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GREATEST: Nicole McLaughlin

Meet the irreverent talent turning shoe design on its head.


Nicole McLaughlin is, by every definition of the word, a designer. 

Her talents are on full display at footwear and apparel juggernaut Reebok, where she works on graphic design across the company’s Classics apparel category. McLaughlin has touched and played an integral role in several of Reebok’s special projects, including collaborations with labels such as Vetements and MISBHV, but what has garnered her the most attention is the creative output she achieves outside of her normal work hours. 

McLaughlin creates imaginative design interpretations through product salvaging and thrift store finds. Her ability to reimagine iconic brand silhouettes is on display in her unique style adaptations, such as Carhartt beanies constructed into a wearable shirt and Nikon camera-strap sandals. 

More than for design innovation or creativity’s sake, she is committed to altering consumer purchasing habits by teaching us to consider how we reuse, recycle and repurpose our existing inventory of wardrobe non-essentials. McLaughlin is one of those rare, young talents who isn’t aware of just how much design significance she represents and upholds—further lending to her appeal as an artistic powerhouse. Her humility fuels her curiosity, as she takes an imaginative idea and enhances its ability to become, however ironically, fashionably desirable. 

Talk to me about your background and early interests that potentially helped shape and establish your career trajectory. 

I’m from the East Coast, from New Jersey. I’ve always had an interest in art and photography, generally speaking. My mom is an interior designer and was always really supportive of my drawing and my interest in the arts as a whole. Because I always took a vested interest in these areas, I would sort of ask myself the question, ‘Am I supposed to be pursuing this or is this more of a hobby?’ 

I read somewhere that you pursued speech pathology and thought that was so incredibly interesting. How did this preoccupation develop, and what ultimately drew you back to the arts? 

In high school, I had a deaf boyfriend for about three years, and during that time I learned sign language. I had no previous experience and picked it up really quickly, and in less than a year became completely fluent in it. I felt like it was something I wanted to pursue full-time and wound up choosing a college that had a speech pathology focus— the East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. I spent a year there, and although I enjoyed it, I quickly realized it was less about the sign language and the artistic side that I so passionately loved and enjoyed, and more about the neurology and phonetics of it. It was all really interesting but wasn’t necessarily my path. 

And that’s what sort of served as the reintroduction into your artistic passion points? 

Exactly. During my sophomore year of college, I was taking general education classes and photography and realized that I very much wanted to continue to explore these areas, deciding then to major in media communications. This afforded me the luxury of a broad studies curriculum that included television production, sound recording and graphic design courses. It was a diverse and wide spectrum of learning and development classes that spanned all things digital media technology. 

In the early stages of your graphic design career, you appeared to absorb all resources and adopt a DIY approach in developing and cultivating a deeper design skill set. How important was this challenge for you? 

I had this ability to immerse myself into the footwear world, which was foreign territory for me, and quickly knew there was much to be explored. I definitely had specific graphic design skills and was well versed in programs such as Illustrator and Photoshop, which I developed throughout school and different internships. But when it came to more technical skills and actual manufacturing, those were definitely competencies that I learned on the job. I had no prior knowledge around garment construction and patterns. As a graphic designer, you wouldn’t necessarily think that you would need to know these areas, but the more exposure I had to these exploratory aspects of the role, the more I became interested in how those things worked. 

I have the opportunity to work with, research and utilize old samples and scraps that are being thrown out. I would initially approach this from a more graphical standpoint—combining textures and using patterns for experimentation—but would then find myself wanting to take on all challenges. I started cutting things up, gluing and taping them and diving into those types of experimentation processes. 

Because I didn’t know how to sew when I first joined the team at Reebok—that came much later—I was able to sort of express these ideas I had through testing and experimentation, but they weren’t fully realized. Once I learned how to properly execute them, I just wanted to try things, and that’s what separated me from others in my apprenticeship [for Reebok]. I was ready to take on any challenge and subscribed to this notion of ‘Give it to me, I’ll figure it out!’ 

Your design and aesthetic sensibilities lend themselves nicely to our current social media landscape, in that they’re so visually compelling and tap into an aspect of nostalgic consideration. Is that intentional? 

The stuff that I am doing isn’t necessarily new and it surprises me that so many people gravitate towards my work on social media. It’s interesting because I don’t do this for the publicity aspect per se, more so for the challenge. I ask myself, ‘Can I make something? Can I make it look interesting and have it be functional? Can I push the design further?’ This is always the approach that I took. 

I think I was initially worried about publicly sharing my work and being vulnerable in that way or have ideas potentially stolen, but I didn’t want those limitations, and felt it was important to create this platform that shared ideas of reinvention. 

The stuff that I am doing isn’t necessarily new and it surprises me that so many people gravitate towards my work on social media. I don’t do this for the publicity aspect per se, more so for the challenge 

Why do you think people are so drawn and gravitate towards your upcycled designs? 

It’s something I probably subconsciously think about when identifying the subjects I want to work with, and probably lean on nostalgia quite a bit. Like when I reworked JanSport— I think that brand hits home for a lot of people because it’s just so iconic and relatable. 

Although iconic, the stuff I choose to work with can be considered offbeat brands, and not necessarily labels that are oversaturating the market. I love to take a recognizable silhouette and completely reimagine it, putting it in ways that you might not think of. I’m trying to be a lot more conceptual as well, like when I used Wilson tennis balls and created a shoe from them—as  I was doing it, I definitely thought I was a complete weirdo for the idea, but also thought, ‘Well, someone needed to.’ 

It’s this element of taking something in its simplest form and presenting it in a new way that I think people find interesting. 

You work and contribute to an industry that perpetuates consumerism and trend-driven purchase behavior. How do you balance personal versus corporate interest? 

I think about this a lot, in terms of my personal values and what can be perceived as a conflict of interest. I think consumerism is at its worst and it’s so gross to me, just how fast people can cycle through product. 

I want for consumers to learn about the process and learn about what it is they’re purchasing and why. Invest yourself into it a little bit more before jumping towards the next trend you might want to support. 

I don’t agree with it and [that’s] why I’m committed to recycling discarded and forgotten products and materials. From a sustainability standpoint, working for a corporation while simultaneously working on my passion projects can certainly cause frustration. 

I want this industry to not only think about things differently, but I want to also have the opportunity and platform to voice that to the company I work for, and something I very much do. 

I actively try to have brands think about their own product in new ways and consider the amount of stuff they’ve put out into the world, and instead of creating new waste and new product, what about salvaging existing inventory? I just want to encourage solutions around unnecessary waste, and source what you have and repurpose that. 

Is this something you hope to evolve with your designs, in having them serve as a call to action? Do you see your side project as a messaging opportunity, in establishing these better practices? 

Absolutely. How do I use this platform to help people think about the environment, to think about sustainability? 

I don’t necessarily want what I’m doing to evolve into an actual brand. I get this question a lot. I don’t want to limit myself and say that things won’t ever be sold in the future, but I look at this more as a wake-up call. 

Primarily, I want to reinforce this idea that we see product, and think we know this product, but we really don’t. I want people to appreciate things for what they are. You can appreciate items, but that doesn’t mean you have to purchase or own them. I don’t want to contribute to a constant chase around trends. 

The more gratifying piece of all of this is when I receive messages and notes from people who share with me their projects and their use of old product. I love the narrative this platform is building and the community of people that are thinking about product in a similar way. 

How do I use this platform to help people think about the environment, to think about sustainability? 

Nicole McLaughlin

What’s exciting for you? What are you looking forward to? 

Seeing the response to what I am making, and how people are changing their views around product. Any time I see a really great story or a push for sustainability, I get excited and hopeful for major future change. I would love to show more process in the future, to be a resource. I hope to develop demonstrations, classes or workshops that teach best practices and how to approach upcycled design for yourself. 

Interview by Samantha Goretski

Photography by Amanda Alborano