I’m going to mess it up, then why not just buy something with a stain on it for $2 at a thrift store and use that instead?
So you’re saying you got into upcycling by accident?
I wasn’t necessarily trying to get into sustainability, but now that I am, I wouldn’t see it any other way. I want to encourage people on how they can be more sustainable. As designers, there are so many alternatives we can use, small aspects we can change that actually make a big difference.
You’re not new at this any more. Would you ever test your hand at any vintage designer?
Originally, when I was developing my style I was hyper-focused on working with brands and products that made sense to everybody. I’ve been doing this for a year now and I’m definitely more confident. A year ago, I didn’t even know how to sew. Now I can fully construct a garment, so I would feel more comfortable using pieces that are a bit more expensive. I’ve collected a bunch of Gucci and Prada dust bags that I am planning to work with. I get so excited by things that people throw out.
Now that you’re an internet sensation, what’s changed – are brands sending you boxes of stuff to work with?
Yeah, that’s actually the best part about it. People have started asking if they can send me old samples, fabrics or packaging that have been sitting there collecting dust. And I’m like, “Yeah! I’ll take it.” Now that I’m a part of this Instagram world, there are also people and brands trying to place me on their seeding lists or send me gifts. I’m the first person to decline. I can’t be preaching sustainability and receiving free clothing every day – that just doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to offend any of these brands, but at the same time I just can’t be promoting that.
What has been your most-liked creation to date?
The pencil-case pants, but those actually took me a while and I was proud of them! A close second was the hand-wipes slide – that did really well. I think the idea was just so digestible.
Are all these simply prototypes? What happens after they are photographed and shared?
I take them apart and recycle them into new pieces.
Currently you make everything yourself by hand – are you open to collaborating?
I actually like making it all myself and being in control of both the idea and the outcome. It’s a lot for one person though, and I do see how there is a growing need for me to pull in external resources. My primary interest is still design and an exploration of secondhand materials. I’m trying to find ways in which I can work with brands that already have sustainable initiatives, because if they are simply going to scale my products or mass- produce them, that kind of goes against what I’ve been promoting.
You’re a free agent now – you have your own web-store and retail collaborations. Do you worry you’re going to lose some of the humour when you have to consider things like sell-through and wearability?
This is something I’m thinking about a lot I still have these crazy concepts and wild pieces, some of which are super-functional and some which are only functional enough to be photographed before falling apart. I am trying to find ways to dilute some of my more unconventional ideas into these commercialised pieces so that people are still able to buy into that weird part of my brain. Obviously, I would love to just give people cookie slides.
Can you name drop some of your most influential followers for us?
Asap Rocky and Pharrell Williams.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
On Instagram, @uneccessaryinventions always posts the craziest stuff and Josh Kline is definitely someone I’ve looked to. Also, James Turrell. I love Japanese outdoors brands like Snow Peak or And Wonder – any chance I get to talk with designers from those brands gets me excited.
Do you have a dream collaborator?
Tom Sachs – I love his work.
You just moved to New York City. Are you feeling inspired?
I’m constantly wanting to push myself. Once I got here, I just went for it. I see myself moving beyond clothing entirely and more into physical objects, like furniture. It’s very, very energising. Material- wise, I’m in heaven. There are so many thrift and discount stores. I’m surrounded by product, for good and bad. Just riding on the subway, I’m constantly paying attention to what people are wearing, what they’re looking at or using – someone’s broken shoe on a subway train may inform what I make next.
Production: Summer Renee Sekula. Photo assistant: Josh Tarplin. Stylist assistants: Sarah Lequimener and Megan King. Retouching: Studio RM
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