Nicole McLaughlin Can Repurpose Just About Anything

Nicole McLaughlin Can Repurpose Just About Anything

 

With over 780,000 followers on Instagram and countless brand collaborations under her belt, Nicole McLaughlin has become known as the queen of upcycling. For the March edition of EchoSphere, she explains why repurposing is the future in her own words.

It was several years ago that I started repurposing clothes.

 

I hadn’t studied fashion in college—I was more interested in digital media and graphic design. At the time, I was a graphic design intern at Reebok, working on logo creation and archival graphics for apparel and footwear. I quickly got really curious about how things were made and shortly after had the opportunity to go to the factories and see a production line. What stayed with me was how much stuff was being produced.

 

While working at the office, I was introduced to the world of samples and the amount of swatches that were just coming in and out the building. It was also during that time that I became more curious about taking apart a shoe and putting it back together to understand how it was made. I did that using the samples and the secondhand stuff that I was finding within the office.

 

For a while I was trying to balance working for a corporation, and going home in the evenings and on weekends and spending all of my time repurposing items. To me, working with thrifted garments was just a fun side project. It was never the intention that this would become a job or that I’d have a social media following. But after around eight months of working on my own ideas and seeing my Instagram grow, I decided to leave Reebok in June, 2019. My personal interests had become more of my focus.

 

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I remember when I first posted something I’d made in the summer of 2018. I was pretty shy, thinking I don’t know if I should have shared that. But it was well-received and people even asked if they could buy it. That took me by surprise, it was never supposed to be that kind of thing. If there was no social media, I’d still be making the stuff that I’m making. Although it wasn’t people’s reaction to my creations that kept me making stuff, it definitely made me more open to sharing it on social media. At the time I had a super small following. And then it just took off and spiraled. Within a couple of months, I had thousands of followers. It was pretty overwhelming. It still is. I don’t think I will ever get used to the fact that so many people are seeing my work. But it is also exciting to be able to reach so many people from all around the world.

 

It sounds corny, but my design process takes inspiration from everywhere because I’m literally taking from my surroundings. For example: I’ll be cooking in my kitchen and I’ll be like, Oh, I should use this utensil for a project. That’s why it’s important for me to be present throughout the day and take time to observe the items around me. As we get older, we tend to lose that focus on the small things that are happening and the tools that we use in our everyday lives. I’m trying to hold on to that curiosity.

I hope to bring people together and address big urgent issues around sustainability and waste in a way that feels lighthearted.

Nicole McLaughlin

Having said that, sometimes rethinking how a household item can be reused is difficult. I have worked with so many different materials and objects but I’m also always trying to keep it fresh and interesting. That might mean going to a thrift store to experience new colors or textures. I might not always leave with a bunch of stuff, but it can help me reconsider something similar in my studio. I’ll also use eBay to buy clothes to wear or to rock climb in (another big inspiration of mine), and keep those items in my closet until I stop using them. Then, I might bring them into a project. It’s a really fluid process.

 

For people who are trying to get into upcycling, my best piece of advice is to feel something—anything—for its shape; how it’s designed, the colors, the textures. For me, a good starting point is a tennis ball. You would never normally use it for something other than what it’s meant for. It typically has one life and that’s it. But I’ve used tennis balls a ton in my work—in part because of the color and the fuzziness. I saw a Carhartt beanie that was that same shade of yellow once and I was like, I could make something like that. I’m always trying to connect the dots between materials by keeping an open mind.

 

It’s gotten to the point where I often work with brands who are trying to understand the world of upcycling. That doesn’t always mean working with a brand partner who has all their sustainability goals figured out. Often it means the opposite as long as they are willing to put the time, resources, and money into repurposing their products and minimizing waste.

As a bigger company, one of the best things you can do to get involved in upcycling is set up a take-back programme. With brands, there’s this mentality of We make it. You buy it. Now, it’s your problem. There’s never any responsibility that is claimed for the materials used. But if a brand were to take back the materials that they’ve already put time and resources into and then find new ways of reusing them that remain true to their identity, that’s the best case scenario for the lifespan of that material. And that’s what I’ve been working on with brands like Arc’teryx and JanSport. I want to show that upcycling doesn’t mean going back to the same initial idea or design. A jacket can become a tote bag or part of a shoe. But the important thing is taking back the material and evaluating to allow for that transformation.

 

The work doesn’t stop there. We need to be thinking about the factory workers and the wages they’re being paid, how they’re being treated, how things are being shipped, how things are being packaged, how items are being stored and displayed. I’m also trying to raise awareness of how much stuff there is. I don’t think people realize the full extent of the problem. Through my work, I hope to bring people together and address big urgent issues around sustainability and waste in a way that feels lighthearted; in a way that can spark a conversation without being too in your face about it.

 

It’s hard not to be totally doom and gloom because of the scale of the problem. But I definitely also feel there are reasons to believe the future is bright. I have so many young people writing to me being like, I want to try making this or I don’t want to buy anything new, I want to try upcycling. I want to facilitate that movement. And so, as well as working with these companies on their sustainability goals, I also work with many of the materials they have but don’t end up using. I’m the industry dumpster. And that’s great because I can be the point of contact for these companies with too much stuff and younger people, students, those who don’t have the money to buy new materials, and offer resources that would otherwise end up in corporate waste. That’s how we are, collectively, going to create a better future. Give opportunities and give resources to people who are looking to solve a problem and are willing to do the work.

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