The Ins and Outs of Upcycling

Inside New York designer Nicole McLaughlin’s eco-friendly ethos for turning deadstock into must-haves.

There’s a pressing urgency to fashion’s sustainability crisis — but fast fashion and fleeting trend cycles aren’t doing much to alleviate the issue. This isn’t breaking news and it isn’t a conversation that will be ending anytime soon, especially considering that nearly 85% of clothing and sneakers that we discard are either burned or left to (slowly) decompose in a landfill. Why? Recycling textiles is no easy feat.

The bulk of responsibility rests on the shoulders of big corporations, who need to transition to slower production cycles and sustainable materials. But that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. There’s still a call to action for casual consumers and hardcore collectors alike. As we add newness to our collections, simply tossing our worn-out sneakers isn’t the most ethical option. Instead, upcycling is a more eco-conscious way to transition old pairs into a new purpose. And when it comes to upcycling, there’s no one more inventive than Nicole McLaughlin

A scroll through Nicole’s Instagram feed is like a mini masterclass in conscious, creative redesign. She’s used badminton birdies to create slippers, turned Carhartt beanies into shorts, and transformed Patagonia fleeces into a miniskirt. Each rework balances elaborate creativity with an undercurrent of camp, bridging the gap between sustainability and style. Upcycling is serious business, but her unbridled creativity proves that it can still be fun. 

After a graphic design tenure with Reebok, the New Jersey-raised, New York-based designer branched out as a freelancer and her outside-the-box aesthetic soon became her signature. Still, each whimsical design begins and ends with the items she’s reworking. “The material tells me what it wants to do,” she explained.

Nicole (virtually) joined the Common Ace team for a Q&A on all things upcycling, as well as her relationship to sneakers, her tips for a DIY, and her experience as a woman in the design world. 

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CA: Before you started upcycling, what was your relationship with sneakers?

NM: I’ve never been a sneakerhead, but I always attached sentimental value to my shoes. I started with Converse and Vans when I was in middle school and from there, my love for sneakers just continued to grow. Before going freelance I worked at Reebok as a graphic designer, so understanding how shoes are made and getting to know the backend really helped my love for them continue to grow. 

CA: Any holy grail pairs?

NM: I do a lot of vintage shopping in order to do what I do, so I spend a lot of time on eBay, Depop, and other resell apps. That’s where I found a pair of National Geographic shoes (pictured below). They only made them for a certain amount of time and I wouldn’t say that they’re a sneaker per se — more of a slide/clog type of vibe, but I’ve never seen anyone else wearing them. That’s probably why I think that they’re so cool. I love the construction. The sole is really, really cool, too: it has this crazy unit on the back with the branding. It references sneakers that we’ve seen, but National Geographic just decided to do their own thing and make shoes for a bit. 

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CA.: That’s a real deep cut! As you expand and get more requests for customs, is it becoming more challenging to stick to sustainably-sourced materials?

NM: Yeah, I’m definitely at a point where, as it expands and as the demand increases, the easy option would be to cut corners and make things from virgin materials. But I would rather keep it small, keep it tight, and do it sustainably so that there are fewer pairs out there. I want to make sure that people really want and appreciate them for what they are rather than feeding into the resell mindset. 

My relationship with upcycled and used materials is that I can’t see myself designing any other way. I like to use things that already exist, that are loved and worn, with zippers and pockets and things that I can find a way to manipulate, move around, and change ever so slightly to give it a new feeling. 

Now working with brands, I see that there are so many of these materials that we don’t even think about. For all of the sneakers that we love, there are maybe three or four iterations of samples and some brands have like, a hundred pairs of shoes going to market. So think of all the rounds of samples, materials, and specs that go into that and what happens to them. My goal is to be able to find interesting ways to use those. There’s always room for a sustainable approach.

CA: What’s a DIY sneaker repurposing hack that we can try at home?

NM: For me, it can start with the lacing system. If the laces are old, as soon as you take them off, the shoe looks more clean. Sometimes I’ll replace them with Speed Lacing — like on Salomon shoes — and changing the laces out can completely revamp a shoe. 

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CA: If we do want to swap out our laces, where's the best place to find new ones?

NM: I get my laces at REI. They have a sneaker section in the basement of their SoHo store. There are a few different lacing systems meant for hiking shoes that I think look cool on other sneakers, too. That’s a slept on thing. I’m somebody that’s a little more traditional, so if you take a Puma Suede sneaker or something like that, instead of having a traditional lace system, sometimes I’ll pull the tongue out and lace it up that way so that it’s more like a shroud. I love attachments and add-ons, too. I always find ways to incorporate pockets and pencils and things on top of the shoe just to make it a little more cheeky and fun.

CA: When a pair is on its last legs, are there any hard dos and don’ts of knowing whether a sneaker is in shape for reuse?

NM: Honestly, there are no rules. I love doing projects that take apart footwear and sometimes I’ll work with brands or thrift stores that have half pairs. A lot of times, shoes get lost and there are orphan shoes (where one shoe is missing), so thrift stores will give them to me or I’ll buy them in bulk. One example of taking half pairs of shoes is the vest that I made using shoe parts. For the soles, I’ll use them as footwear concept projects because for that, you don’t need a full pair. It’s also just really good to have extra soles laying around.

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CA: Walk us through your favourite reworks to date.

NM: Recently I did a jacket out of Puma goalie gloves. And for footwear reworks, I recently did a pair that has a pencil sharpener in the sole of the shoe.

CA: Now that you’ve seen it from a corporate POV and a freelancer’s perspective, how do you imagine the future of deadstock fabric in the sneaker industry? 

NM: I always talk about sustainability in a way where it has to be fun and lighthearted. A lot of times, companies and brands will approach sustainability in a way that’s rigid and unapproachable. There has been a surge in eBay and deadstock, and there’s a growing appreciation for old shoes, so I think it’s just about bringing that to the forefront. But with the amount of shoes being made, there’s going to be a continuous lifespan of deadstock shoes. This problem is only just beginning. 

So I think that it’s about finding unique ways to create a circular model that’s always rotating. What makes people drawn to my work is that there’s a kind of ‘gotcha’ moment when you realize that everything is second hand. Sustainability may not be the first thing that you think about, but it starts a conversation. A lot of times the approach is that the world is crumbling and you need to buy a sustainable collection of sneakers, meanwhile it’s not 100% recycled and it’s shipped around the world in plastic.

CA: How does creating from a female lens offer you a fresh perspective?

NM: You have so many ups and downs of being a woman in this industry. When I started I was bright eyed and bushy tailed; I never thought of my gender as any type of barrier. But I was quickly slapped into reality when I learned that everyone at the top of my industry was a man. My bosses were always men and on my team, especially as a graphic designer in footwear, there were a lot of dudes. So I figured, if there aren’t a lot of female designers, are we being considered in the process? It became very polarizing because ‘pink it and shrink it’ is very real. I was in a meeting one time and there was a man talking about a pair of leggings and he said, “Women would never wear that.” And I spoke up and asked, “How are you going to tell women what they’re going to wear?” Pay is also something that’s not talked about enough. I realized at one point that I was getting paid less than male counterparts, so pay transparency is so important. It’s tricky to navigate through the industry, but I’ve been a female in a room of all males and my perspective has been different. That has only ever worked to advantage because I think of things that guys wouldn’t necessarily think of.

And I spoke up and asked,

“How are you going to tell women what they’re going to wear?”

CA: What’s the last pair of sneakers that you bought and what’s the last pair that you reworked?

NM: I don’t buy sneakers that often, but I got a pair of Hokas recently. I bought them with the intention of wearing them to exercise, but then I realized that they’re actually kind of fire to style. And I’ve been reworking Asics lately. They are just so cool and slept on — especially some of the vintage running silhouettes. The colors, the shiny materials, everything.

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