A Conversation With Nicole McLaughlin, the Internet’s Favorite Upcycler

A jacket made of oven mitts, shorts made out of Carhartt hats and a shoe made out of tennis balls are just a few of the creations to come out of Nicole McLaughlin’s studio. A former graphic designer at Reebok, the Brooklyn-based 20-something is now best known for turning unexpected objects — from croissants to basketballs — into wearable designs.

McLaughlin’s earliest inspirations came from seeing how many samples, swatches and other materials ended up in the trash while she was working at Reebok. Much of it would be hard to resell or donate, since sampling usually involves making just half a pair of shoes, she says. 

“I was sitting at my desk one day, and I was like, ‘If this stuff is gonna get thrown away, could I find a way to use it?’ I started to cut things up and glue them together,” she explains. 

Fast forward a few years, and McLaughlin’s creative reimaginings of everyday materials have earned her a following of over 668K followers on Instagram and 120K on TikTok. She’s turned her work, which walks the line between art and design, into a full-time gig by offering workshops on creative reuse and partnering with brands like Eckhaus Latta, Puma, Calvin Klein and more to use their old materials. 

At the heart of her practice is a mission to inspire people to think differently about the waste created by the fashion industry. “A lot of the time, the pressures of sustainability are put on individuals, rather than the companies that are creating the issue,” she says, adding that she wants to help brands change “from the inside out.”

We hopped on the phone with McLaughlin to hear more about her vision for sustainability, the waste-focused non-profit she’s hoping to start and why she deconstructs everything she makes.

How did what you learned at Reebok impact your trajectory?

I didn’t see the company moving fast enough when it came to sustainability. That was something that I kept pushing for, for them to create more of a structure internally to deal with what we are doing with our return products. Can we go to the factory and find factory scraps and make a collection out of them? They were a little bit slow to pivot. 

Knowing what I know now, what it takes internally to be able to make that shift is pretty challenging. I still have a great relationship with Reebok, and I’ve worked with them since and I see a lot of changes within the company to move in a more sustainable direction. 

How did you learn to make the things you make? 

Most of the explorations were just me messing around with things I had in my house or things that were going in the trash. There’s no prescribed way of working with those materials; it’s not common to use a basketball for a piece of footwear. Most things were like, ‘just kind of figure it out until something works.’

When you started you were using a lot of discarded samples and thrifting. Where do you source materials these days?

Going into a thrift store blindly is the best inspiration, even if I don’t leave with anything. But now brands are like ‘We have excess material, do you want it?’ to the point that I’m almost overloaded. 

This is the entry point into a nonprofit I’m starting within the next year, because I realized there was a gap between students looking to get into design who lack access to good materials, and then these brands that have a surplus. These are connections that I’m looking to make. 

How has your practice evolved over time?

Most of my business relies on social media. But we’re finally going back to workshops, which was most of my business before COVID, and which are my favorite part of what I do. I’ve found so many ways of creating things I want to share because it could help the trajectory of sustainability within fashion. I think if more people knew how to create things, they would have appreciation for the things they own. And if something goes wrong with their clothing, they could hopefully repair it and extend the lifespan before throwing it away or donating it.

How do you work with brands?

A project I did for Jansport is a great example. They have a program where you can send your old backpack to them; if there’s a hole in it, they’ll fix it. They had an entire warehouse with backpacks that were beyond repair. They reached out to me, I took the backpacks apart for different materials, and then created something from that. Normally that would just lead to a social media piece. But we took the next step to raffle the pieces off for charity, which is the only way I sell my things.

Do you wear any of your pieces in real life, even if you’re not trying to sell them?

When I look at my pieces, I always see the potential in the material. Instead of going out and getting something new and keeping that piece as it is, I take the piece apart. I’m constantly upcycling my upcycles. But anytime I make things with food, I eat them afterwards. I really enjoy food projects for that reason. 

How do you think about the tension between reusing things constantly and working with brands that are trying to promote themselves through your account, even if they’re not selling products directly through you?

It’s a little bit overwhelming when you start working with a brand and realize how much stuff they’re creating. These samples and swatches end up getting burnt or sent back to the factories, and it’s upsetting that brands don’t see their potential. So for me to be able to have access to them is great; brands are willing to hear what I have to say because they don’t know all the answers. 

I’m most encouraged by the brands that, after they see what I’ve created, are like, ‘could we find a way to scale this?’ Scaling is the hardest task, because I can create one-offs all day with second hand things, but how do you find a way to do that as a company that’s been working a certain way for 50 years? I want to be a resource for brands, helping them change from the inside out. 

Are you seeing more brands starting to express an interest in upcycling?

Definitely. If you’re looking to get into sustainability, you need to try to figure out what to do with all the stuff you’ve made. Don’t put the responsibility on the person who’s buying it to figure out how to discard it. You’ve made x amount of things in your brand’s lifetime — what are you going to do with all those things? And how can you use the waste as a resource?

Are there any other long-term dreams you haven’t been able to realize yet?

Going in more of a homeware and furniture direction is something that I’m looking forward to. There’s sustainable opportunities in every industry; it doesn’t just have to be fashion.