Making a Statement with Sustainable Streetwear: Nicole McLaughlin
Nicole McLaughlin is known for her innovative designs and reinvention of streetwear- exploring upcycling and sustainable fashion. McLaughlin often transforms everyday objects such as office supplies or kitchen utensils into whimsical statement pieces. The designer grew up near the mountains of New Jersey and spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid- snowboarding and skiing as well as playing sports such as volleyball and lacrosse (Sultan, 2020). Her interest in sports manifests in the main theme of her pieces where iconic sportswear logos appear on pieces including bras made of Patagonia pouches, fuzzy shorts stitched from Carhartt beanies and tops made from Nike hats. Her creations range from vests, shorts, bras, heels and slides, to earrings. Often taking a utilitarian approach with her designs, they are visually appealing for their thoughtful use of storage, repetition and simplicity.
In the past year, averaging at one post per week, her designs have provided social commentary on Instagram to ever-changing events such as the pandemic and social, cultural and environmental issues. McLaughlin currently does not sell any of her pieces to the public, but she has collaborated with major brands such as Puma, Reebok, Footlocker, Prada, Calvin Klein, Crocs and Hermes to offer exclusive releases. In addition, many of the unique pieces are raffled and the funds are donated to charities. Currently as stated on her website, McLaughlin is focusing on launching a non-profit organization that helps provide much needed design-resources to young people, “connecting large companiesespecially those with deadstock and overstock materials to schools and universities in need” (2021). In the following article I explore her work as posted on Instagram in relation to the rise of DIY culture, sustainable fashion and the future of collaboration.
At the age of 21, McLaughlin started experimenting with reworking scraps and fabrics into outlandish garments. She was hired as an intern and later as a graphic designer at Reebok. Using scraps of fabric and materials that were accessible to her, she taught herself how to sew. As she explains in an interview with Input Mag, “In the Sportswear industry, anytime you’re working in a fashion house, there’s just a lot of samples and materials. You review it, you look at it, and you usually discard it after that.” McLaughlin’s first piece to go viral on her Instagram account was her “volleyball shoes” in 2018.
COVID-19 has shifted consumers’ understanding of sustainable fashion as they are poised to become even more environmentally and culturally aware (WWD Mag). While companies tend to exploit consumers by using buzzwords such as ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ as a marketing tool to sell their products- for DIY designers such as McLaughlin, these words are an afterthought to unique design. It seems that the marriage of ‘sustainable’ and ‘streetwear’ has emerged and gained increasing popularity in 2020. Andrea Russo, creative director of Diesel Licences and MYAR contended that the word ‘streetwear’ has evolved from its original meaning in the late nineties (Carrera, 2020). Back then, without the marketing of Instagram- it was upheld to a niche group of individuals in the up-and-coming and underground markets versus today where new generations are speaking sustainability without spelling it out (WWD Mag). As we see in McLaughlin’s designs, sustainability is embedded for most pieces while providing social commentary of the current and cultural events of the times.
As seen in the images above, McLaughlin has created two bras. Her caption: ‘quarantitties’ — poking fun at her time spent in quarantine. McLaughlin generally follows two rules of thumb for capturing her creations on camera: wide shots for garments and close shots for accessories. She is the sole model of her creations, and here she crops her face and legs out of the shot to capture her torso- focusing on two very different kinds of bras. The first bra has pink, sliding Ziplock bag straps that act as the strap of the bra. Attached are sandwich bags with the perfect bagged lunch- whole wheat bread, lettuce and cheese. The sandwich bag reads “Hefty”. One user comments, ‘What happens when you get hungry and eat a sandwich?’ The second bra is made of semi- inflated Nike basketballs. The pastel basketballs act as the ‘cup’ of the bra with pink fabric straps. In this image she holds an air pump to suggest her ‘quarantitties’ are not fully inflated.
“I think the best part is that I didn’t even know that I was being sustainable, I was just finding old clothes because they were cheaper and because then I felt less bad about cutting them up,” she says. “People often think that sustainable solutions have to look a certain way and to be able to change people’s minds and show people that these things can look interesting has been so cool.” — Nicole McLaughlin for I-D
According to the GlobalWebIndex, Gen Z has spent the majority of the pandemic looking for distraction and self-development “in a time of personal and professional limbo, with 30 percent taking up entirely new hobbies more than any other generation” (Maguire, 2020). I argue that this is attributed to the rise of DIY fashion promoted on social media platforms such as TikTok, where contemporary subcultures of fashion including, skater, e-girl/ e-boy, street, and other aesthetics amalgamate and enter the mainstream. In addition, young consumers have been inclined more than ever to make purchases on Depop, an online marketplace that is an Instagram-esque e-commerce platform where users can sell their used clothes. A large proportion of the almost 20 million items listed on Depop are customised, upcycled or reconstructed (Vogue Business). Under lockdown, this community has continued to thrive, with a 40 percent increase in listings and a 65 percent uptick in sales for March 2020 compared with the same time period in 2019 (Maguire, 2020).
McLaughlin’s Instagram feed is not overly stylized in comparison to other fashion accounts. Pieces are modelled against plain backdrop with her iPhone, taking mirror selfies versus a high quality lens.
McLaughlin uses this point and shoot approach to capture the essence of the DIY- one that is fun, relatable and achievable with items found around the home. The NM x Crocs Collab was McLaughlin’s first official shoe collaboration (Hypebae Team, 2020). Here, McLaughlin has posted a preview of a prototype that appears to be a “clog-boot hybrid accompanied, complete with a small flash light and bundle of rope” (Hype Bae). The black Croc is barely identifiable for its breathable holes on the toe box. Instead, it is modified to give a “kitschy-camper” aesthetic that serves as a three-in-one shoe for camping all while adding commentary to the cultural history of Crocs: the most hate- loved shoe (Bateman, 2020).
Evidently, young people are looking for unique pieces that speak to who they are and which cultural group they identify with- all while staying on trend and reducing their impact on the environment. As W-Magazine points out, there has been a resurgence in Crocs as the ultimate utilitarian shoe where the charms “don’t impact the overall comfort and practicality”. Customization and comfort have pushed this trend forward in 2020 and spotted on artists Bad Bunny, Justin Bieber and Post Malone who have garnered attention in the media by rocking Crocs (un)ironically.
Year in Review
As of today, Nicole’s work is not for sale. However, in 2020 she collaborated with major brands and auctioned pieces in LA streetwear stores with 100 percent of proceeds going to The Okra Project and Sunrise Movement. The Okra Project is an American grassroots mutual aid collective that provides support to black trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people (Okra Project Website, 2021). The Sunrise Movement is a youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process (Sunrise Movement Website, 2021).
I think Nicole’s ethos for designing is genius. It gets people on Instagram and in the fashion industry talking: what is considered wearable? What is considered too much or too little? Nicole’s Instagram in 2020 is both meta-meme and a real-life exhibit that provides a space for social commentary on Instagram. Other honourable mentions that speak to the events of 2020: Purell hand sanitizer earrings and a Patagonia upholstered beach chair and umbrella captioned ‘staycation’. I think these speak to her positive, fun outlook and the possibilities of where the intersections of fashion, design and sustainable are headed, even when we’re stuck at home.
Bateman, K. (2020, November 27). A Cultural History of Crocs. W Magazine. https://www.wmagazine.com/story/crocs-jibbitz-shoes-cultural-fashion-history
Bertolino, H. (2020a, December 18). Nicole McLaughlin on how to harness your creativity. Dazed. https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/51684/1/nicole-mclaughlin-converse- evan-mock-creative-goals-quil-lemons-2021
Bertolino, H. (2020b, December 18). Nicole McLaughlin on how to harness your creativity. Dazed. https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/51684/1/nicole-mclaughlin-converse- evan-mock-creative-goals-quil-lemons-2021
Brain, E. (2020, June 12). Nicole McLaughlin Raffles Upcycled Patagonia Slippers and More for #BlackLivesMatter. HYPEBEAST. https://hypebeast.com/2020/6/nicole-mclaughlin- raffle-one-off-pieces-custom-black-lives-matter-fundraising
Brown, E. (2020, November 10). Nicole McLaughlin. NR. https://www.nrmagazine.com/nicole-mclaughlin
Carrera, M. (2020, April 22). Niche Streetwear Brands Join the Sustainable Conversation. WWD. https://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/niche-streetwear-brands- sustainability-1203561283/
Kim, Y. (2020, November 2). Nicole McLaughlin Reworks Crocs With Outdoor-Inspired Details. HYPEBAE. https://hypebae.com/2020/10/nicole-mclaughlin-crocs-camping-clogs- collaboration-ropes-lamps-upcycling-sustainability
Maguire, L. (2020, May 4). With Gen Z under lockdown, DIY fashion takes off. Vogue Business. https://www.voguebusiness.com/fashion/with-gen-z-under-lockdown-diy- fashion-takes-off
Pitcher, L. (2019, May 8). meet the designer behind these bizarre sustainable shoes. I-d. https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/xwnwxj/meet-the-designer-behind-these-bizarre- sustainable-shoes
Sultan, I. (2020, August 31). Step inside Nicole McLaughlin’s reinvention of streetwear. Input. https://www.inputmag.com/style/nicole-mclaughlin-instagram-crocs-nike- sustainability-streetwear-interview
Team, H. B. (2020, July 20). Up-Cycling Master Nicole McLaughlin Announces Collaboration With Crocs. HYPEBAE. https://hypebae.com/2020/7/nicole-mclaughlin- crocs-collaboration-shoe-footwear-announcement