Forget cotton and silk, the perfect fabric is anything Nicole McLaughlin deems good enough to wear and eat. Cupcakes, sandwiches, and gumballs to be exact. After teaching herself to sew with no fashion background, the unconventional designer avoided fabric stores and opted for a challenge. Using only recycled or edible material, Nicole McLaughlin has become a social media sensation for her eclectic wearable art, blending rudimentary nostalgia with sustainable utility for mouth-watering designs.
But so much more exists behind the balloon slippers and air-freshener vests. Nicole McLaughlin is trailblazing the future of sustainable waste behind-the-scenes, working with mega brands to change the way fashion is created. To get some insight on her simultaneously delectable and altruistic projects, CR sat down with Nicole for a broad chat on all things sustainability, design, and social media.
CR: Tell us a bit about how you started designing with unconventional materials. Was it rooted in sustainability, artistic interest, or perhaps began unintentionally?
NM: I don’t actually have a fashion design background or footwear. I studied digital media, which actually comes into play with what I do now in terms of photographing and curating images of my work. Before I went freelance, my first job out of college was working at Reebok; it was during that time I started to understand how things were made. My office had a ton of samples, swatches, and all these things around the office that I started to realize didn’t have much use. Things just ended up in the trash. I was curious about what I could make with this waste, but I didn’t know how to sew. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I felt less guilty about cutting up something that was going to end up in the trash anyway. Then I started to fall in love with the idea of taking something that already exists as a shape, as a material or color, and transforming it into something else.
CR: So were you self-taught? Did you end up joining classes or did you have a mentor, someone that taught you how to sew?
NM: I was self-taught for the most part. I had a couple of people help me understand more about the machines, but not so much the patterns and how to actually construct things. If I did have the knowledge of how to create patterns, maybe I wouldn’t have been so exploratory with my designs. Honestly, I always just felt like anything was fair game. Sometimes when people have too much experience or too much knowledge in a space, they don’t push themselves or push beyond the limits.
CR: On that note, a lot of your work is creating clothing or shoes out of food. Like a croissant bra, cupcake shoes, and the bread mitten. Why do you tend to gravitate towards edible material? And what happens to these pieces after they’re photographed?
NM: I love that question. Food items in theory are single-use because we eat them and they’re gone. I had been designing with food for some time, but I actually got even more into it during quarantine because I didn’t have a ton of options for material to use. So I started to take the things I had in my house, things that I was going to maybe eat. In the cupcake slides, I used the package that they were in and ate the cupcakes after. All the pieces I’ve done with bread, which now is a couple of things – the croissant bra, a bread vest, a waffle vest – I actually use bakers string inside them to keep their shapes, and afterwards I can still eat them. Anything I do in sustainability applies to food as well, so all of those things that people have seen… the bread glove was a sandwich after that, my boyfriend and I ate the croissant bra.
CR: We’d love to learn more about the business side of your work. Aside from brand collaborations, do you sell your pieces?
NM: I don’t sell my designs, but I constantly up-cycle my own pieces. A lot of my work on Instagram is just an exploration. I have an archive of images for the things that I’ve made, but not necessarily the items themselves. If I think I could really use one material for something else, I’ll take it apart again and keep that lifespan going.
And other times, my manager and I really love to focus on donation raffles and charity opportunities where we can generate some revenue or interest in an organization. So that’s really how I am able to keep the demand at bay, because a lot of people ask where they can buy my stuff. I think that not everything you see on the Internet you need to buy, necessarily. We’re all in such a consumer mindset. “I like this, I have to have it.” I want people to appreciate my designs for the idea.
CR: Your work with Hermès, Calvin Klein, eBay, and more is very impressive. How do you typically collaborate with brands? Has any partnership stood out as a favorite for you?
NM: Oh, they’re all so unique, and it’s because each brand and what they have as materials are all so different. The Calvin Klein project versus the Hermès project, for example. Hermès was so fragile with the bags and I was so nervous, while Calvin Klein was so stretchy and malleable. But I love that every collaboration is always a challenge for me. A lot of the time it’s material that I’ve never had access to or never had used before. The Hermès one is a really great example because even though they were samples or damaged (we weren’t cutting up brand new bags or anything), the value is still in the back of your head. You’re like, “oh my gosh, I’m cutting up a Birkin bag this feels so wrong.” But otherwise, what would have happened to the bag? You have to be able to separate that part.
CR: Many of your pieces incorporate childlike items, such as toy cars, gummy bears, legos, etc. Is there a reason behind your preference for rudimentary materials? Perhaps color or nostalgia?
NM: All of the above, honestly. I think nostalgia is a really big part of what I do. The childhood sense of wonder just naturally comes out in my studio; it’s very much a place of tinkering and just playing around until things work. Some of my projects even started with going through my old childhood stuff. I had Legos and thought, “what if I made this one more like a time capsule?” So I made a pair of shorts that held up the Legos I had as a kid, which really just spiraled into remembering all the things that I played with. But I also love the colors, the materials – it’s so bright, so eye-catching. I think a lot of the time when we become adults, we lose fun and playfulness. I try to keep that part.
CR: Could you walk us through your creative process? What inspires you? How do you come up with such unique ideas and what are your go-to design techniques?
NM: The process is super fun and also very fluid. You have to be ready to pivot because it’s never going to be the same. If I’m looking for inspiration, it’s better for me to go out and find it. I’m not going to build a Pinterest board or go through a bunch of Instagram pages. I’m better off just going to a thrift store. I live in New York, so just walking around and seeing what people are throwing out is my favorite. Utilitarian and technical garments are something that I look for because I love the outdoors, and I’m definitely inspired by more technical pieces.
I use myself as the mannequin, so I actually will just put pieces on myself, drape them, and try to see shapes that maybe contour to the body. My secret trick is fishing line. I use it on a lot of my projects because it’s so strong, and a lot of the materials that I’m using are shoe parts or kitchen items, not things that are normally stitch-able.
CR: When you were working on the Hermès collaboration, did you use fishing line? How did you construct those pieces?
NM: Their machinery is probably top of the line. I’m sure they have someone turning every individual stitch. I have pretty good sewing machines, but they weren’t that good. What I ended up doing was something that I learned from a previous project, actually, with a soccer ball. When I took it apart, I realized that there were stitch holes already in it. So to make a shoe out of it, I just went through existing stitch holes to keep the ball’s shape. I didn’t have to puncture anything new in it, which was actually what I ended up doing with Hermès. I used a nice, thicker thread, not the fishing line, with stitch holes that were already there to make sure it still gave the same craftsmanship feeling. I wouldn’t want to do the piece a disservice. It’s so beautiful; I don’t want to ruin it!
But they were super happy with me exploring, and said that if it goes a different direction not to worry about it. The material was more forgiving than I thought it would be, and the leather was just super beautiful. I don’t normally work with leather for various reasons, but because it was up-cycled, I really wanted to keep it true to its original nature.
CR: Your project was released after MSCHF turned Birkin bags into Birkenstocks without Hermès’ consent. How did you react when that story broke?
The release of the actual collaboration was after the MSCHF shoe came out, but we had been working on the project since last year. So with the timeline, I was like, oh shit. But it’s also cool, because I feel like it almost humanizes a brand like Hermès when you have younger people who are just trying to be scrappier about it, a little more DIY. Not that it takes away the heritage, beauty, or craftsmanship. Almost just that it makes them more approachable in a way. Maybe not for the Hermès consumer, but that’s far beyond me.
CR: Would you categorize your creations as fashion or art? Could you see your designs being in museums one day?
NM: I definitely sit somewhere in between and I always wonder: am I art? Am I fashion? I, myself, question that. But I kind of feel like at this point, those lines could be so blurred. Take someone like Tom Sachs, whose work I love and is someone that I always look up to from an art point of view. He’s also made his way into the fashion space. So sometimes I wonder, where does this sit? I think there’s something beautiful about not placing one in the other, because you never want to limit yourself.
I’d say for me, functionality is what makes my work feel like fashion, because I always consider pockets, storage, and things that could really serve a purpose or function rather than just be an art piece. For most art, you can’t touch it or use it. I want you to be able to put my pieces on and experience them. But it also does look beautiful just hanging up. It would be awesome to do some type of museum space in the future. I would want to do it when I have a really good body of work to share.
I feel like the “goal question” always comes up, and I don’t know if I’m jumping the gun on any of that, but I love the idea of getting children involved in what I do. And it kind of goes back to the childhood sense of wonder. I would actually love to create a museum or an experience down the line where kids could actually tinker and mess around, creating these things and pieces for themselves.
CR: You have a massive following on Instagram and TikTok. How did that come about? Did one piece in particular go viral?
NM: It was so crazy. Honestly, I don’t think anyone expects it when that happens. It’s a very surreal thing, especially because I was still working a full time job at a corporation. Sort of moonlighting as this other person. Sharing my work felt a little bit weird at first, especially because I didn’t even know how to sew. But I thought, why not? Only my close friends are going to see it anyway. One of the first pieces that got circulated was a shoe made of tennis balls. I don’t know what happened, but all of the sudden it had 50 likes on Instagram. And then it started going really crazy.
It wasn’t the success of that post that made me want to continue, I honestly just really loved using these materials. The pieces that really took off were a pair of shoes and a sweater made of Carhartt beanies. I guess the rest was history.
CR: You were working a corporate job at Reebok when you first started. At what point did you decide to take this full time?
NM: It was kind of a funny story, because it all happened super fast. People didn’t really know that I was doing this at my job. I had been thinking about what the next move was for me professionally, because I had worked at Reebok for about four years. Honestly, I never thought I would go freelance. When everything started taking off, I began getting some project opportunities here and there. But it wasn’t anything that I was ready to quit my job for, until a turning point where I decided that I needed to do this.
During a meeting at Reebok, an outside agency came in and did this whole pitch deck. They were saying to us, “you should work with this girl, you should collaborate with this girl.” And I’m sitting there realizing, oh, my God, that’s me. All my coworkers looked at me, surprised. So then I decided, yeah, I think I need to go now.
But I kept in touch with all my old coworkers and we’ve done a capsule collection since then. Honestly, I’m so grateful that I took the leap, but it is really scary to quit your full time job.
CR: Do you find yourself creating pieces so that they can be posted online? Or do you view Instagram and TikTok as more of a portfolio as opposed to the reason you’re doing it?
NM: I’d love to say that my integrity since the beginning has stayed the same. But a lot of the time with social media, you do feel pressure to keep a level of content flowing. When you don’t post for a certain amount of time, you’re worried about creative blocks and losing followers, so you start to second guess yourself. But I really do love that social media is like a portfolio, and it’s a place where people could go and just scroll through, hopefully getting some enjoyment out of it. I actually really love TikTok because of my background in photography and videography. It’s been fun to be able to create a different form of content.
On Instagram, I’ve worked for three or four years to get my following. Whereas on TikTok, you can post one viral video and then you’ll get like 100,000 followers in a day. It’s super overwhelming, but it’s cool. And you have the opportunity to connect with a lot more people.
CR: Many of your designs are shoes. Do you have a favorite category of pieces to create, or perhaps a specific past design that is your favorite?
NM: I love shoes so much. They’re so small, but create such a huge impact. I created a shoe out of a volleyball and that was one of my first pieces. I always look back at that design, because it was a sphere item that you wouldn’t ever think could turn into something else. And it turned into a shoe almost perfectly; it was soft and comfortable, checked every box. That’s when I realized you could literally re-work anything into a shoe, which just goes to show there’s still room for new designs. You can change something so drastically without actually modifying very much.
CR: Sustainability is obviously a driving factor for your work. Tell me about your passion for this subject and how you plan to make an impact with your designs.
NM: I really just want to get people to see the potential. Not just us as consumers, but these big brands that have resources to create sustainable things. A lot of times it’s the cheaper option for them not to. So when you show them the possibilities of what these materials could be, it will hopefully motivate them to invest more into taking back pieces that they’ve put out in the world. A lot of brands will make years and years’ worth of low-quality things and put it out into the world then say to us, this is your responsibility. They put the responsibility on us. Now we have to find a way to recycle, up-cycle, and bring it to thrift stores. But thrift stores are over capacity. A lot of the time, we feel the guilt – but they should be feeling more responsible for the things that they’ve produced.
It’s really difficult to tell a brand to become sustainable. It’s a whole to-do list, so we have to be realistic about it. I enjoy working on a small scale of how to up-cycle things, but now I focus on working with the brand for how to scale that. So if you’re able to take those fibers, break them down, and start again, or properly lay out patterns for cutting, that could eliminate a ton of waste.
CR: Do brands ever have you design something for them to mass produce with surplus materials?
NM: Yeah, definitely. It’s sort of what my collaborations are becoming. It used to just be like “here, we’ll send you this so that you can make something meant for a social media moment,” or just a fun piece that we can auction off. But now I’ve started to say, “if you have a lot of yardage of overstock fabric or a bunch of shoes sitting in a warehouse, instead of burning them, can I give you some creative suggestions?” I tell them to go ahead and make it, whether my name is attached to it or not. Which is more of the way I see my work going, rather than starting a brand. People always ask me if I’m going to create my own brand and sell my designs. And I always say that there’s bigger fish to fry, in my opinion, because I’ve seen so much of the amount of stuff wasted out there.
I’ve had such an awesome experience being the model of my clothes and using social media. But what’s life after that? I think I’ll always be able to do my stuff as a passion, and hopefully getting museum opportunities in the future will be a way for me to showcase that. Then I can focus more on the meat and potatoes of fixing this machine called fashion.
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