The young designer has worked with brands like Hermès, Reebok, and Prada, but she looks beyond labels for inspiration.

By Marissa Lee.

A translucent vest lined with car air fresheners, a pair of shorts constructed out of unopened bags of gummy candies, a slipper consisting of an entire bag of clementines (watch your step); these are just some of the creations that can be found on Nicole McLaughlin’s Instagram page. The designer and upcycler extraordinaire houses hundreds of these tongue-in-cheek creations on her social media pages, offering followers a glimpse into a slice of upcycled heaven.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of upcycling, it involves fashioning an existing object into something altogether new. As McLaughlin explains over email to Mission, “Upcycling isn’t a one time deal if you do it right. Remaking is about reimagining, but it’s also about reinvesting and reframing how an item fits into your world when you make it yourself.”

This designer’s creations, as jocular as they may appear at times, challenge our obsession with consumerism, and just how much stuff there really is in the world. It’s exactly for this reason that upcycling exists; as McLaughlin eloquently puts it, the spirit of the practice is to move “past the single purpose mentality and [figure] out what else you can do and how long you can do it [for].”

While on her quest to spread this message, McLaughlin, almost accidentally, garnered attention from major brands and publications, resulting in nearly 600,000 Instagram followers (and counting) and a little blue check to cement her status as a fashion tour de force. What started out as an “experimental” and “trial and error” hobby during her time off work as a graphic designer morphed not only into a career, but an ethos rooted in sustainability and accountability. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for the support I’ve received,” she explains, “but what I’m doing is not about streetwear or accolades; it’s about highlighting sustainability and upcycling.”

The streetwear element is secondary to the true spirit of her creations, an aesthetic that just so happens to be intrinsic in her designs. She explains that she uses a lot of materials and silhouettes commonly associated with streetwear simply because that’s what’s readily available in the thrift stores where she sources her materials. As her aesthetic seemingly conveys hype and exclusivity, it’s easy to miss the purposeful nature of her creations, focused not only on sustainability, but accessibility. True to form, a number of McLaughlin’s creations are occasionally available for purchase through her website via a raffle-style system, with tickets priced at $10 each, which she then dedicates to her craft and her non-profit. “It’s great to raise a lot of money, but you also want to allow everyone the opportunity to bid within their means,” she says. Accessibility is also what fuels her aforementioned budding non-profit organization, as she explains she was unable to afford much of the materials she desired early on in her career. “The organization’s foundation is about giving people opportunities I didn’t have, mainly access to materials and guidance.” The organization’s goal is to bridge the gap between large companies with overstock materials, and students and independent creators lacking those resources.

As the conversation surrounding sustainability and accessibility in fashion rages on, it’s easy to lose the narrative to the green-washing and buzzwords that shroud many brands’ sustainability initiatives. The entire Nicole McLaughlin brand, however, is underscored with a paired-down bluntness, done to make “the idea of sustainability more digestible to the average person,” something she hopes will catch on among her followers. “The more they see sustainability, the more they talk about it, and their understanding grows. And somewhere in there, they’ll want to do more to help.” It’s in this that we learn McLaughlin’s mission, “My [goal] is to change people’s perceptions of waste and help them see that it’s an opportunity rather than a problem. The potential is there; it’s just unexplored.”