A New York-based designer with a focus on sustainability, Nicole McLaughlin has been a leader in the upcycling space since 2018. During her former role as a graphic designer at a sportswear company, she spun a side-interest in upcycling off-cast sample shoes and salvaged materials into a full-time independent design practice. In doing so, she garnered a fan base of more than 600,000 Instagram followers, and uses her influence to support philanthropic organizations such as the Slow Factory Foundation, Sunrise Movement, and more. Her gift for seeing things differently gained steam at high school when she taught herself sign language and learnt to communicate through physical expression. In her practice, McLaughlin plays with the shape and substance of sustainability by reinterpreting products at the end of their intended lifespan, from beanies to tennis balls to bras, into artistic and functional pieces.
Interview By: C47
Hi Nicole! We’ve never actually talked about this, so I just wanted to start by asking: what’s your earliest Arc’teryx memory?
The earliest memory that comes to mind is me walking into the Arc’teryx store when I was new in Boston, like five years ago. I’d heard the name Arc’teryx but I’d never bought or experienced the product firsthand. I went into the store on Newbury on a whim and was immediately impressed by the layout and what was on display. We were headed into winter so that really special, full range of product was on display and ready to go. I love hats and beanies, so I remember being immediately attracted to those, but then I started touching all the fabrics and thinking, “damn this is something else.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford anything in the store back then, so I left sad, but more importantly, inspired. To bring it all full circle: not long after that visit to the Arc’teryx store, I ended up finding an Arc jacket at a thrift store in Boston. Not like a Beta or anything but that was still a huge [holy] grail moment for me. So, yes, I’m a newer appreciator of the brand but my love has grown in leaps and bounds over the past five years!
Photo by: Nicole McLaughlin
On that note, could you talk about the first Arc’teryx product you ever upcycled?
That old jacket I thrifted from that store in Boston (I think it was actually a Goodwill). I was so surprised I stumbled across it I remember gasping. When you thrift, once or twice you’ll find something that gives you a real high. That was my first Arc’teryx project. Well, one of my first projects, in general.
I remember trying to make shoes out of that jacket (the chest pocket placement on it was perfect so it worked really well for the first version of shoes that I was trying to make) and feeling scared to cut into it because it was the most expensive thing that I think I owned at the time. It wasn’t expensive monetarily because I’d thrifted it, but more in terms of intrinsic value. I just didn’t want to hack it to pieces. I wanted to do it justice. I actually still have pieces of it, some of which I recently used to make a bag. When I think about it, Arc’teryx has really been there from the beginning.
What’s the easiest thing someone can do to start upcycling?
Before you even decide to start hacking things up (which is totally fun and something I love doing), it’s important to look everything you have in front of you first to understand their shapes and contours. Mess with an object — fold it and sculpt it around an existing form like a bag or even your body and you’ll see shapes that you didn’t notice before. Understanding shapes, forms, and materials before you learn how to cut patterns is such a crucial first step in the process. It’s about learning how to work in three dimensions.
The next thing is that you never really need as much stuff – like gear or equipment – as you think you need to get going. Don’t let the fact that you don’t have a piece of hardware or that you don’t have certain training stop you. Even if you just staple or tape something together, you’ll see something new, and you can take the next step from there.
Photo by: Amy Li
I wonder if that’s similar to how you feel about one of your big passions: climbing. What’s the easiest way in for people who want to get outdoors and start pursuing that as a hobby?
No one asks me about sports! That’s so nice. I think I’d love people to understand that climbing is great because you don’t need to be in like, peak, tip-top shape to just go ahead and try it. Anyone with any body type can start climbing. It’s a challenging sport, for sure, but a lot of the challenge is mental and strategic. It’s not so much about exerting a ton of physical energy as it is about planning the smartest sequence of moves for yourself. It’s also about understanding how to use your unique physical attributes to your advantage. For instance, I’m small so I can crouch into spaces that might be harder for a bigger person to squeeze into. Climbing is really inclusive in that way — it’s about getting to know yourself better. It’s really great for your mental health.
So much about your work and hobbies (i.e. climbing) is about problem-solving. What’s the clearest way that the two inform each other?
Climbing does come to mind a lot when I’m making pieces and vice versa. You’ll always hit a hurdle you think you can’t get past in either creating or climbing. With climbing, maybe on your first time out, it’s really, really difficult. But the next time you’ll be a little better. It’s one of those sports that you can get good at fairly quickly, but then you plateau and it’s hard to get past that threshold. I almost feel like it’s the same thing when it comes to creating.
There’s always something new you could be thinking about and trying but it’s easy to get complacent. It took me so long to nail the technical aspect of what I do. When I finally did, that put me into a groove of making exclusively clothes and shoes, because that’s what finally clicked after iterating on these ideas for so long. I had to zoom out to appreciate that I had hit a plateau and that I wanted to push [myself] into making other objects and things like this cart I made for Arc’teryx. Stuff that was out of my immediate wheelhouse. It’s a very mentally focused challenge for both and it’s about checking in on your progress as regularly as you can.
Also, I think another way that climbing and creating intersect for me is that both give you such an appreciation for garments that simply do their jobs well. Clothes that you don’t have to think about they just perform whenever you wear them outdoors. That’s something I always want to keep in mind with all the stuff I make. I may not be as technical as the specialists at an outerwear company, but I always try to emphasize functionality as best as I can.
Photo by: Nicole McLaughlin
What’s one product you wish Arc’teryx made that doesn’t (yet) exist, or an improvement to an existing product?
Slippers! I wish they made cozy shoes and I’d love to see more on the footwear front.
Shifting gears a little bit – I know something you’re always evolving your thinking around is accessibility. How does accessibility play into your working philosophy today?
Accessibility is a really complicated word for me because I talk about it a lot, especially when it comes to thinking beyond clothing and garments. Like how do we make nature and resources more accessible? On the flip side, the stuff I make isn’t necessarily accessible as far as quantities or availability are concerned, so I feel at times my words and practice contradict themselves.
While it’s true that the physical objects I make aren’t always as accessible as I’d like them to be for a mass audience, my hope is that my ideas are. What I mean is when people ask me about accessibility, I think they have the misconception that I’m a brand. In reality, I view myself more as a conceptual artist. So, it’s really never been about having items for sale, it’s more about how I can help expand people’s thinking with what they see from me.
Mostly, I don’t think product always has to be “accessible,” but the ideas and philosophies behind them should be. It’s why I want to do educational workshops with Arc’teryx where we can make as much knowledge accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to that. I think access is about broadening people’s perspectives as much as possible with the resources that you have available to you.
Speaking of broadened perspectives, what’s something you’ve learned about Arc’teryx that you didn’t know before you guys’ partnership got off the ground?
Oh, the fact that Arc’teryx started with a harness! That the Vapor harness was one of, if not the, first products Arc’teryx ever made! This was fascinating to me.
Separately, Edita (Arc’teryx Women’s Design Director) made me think about this one. I’d never noticed the way an Arc’teryx everyday jacket sits when it’s not being worn. They always look like these sculptures in perpetual motion. It’s always something I guess I saw but didn’t fully register. But when you look at Arc’teryx jackets with that in mind, these pieces seem like they’re always ready to go. I feel that way whenever I see my other jackets hanging up.
Photo by: Amy Li
OK – just a few final questions! What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned throughout your upcycling journey?
Sustainability is a daunting and overwhelming concept for me. We all have too much stuff. And, on top of that, it’s not like industry ever stops producing more. I could sit here and up-cycle and try to generate better life cycles for products all day, but it’ll still be piles and piles of stuff. And if we can’t figure out how to reconcile all of that on a broader level, I worry like everyone else about what will happen. Ultimately, though, I’m an optimist at heart. I hope that what I do helps people observing my work consider how practices that I’ve adopted individually can scale in a tenable way, etc.
You’ve been approached by every outdoor brand under the sun — why Arc’teryx for a long-term partnership of this nature?
They’re just so special! I know that’s a cheesy answer but they’re really so different from all the other brands. They’re secretive, but they’re not. They make you want a whole kit as soon as you experience any of their products. As soon as you wear an Arc’teryx product, you just get it. You understand how meticulously thought-out it all is and how much of a team effort it was for these experts to put that piece together. The history! The legacy! All of that just separates Arc from the rest of the field; it really doesn’t seem like they worry about anyone else. They just do their thing. They innovate against themselves and just continually create amazing product.
What makes you hopeful today?
The number of messages I get from people — students, anybody — of them sharing stories, work and ideas with me around upcycling. Every day, that makes me appreciate what I’m doing. When some kid sends me a random item that they’ve made in their house out of trash, that’s what makes me hopeful for the future. If enough people can see the potential in upcycling, there’s a really great future there.