Apr 22, 2024
by Karl Smith
Nicole McLaughlin Is Taking Upcycling to Another Level
by Karl Smith
Apr 22, 2024

Over the past seven years, Nicole McLaughlin has made a career out of old shoes and clothes. Giving a new lease of life to deadstock, post-consumer waste, and other things you’d be well within your rights to just consider junk – like discarded computer keys, for example – has become the New York-based designer’s passion project but her full-time vocation.

Focusing on Earth-friendlier ways of working, with a zero-waste and utility-focused mindset, you might assume that McLaughlin’s work was just that. Work. But, somewhat unique among the sustainably-incline design set, McLaughlin’s designs hinge on a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and a playfulness that sets each and every shoe and every piece of clothing apart.

And, having collaborated with the likes of Vans, HOKA, Puma, Merrell, and a growing list of household names – amassing a devoted fanbase in the process – it’s fair to say that people have responded well. Not only to her ways of working and creating, but also to her way of thinking.

At its core, the concept is something like the idea you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – that, while still showing respect for the gravity of the situation when it comes to sustainability issues, there’s also room to experiment and play around.

In this sense, McLaughlin’s approach, rather than to lecture – which, as a corporate fashion alum, having seen the state of wanton waste in the industry, would certainly not be difficult – is to show rather than tell; to prove, with her work, that a dire situation doesn’t need to produce dour results.

What she’s discovered from that, it seems – and where other eco-minded designers might do well to take note – is that you’re more likely to get people (and brands) to come along for the ride when you show them a positive take, rather than the negative one.

Even – or perhaps especially – when the positive route isn’t exactly obvious. Or easy.

“I started my upcycling journey in 2017 while working within corporate fashion,” McLaughlin recalls, when we ask how all of this got started. “I was generally familiar with post-consumer waste, like what ends up in landfills, but never knew how much waste was actually in the offices and factories themselves until seeing it firsthand.”

“The topic of sustainability is pretty dark and we’re constantly forced to feel shame as consumers. My intention is to not make light of a pressing topic, but make it a place where people can feel comfortable sharing ideas. Not to shame, but to give people autonomy and empower them to customize and create.” – Nicole McLaughlin

It’s easy to see how an experience like this changes a person – not only their outlook on consumerism and waste, but also their outlook on life. Often, seeing isn’t so much believing as it is being hit by a palpable sense of disbelief.

“Things were so easily discarded in the office,” she continues, that sense of righteous indignation clearly still running hot, even close to a decade later. As a designer, though, McLaughlin saw beyond the raw fact of the discards, her intangible irritation quickly alchemizing into something far more practical. “Hundreds of shoes and clothing samples that were constantly being trashed. I felt like there was so much potential left with those items. It all seemed like such usable material. I started collecting these mismatched shoes and old swatches and that’s what I used for the start of my upcycling projects.”

From there, McLaughlin moved on quickly – no longer just “using” but very much creating in her own right, refining her style and imprinting that on each new design. Characterized by a careful balancing of form and function, McLaughlin’s work soon became recognizable on first glance: if you saw a familiar shoe, but noticed that it felt a little different, that all of a sudden – with all of its essential character in tact – it had something more to give, you were probably looking at a McLaughlin upcycling job.

Case in point: her recent collaboration with HOKA. Here, using the MAFATE THREE2 as a starting canvas, McLaughlin took deadstock materials from the brand’s archives and added extra functional flourishes like a gaiter. Not just making the old new again, but making it better; more fit, with the benefit of hindsight, for its original purpose.

“I love being able to rework something, revitalize it, and give it a new and improved (and oftentimes unexpected) function,” she says, her enthusiasm for added utility only outshine by her clear respect for the original source. “The materials I use already have such a rich story and history, I’m simply reconfiguring the item to prolong its life.”

McLaughlin’s passion, then, goes well beyond functionality – in terms of both making and making do – hinging on a fascination for archival material and on a willingness to put in sone serious legwork when it comes to exercising her crate-digging prowess. Her choices as a designer and as a fan of good design – which, of course, ought to come hand in hand, but which isn’t always the case – make sense as a whole, but aren’t always the obvious choice; never the first shoe you’d associate with a brand or the first update you’d think of giving it.

And this uncertainty also leaves room for another key element of McLaughlin’s output: a sense of humor and, more broadly, a sense of fun which runs counter to the seriousness of the issue at hand.

“We tend to limit ourselves to imagining something in only one specific way, when in actuality the objects around us can be transformed and recontextualized,” McLaughlin says, asked about these counterbalancing approaches. “I have a lot of fun searching for new meaning in these items. I am constantly riding a line with my work; balancing humor with a deeper message of sustainability.”

Too often, it seems, to be perceived as having fun within the broad remit of “sustainability” is looked down on – considered frivolous, even gauche. And there is some element of truth to this, of course: designers who trade on Earth-friendlier tropes without delivering on those ideas in any meaningful way are simply co-opting a crisis to fuel consumption. But this doesn’t apply to McLaughlin: trying to make that narrative fit when it comes to her work is something of an exercise in missing the point.

“Humor is so important to me. It has helped me reach such a vast audience, but it also can bring people together and to spark a conversation,” McLaughlin explains, easily batting away such broad-strokes criticism. “I think it’s important to approach a difficult topic with a bit of levity. The projects I create could help get people interested in this way of thinking. To open up people’s imaginations.”

On this point, it would be hard for even the staunchest and most dour critics to argue: McLaughlin has close to a million followers across her social media presence – her TikTok account, where she holds the much-coveted @upcycle handle, has racked up view in the tens of millions. She has, without a doubt, brought upcycling and its associated Earth-friendlier talking points, to a mass audience in a way that standard doom and gloom could simply never achieve.

“The topic of sustainability is pretty dark and isn’t the most approachable. We are constantly forced to feel shame as consumers,” McLaughlin expands, “My intention is to not make light of a pressing topic, but rather make it a place where people can feel comfortable sharing ideas. Not to shame, but to give people autonomy and empower them to customize and create.”

And with that reach comes a certain degree of sway; it’s not only the sneaker-shopping public that’s listening to McLaughlin, but – as a result of capturing such an impressive and involved audience – also the brands.

“Every single project is an opportunity to push brands to think about circularity. Creating these smaller capsules as a blueprint to help guide them in the right direction,” McLaughlin says, offering some insight not only into how she uses that hard-won power but also into how seriously she takes the responsibility with accompanies it. “I also use it as a chance to push brands to be more transparent on their innovations in hopes to create an open dialogue across this industry. A lot of the companies I work with are doing amazing things within waste reconfiguration, but choose not to talk about it in fear of the spotlight being shown on them.”

Of course, when it comes to that last part, it’s not always that brands are selflessly trying not to hog the limelight; it is very much the case that, in supporting new sustainable initiatives and implementing new, Earth-friendlier ways of working, they are exposing their own past and present-day faults. But, in that sense, the same approach that has thus far worked so well with her wider audience also applies here: giving brands the chance to push a more positive narrative, focusing on progress instead of on any previous failings, is an opportunity difficult to pass up.

“I love being able to rework something, revitalize it, and give it a new and improved (and oftentimes unexpected) function. The materials I use already have such a rich story and history, I’m simply reconfiguring the item to prolong its life.” – Nicole McLaughlin

Still, not everyone is interested in an Earth-friendlier footwear industry and maintaining the status quo for the sake of shareholders is commonplace practice. Doesn’t that make it difficult to find good partners?

“I find that the majority of brands that approach me with product collaborations are already on a pathway to a more eco-conscious future,” McLaughlin says, confirming in a sense that it’s those brands already more inclined toward progress that seek her out her expertise than those who need their arms twisting. “They have teams dedicated to sustainability that have so much knowledge around the process and logistics in this sector of the industry. It’s an opportunity for me to learn from them, to understand how to make this more obtainable to the everyday person.”

And, while it may not sound exactly glamorous, these logistics are vital; when it comes the nuts and bolts of producing, manufacturing and selling a sneaker, big brands are often crticized for their small-scale runs of Earth-friendlier sneakers – the paltry number of Sean Wotherspoon’s mycelium-made adidas Gazelle sticking out as a recent (and more or less fair) example. But for upcyclers, often working with one-of-one pieces, these critiques feel less fair – it’s rarely a lack of desire holding them back, but more often a lack of access to knowledge and to infrastructure.

“As an independent designer who mostly creates one-of-one pieces, the chance to collaborate at ‘scale’ has opened the doors to see if my practice is possible at a factory level,” McLaughlin offers, pointing to the fact that her collaborations – even with the biggest brands – are exactly that; collaborations – give and take efforts with a shared vision.

With that in mind, McLaughlin is keen to keep pushing her current collaborators further into forward-thinking territory.

“I’d love to continue exploring upcycling with my current brand partners, but on various different footwear models,” she says, but beyond this – beyond even her own work – she’d like to see progressive design making its mark on the mainstream. “My hot take is that all collaborations should be made with upcycled, recycled, or next-gen materials. Collabs are sold at a premium and are often being resold for double or triple the price. If you’re paying a premium you should be getting the best, most eco-friendly product that can realistically be offered.”

And in terms of what McLaughlin means by “eco-friendly,” does she ever consider working with next-gen materials herself?

“I’m definitely interested,” she says, always enthusiastic about new developments in Earth-friendlier product design. “I think there’s a lot of potential within that space and I’m so excited to see all the upcoming developments.”

“However,” she caveats, “I personally am dedicating my efforts into problem solving around what already has been created, and finding solutions to this overwhelming problem of excess. We already have invested so many people’s time, money, and resources to create all of these things. We need to see that value and harness what’s around us before starting from scratch. Circularity should be as much of a future as next-gen materials.”

With that in mind, McLaughlin doesn’t see her art-form becoming outdated anytime soon. “I have a lot of hope for upcycling. There are so many young people and students getting involved in this space and I can’t wait to see it become a pillar in the footwear industry.”

And in that, it seems, she’s far from alone.