Upcycling Guru Nicole Mclaughlin Preaches the Gospel of Doing It Yourself

Posted inDesigner Interviews

In design as in life, often times the best way to create something new is by taking something else apart. This sentiment is a driving force for designer Nicole Mclaughlin, whose inventive projects are built from upcycled, repurposed, and salvaged materials that she gives a second life.

Mclaughlin grew up in New Jersey and attended East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, where she studied digital media technology before working as a graphic designer for Reebok. Her creative curiosity and ambition led her to her own design work, which has steadily gained notoriety largely due to her highly-Instagrammable concepts. You’ve probably already seen some of them: croissant bras, Swiss Army Knife fingernails, a mitten molded from a baguette. Mclaughlin’s work nails the social media sweet spot of being as playful as it is perceptive.

I had to at least attempt to talk to the woman behind these impossibly creative concoctions, and was elated when she was game to gab. Mclaughlin dialed in from her eccentric Brooklyn studio to share details about her journey and design philosophies, all with a deeply down-to-earth swag.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

How would you describe your creative process?

My brain is a weird place, so I don’t know if I’m always able to capture it in words, but it can go a couple different ways for me. Sometimes I have ideas that come from having things in my house or in my closet— just seeing random things around, and then being like, Oh, that would be cool to make a project with. Other times I go blindly into a thrift store and see what’s there and what I have in my studio. I find that it helps me to be around stuff. My studio’s very much set up as a creative space that has toys and knick knacks— I’m even holding things right now while I’m talking to you. 

I like to have things around me that spark inspiration, but for me, that could be anything. I could be cooking dinner, and then I make a high heel out of a carrot peeler. I started to realize that the stuff around me is actually potential projects. I unlocked a part of my brain where now I see way too much potential in everything; I can’t not see a shoe when I look at something. It’s just letting myself be weird and exploring weird ideas.

Have you always walked through the world seeing creative inspiration in the mundane? Were you a crafty kid?

I was definitely kind of a strange kid in that way. I loved making stuff; I was always pretty creative. My parents are both also pretty creative: my mom is an interior designer and my dad was a carpenter when I was young. I definitely get it from them; they were always letting me explore weird stuff, and my sister is a designer as well. She went to school for fashion, which is funny, because I went to school for digital stuff, and then we career-swapped. So it kind of runs in the family. That’s always helped: having parents who don’t hold you back from wanting to explore weird ideas. If anything, my parents helped me with that, and they still help me a ton. My dad always helps if I need to take apart something really big or tricky. Like once, I needed to take apart a golf club, and he had the right tools to do that.  

Did you spend a lot of time learning about tools and carpentry from your dad? It seems especially rare for young girls to be taught these skills. 

My dad definitely did that, but even more so my grandfather. He had a workshop in his basement, so when my sister and I would go over, he would let us hang out down there. Most kids would probably be given plastic hammers and things, but my grandfather was like, “Here are some nails, go to town!” 

They don’t really bring these trades into school settings or let kids actually use real tools. They think kids should just be using the basic stuff, when in reality, they can handle a lot more. And you’re totally right though, about girls not learning these skills. I remember in sixth grade, they had a woodshop class, and I was the only girl to take it as an elective. I was also the only girl in the LEGO robotics class. 

Is this educational gap one of the reasons why you hold workshops around the world? Why is teaching others your craft so important to you? 

100%, that’s definitely the goal. The goal of my projects was never to become a fashion brand, or scale it like that. Since I’ve always really valued education, this makes more sense for me. I had a really hard time in school, but when it came to more visual, hands-on stuff, I tended to do better. I know a lot of other people also learn that way. 

I found that with the workshops, it was exciting to be able to connect with people, especially a lot of younger people who are still trying to figure out what exactly they want to do. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be taking upcycling to the same extreme that I’m taking it, but these workshops give people the skillsets to be able to sew, so if you thrift something, you can hem your pants, so you can take something in so it will fit you better. It starts to get you thinking about clothes and the stuff that you have a bit more.

It’s cool to be able to connect with people all over the world. A lot of the time we’re not even speaking the same language, which is even more exciting. It makes it a little bit of a challenge, but you can kind of visually communicate what you’re doing, and I just love that.

I’ve gotten a lot of support from brands for these workshops as well. There are all these big corporations and companies that have a lot of money they don’t know what to put toward, and I think education should be at the forefront of that, and getting more people involved in design like this. 

But I think my favorite thing about running these workshops is seeing others have those moments that I had when I started upcycling: that first “a-ha!” moment of seeing something turn into something else. I get to relive that in every workshop when I’m working with these individuals, young or old. I have people who are not from a design background who have never made anything before, to very skilled people, and they all have that feeling of letting go and being like, Oh, it actually clicks! I can see it turn into something else. That’s the most exciting thing about it for me. 

Did you have one of those “a-ha!” moments or a breakthrough yourself at some point in your design journey?

There’s actually a moment that I do remember, there were probably many of these moments along the way, but it was the project I learned the most from. It was when I made a shoe out of volleyball in 2018. It was still pretty early in me making stuff, and I had just enough skills to be able to make a shoe out of something. It was the first time that I took something that was very much one thing— it’s a sphere, it’s a volleyball, it’s only supposed to be a volleyball— and took it out of that context and turned it into something else. It was so amazing. I only took out a few of the stitches in the volleyball before I started to mold it and put it on my foot to shape it. It transformed pretty fast. I was like, Wait, that was way too simple. It was comfortable, and the colors were there, and it already had the beautiful stitch lines in it. I didn’t have to even take it that far to be able to see something. So I thought, What else could this be applied to?  

That was really the moment when I started to feel like there’s something here, something that I could definitely expand and continue to apply to other projects. That was the start of it all, and the pivotal moment that got me really, really going. 

Now I’m having an “a-ha!” moment! We’re surrounded by so many objects in our day-to-day lives that we just take purely at face value— like, a volleyball is just a volleyball. But once you deconstruct something even just a little bit and recontextualize it, you can see that it’s all of these other materials that have been made into that thing. And those materials can be reworked into something else. It doesn’t feel like thinking about that should be that far of a leap, but it kind of is! 

Totally! Also the reason I started doing all of this was purely out of wanting to try to make something and learn, but I didn’t have any of the skillsets, so I felt kind of weird about buying a brand new roll of fabric. I was like, What am I going to make with that? I don’t know how to make anything. So it was a lot more approachable to take something that already existed, something that already had a zipper or already had snaps in it, so I didn’t have to learn how to do those things. I could just try to find a way to use it, breaking it down and trying to make it again, either as the same thing or into something else. I started out just by gluing and stapling, doing whatever it takes to put something together. Then over time, I learned how to hand sew, and once I got good at that, I learned how to use the sewing machine. 

I think a lot of younger people, myself included when I first started, feel like if you don’t have the skillsets or if you don’t have the perfect tools to make something, then you can’t make anything good. It deters you from wanting to take something apart and start from scratch, because you’re like, Oh, I don’t have the machines to be able to do this. But in reality, it’s not really about that. It’s more about pushing yourself to be able to see it and create something.

Does your commitment to sustainability have a specific origin?

Honestly, the goal wasn’t sustainability in the beginning. I wouldn’t say I grew up as an environmental activist or anything, but because I spent so much time outdoors as a kid, protecting the environment as much as I can is something that’s important to me. But it wasn’t really until I was working within the fashion industry and got a look behind the curtain of how things are made, when I realized how many materials there are, how much stuff is being produced, and the process behind it. I felt guilty being a part of all of that. So by taking the samples and the swatches and even the office trash that was just getting thrown away, it was really exciting and inspiring. I was like, Oh, this is going to get thrown away, so I can use it to learn how to make something. But that started to turn into asking questions like, Why are they throwing this away? If it’s still good product, why can’t they see that it can be used for something else? 

It clicked for me that this was only one company in this huge industry that has all of this waste. I thought about how many more brands and culprits there are out there making all of this stuff and then not using it. Ever since then, sustainability has been the message behind everything. It’s definitely the throughline of all the pieces that I make: it always goes back to upcycling and repurposing, but in a different way than the main conversation around sustainability, which can be really dark and a scary place. It’s not the most inspiring or inviting at times. So I try to make it so that it’s a bit more approachable, and a lot more light-hearted than a lot of the other approaches out there. You need those people who are like, “The world is burning! We need to act now!” but that doesn’t always work for everybody. For me, I get so overwhelmed when people come at me with that rhetoric. I’d rather get people talking about it and seeing it without them even necessarily realizing it at first, but then, over time, it breaking through.  

Are you surprised by how much your designs have resonated with others, especially on social media? How has that viral success landed with you? 

It’s definitely weird! I don’t think I’ve ever gotten used to the fact that so many people are seeing my work. The main thing is making sure I maintain the reason why I started making these things: I wanted to try to make stuff and have fun, and then create a deeper message. It’s hard when you start to quantify your self-worth with “likes.” I have to ask myself, Am I making this project because I want to make it, or because I feel like I need to make it because I haven’t posted anything?

I do a lot of one-off pieces for social media, which is fun too, because it allows me the exploration. I don’t want to become a brand. I don’t want to continue creating more to be consumed, but at the same time, knowing that there is a demand for product and there are brands that have all this excess stuff, can we make something good out of it?

I know social media can be exhausting and detrimental for young people, but at the same time, it has given me so many opportunities, and connected me with many people in the industry. I don’t take it for granted; there’s a hamster wheel with all of it. I’d like to say after three or four years of doing this, that I feel comfortable with it, but I still don’t. 

Can you tell me a bit more about the nonprofit you are developing? 

Once I went freelance, I got to work with brands that had all of this excess material. They have all the samples, they have deadstock, they have all of these things, and they were very willing to just send it to me. Which was great, but I’m also only one person, and I started getting very overwhelmed with boxes just showing up every day. I was becoming the dumpster in the industry where people just kept sending stuff.  

Then at the same time, I was getting all of these emails from students being like, “How do you find material? I can’t pay for material! I’m in school! I have no money!” And I was like, Okay, there’s obviously a huge disconnect here. So the huge thing for me with starting this nonprofit was connecting these larger brands with these students. 

I’m still very much working on it. During COVID, I’ve been trying my best to work with other nonprofits to see how they’re set up. I don’t normally sell pieces on my site for people to just go purchase, but I do occasionally do auctions working with a brand partner. I actually had one going on in April with eBay, where every week throughout the month, there was a different project made with material that I found and then sold on eBay, with all of the proceeds going to The OR Foundation

I’m working with individual nonprofits right now to hopefully help get my grounding on how to set this up, but then also working with large companies to get the materials. So it’s all very in-progress— it’s been really interesting.

Why has it remained so important to you to not start your own line, or mass produce your designs to then sell? 

I just feel like if I start to do that, it loses the one-off feeling of me making a piece just because I wanted to learn how to make something. Every project is still a new experience for me, even after making a couple hundred projects at this point, it’s always a new material, or a new technique that I have to learn. It’s always more about the process of making it versus the final result. That’s also an interesting piece about all of this: the pieces that I make and shoot and then post on social media, I actually take them apart afterward. They don’t live on as they were. They’ll continue to evolve into the next thing. If I was to scale that in a way, if I was to mass produce these pieces, it wouldn’t have the same feeling. 

That’s why I try to find other avenues: I created a book, I have the workshops. I do things where people have to buy into the idea of it, and hopefully the larger message, and teaching people how to do these things is more important than actually buying something.