The creative chats with us about sustainability, sportswear and second-hand shopping.

By Mary Stringham.

Nicole McLaughlin is not your average designer. As an innovative upcycler, the young artist creates sculpture-like garments out of secondhand treasures found on resell apps like Depop or in her local thrift store. Her conceptual pieces and unique wearables are made out of the most unlikely materials— picture a repurposed Patagonia bag as a utilitarian bra complete with zipper storage, or a volleyball (yes, a volleyball) transformed into a comfy slipper. She’s even made a puffer vest out of mini cereal packages and adorned a chair with brightly hued rock-climbing holds. These thought-provoking designs have garnered attention from the fashion industry and grown McLaughlin’s fanbase over the last few years. With now over 300,000 followers on Instagram, the designer has managed to turn her creations into a full time gig. We at Mission got the chance to chat with McLaughlin about her design process, sustainability and more.

After a three-year stint as a graphic designer at Reebok, along with some time spent at the Adidas Brooklyn Creator Farm, McLaughlin now permanently resides in New York City as a freelance designer and consultant, “I started sharing these ‘experiments’ just for fun, and now creating these projects is my full-time job. I’m still so shocked at how much and how fast my following has grown, but I’m so honored and excited that I can share these pieces with the world.” Fashion brands have also taken note of her work, as seen in her collaborations with Opening Ceremony, Depop and Adidas.

Shoeshi by Nicole McLaughlin


Though McLaughlin may be best known for her repurposing projects, she never intended to be an upcycling-focused designer, “when I started creating these pieces, I wasn’t super familiar with what upcycling was. During my time at Reebok I’d spend late hours in an office filled with thousands of shoe samples, so I naturally became curious. I would rummage around and would essentially trash-pick. My background was not industrial or fashion design, so I did not know how to properly construct anything. All I knew is that I had ideas that I wanted to see happen. I physically began cutting things up and tried to patch them together using glue, tape, and staples. Although my process at the time was very rough, I was able to see things I had never seen before.”

Out of the creative’s “trash-picking” came the opportunity to give discarded items new life. With the climate crisis upon us, designers and consumers are looking for greener ways to participate in fashion. “The idea of upcycling and a circular model has become increasingly more popular because of how much stuff we have already made here on earth,” said McLaughlin. She’s right, just look at brands like COS or Eileen Fisher that are working to give their own used garments another chance, “we have so much already created, things that are just sitting around collecting dust. Why not use the resources we have before creating something new?”

‘An Experiment’ by Nicole McLaughlin

Taking her own advice, the designer shops second-hand to get both inspiration and materials for her pieces, “I source pretty much every material from thrift stores or resell apps like eBay, Depop and Poshmark. Because these items are usually decades old and have been used before, they are always unique. Even if you’re lucky enough to find two, there will be a stain somewhere or it’ll be worn down in places. That’s what I love and prefer. It’s never boring. Searching through items constantly gives me ideas for future projects, so I never run out of concepts.”

Much of the material McLaughlin looks for tends to stem from her own relationship to a brand or item, “I love using sportswear and outerwear brands like Adidas and Patagonia or North Face because of my connection to the outdoors and sport. I’ve played a lot with logo repetition and logo placement, which I attribute to my time as a graphic designer. I also love garments that have a utilitarian feel which you see come out when I use brands like Carhartt.” These items create a sense of hyper-functionality, something McLaughlin says, “is definitely a through-line in my work.” Just take a look at her Carhartt toolbelt shoe hybrid, complete with pockets for easy access to screwdrivers and wrenches.

Nicole McLaughlin’s unique perspective on materiality, functionality and sustainability are a much needed breath of fresh air in the industry. Looking ahead, the designer hopes brands realize it’s not too late to implement environmentally friendly solutions, “Make use of your deadstock fabrics and samples, look into creating a circular model or start a take back program. There are many ways to change and even small things can create a huge difference. You just need to start.”

Photos courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.