Nicole McLaughlin, a sustainability-focused concept artist, loves finding names for her designs. A denim beanie is a “jeanie”. Shoes made from sushi are “shoeshi”. A bra whose cups are two bagels, a “bragel”.
Although his projects are more ironic than others in the world of eco-friendly design, the message is the same: the only way to fight overconsumption is to produce less and reuse more. Most discarded clothing and fabrics in the United States end up in landfills; the volume of textile waste increased by more than 800% between 1960 and 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Ms. McLaughlin, through her designs and her advocacy, wants to encourage people to reuse the items they buy instead of throwing them away.
In addition to scavenging for materials around her home, she scours thrift stores, resale websites and textile disposal sites for scraps that can be recycled. “When I look at material that already has a shape or a structure or a seam or a zipper, it gives me a starting point,” Ms McLaughlin, 28, said in a video interview from her studio in the Bushwick neighborhood. in Brooklyn. “There are no rules when it comes to upcycling. Each material is a challenge as to how I will take it apart and make something new out of it.
Her designs have earned her recognition in the music and fashion industries. ASAP Mob and J Balvin are fans. Jhay Cortez pulled tracks for his music videos. Pharrell Williams has written the foreword to a 2021 book that features Ms McLaughlin’s designs. She has worked with many brands including Puma, Calvin Klein, Prada and Hermès. Recently, Gucci asked him to recreate their top-handle Diana bag; she used old volleyballs, rather than new leather, for the body.
“People wanted to buy the bag, which was not the point,” Ms McLaughlin said. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele had commissioned him and five other artists to create the designs to help promote the brand’s heritage. But, she said, if repurposed volleyballs could excite consumers, perhaps luxury brands could consider other ways to incorporate recycled materials.
Ms. McLaughlin grew up in Verona, NJ, in a family full of creativity and the outdoors. Her father was a carpenter when she was growing up and her mother is an interior designer.
She then studied photography and digital art at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she began a graphic design internship at Reebok in Boston, Mass., working with company logos. Eventually, she was hired full-time.
In her spare time, she began experimenting with discarded uppers, soles, and shoelaces, gluing, stapling, and stitching them in unexpected ways. “I didn’t have a mission to be a sustainable designer. It was purely out of exploration,” she said. “I felt inherently guilty working in an industry that wastes it all, so I tried to use it.”
Ms McLaughlin began posting her designs – often featuring repurposed items from major brands – on Instagram, where her work gained traction. At Reebok, someone mentioned their designs in a pitch meeting without realizing that an employee in the room had made them. Hearing about his work in this context gave him the confidence to quit his job in 2019, move to Brooklyn and start working as a freelance designer.
“I really think the best way to learn is just hands-on,” Ms. McLaughlin said. “I like the challenge of learning something on my own — I’m usually not the one who opens the box and reads the instructions. I’m more the one just trying to, you know, put it together and figure it out.
A climber since 2016, she has long been attracted to “gorpcore” materials: fragments of fleece, scraps of ripstop and tangles of zips, cords and carabiners. “The outdoor gear has a very tactile and utilitarian feel, with pockets, bright colors and carabiners where you can attach things,” she said. “My pieces may not look functional, but they are and I like to surprise people with that.”
She believes the outdoor leisure industry has been at the forefront of sustainable practices in fashion and retail in general. “Many outdoor brands are fueling the conversation,” she said. “They are the most willing to collaborate and provide me with materials.” In 2021, she became the first design ambassador for the Canadian outdoor brand Arc’Teryx and began to lead upcycling workshops with the company’s surplus materials.
Her love of the outdoors and rock climbing complements her creative work, she said. “The problem-solving element is definitely why I love both climbing and my job,” she said. “I’m constantly using my brain to figure out how to make something work.” Sometimes the relationship between life and art is more literal: once, when she misjudged a move while climbing and injured her arm, she fashioned a scarf from a quilt of swatches of North Face jacket.
Ms. McLaughlin sells most of her designs at raffles and charity auctions. In 2021, she raised $20,000 for the Slow Factory Foundation, which focuses on climate change and social justice. In April, a jacket she created in collaboration with eBay sold for $2,800 as part of a fundraising capsule for the Gold Foundation, another organization focused on the relationship between environmentalism and conservation. fashion.
In addition to her fundraising efforts, Ms. McLaughlin hopes to educate individuals about sustainable design. She posts TikTok tutorials showing her construction process — like making a cropped tote bag top or a crescent bralette — under the handle @upcycle. “I always want other people to feel inspired to create things themselves,” she said. “Making the process more accessible is my goal on TikTok.”
There’s a strong spirit of second-hand and DIY among Gen Z, she said — something she aims to encourage. “If you buy something with a hole, you can fix it, you can hem pants,” she said. “These skill sets will help you throughout your life as a consumer.”
Eventually, McLaughlin hopes to start a nonprofit linking companies that have surplus material with budding designers. “My vision is to provide resources for young people entering this world of climate change and climate justice,” she said.
In May, Ms. McLaughlin decamped to Boulder, Colorado, in order to have more access to nature. She will keep her Bushwick studio, returning from time to time for work.
“There’s something so special about New York,” she said. “It’s an energy that can’t be duplicated. I love the idea of coming back here and feeling inspired.