How to survive 2020 with the queen of upcycling, Nicole McLaughlin

We asked the designer – famed for her work turning old clothes, baguettes and anything she can get her hands on into high-fashion garments – to produce a survival kit for 2020. Here’s what she created.


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If 2020 is anything like 2019, there is a lot we’ll need just to get us through the year. And if the past few years are an indication of anything, 2020 could be a year of both political upheaval and environmental change too. It’s a thought shared by Nicole McLaughlin, an Instagram star famed, most notably, for her innovative fashion creations using recycled thrift-store clothing. She has a unique ability to transform the most random objects into something high fashion-like and for want of a better word “cool”. If anyone is capable of envisaging the products that sum up the current state of things, it’s Nicole.

A former graphic designer at Adidas, in her works Nicole has used ice cubes, shuttlecocks, Capri Sun packets, inflatable balls, eggs, tissue dispensers, rubber bands and all manner of clothing to form the foundations of inventive shoe designs. Elsewhere, she’s upcycled foam fingers, Whole Foods packaging, lacrosse nets and even sandwiches into couture garments, which are then captured in her signature lo-fi aesthetic and uploaded onto Instagram. Each provides a quick-witted visual joke easily digestible via the platform’s square format, not only for each bespoke item’s innovative design but also for the satisfyingly smooth stitching and crafty handiwork that’s evident in each and every piece.

Though her pieces clearly look great on the surface, at their core, the ethos of Nicole’s works is functionality. Inherently, each custom-built item fulfils a purpose by recycling something unwanted or discarded and elevating it into a fashion object. That being said, there’s also a sense of irony underlying much of what she does. Peppered throughout are themes of overconsumption and built-in obsolescence.

With this in mind, when it came to commissioning someone to create a 2020 survival kit, Nicole’s balance of playfulness and sarcasm was exactly what we were looking for.

“When I found out about the brief, I was excited about the idea, it sounded really fun!” Nicole tells It’s Nice That. At the start ideas came pretty quickly, encouraging an overall theme to the objects she’s created. “When I think about 2020 – and the future in general – I just can’t help but think about the mass amounts of trash,” she says. “Globally, we are currently struggling to find solutions for our growing amounts of waste.” As the fashion industry is one of the highest polluters and generators of waste today, the designer is preoccupied by the pressing question facing most fashion designers: How can we be more sustainable?

Using the commission as an opportunity to visually unpack this point, Nicole set out to provoke thought around these global issues. “It got me thinking, what are some of the most obscure objects and how could they become a fashion item?” she says. “In 2020, we need tools that will help us reduce our carbon footprint and we need advancements towards more affordable renewable energy resources.” Even if the gadgets and tools around us become more intelligent and use less energy, ultimately, Nicole believes, the most important catalyst for change will be a collective mindset in favour of the planet’s future wellbeing.

One way to rethink our indulgent levels of consumption is to take a leaf out of Nicole’s book and get into upcycling. For Nicole, however, her passion for rejuvenating preloved objects started unintentionally. “I wanted to experiment with physically making a product,” she tells us, “but didn’t have much knowledge on design or consumption.” So, she headed out to secondhand and thrift stores, rummaging around for different garments to discover how they were put together. What started out as a cheap way to gain access to materials became a practice in taking things apart and putting them back together again in a new, completely different way.

“Since I was trying to practice making new things, there was less guilt in cutting up something that had a stain or a hole in it, rather than buying brand new materials,” she adds. “I started to love the personality that each piece had, and how you have to work within the constraints of that existing item. Then, I realised it was upcycling.” It’s a method of working going forward we should arguably all adopt, considering how easy it is to forget the existing objects out there in the world, let alone stuffed at the back of your wardrobe. In Nicole’s words, this could help towards “creating the start of a more circular model”.

Nicole has created three products for her 2020 survival kit: a styrofoam-peanut umbrella, a tech bra, and a cup-holder vest. For her first creation, Nicole started thinking about packaging. “It’s a major contributor of waste that isn’t being addressed as much in the current sustainability conversation,” she says. So she chose to make an object from packing peanuts “to provide a solution for these types of short-term-use items”. Elevating the peanuts from an unavoidable, disposable packaging byproduct to the central design element, Nicole filled an umbrella with the peanuts to further hint to extreme weather warnings. Nicole made the product using an old, clear umbrella and some packaging peanuts, and then heat-sealed the lining to close it back up.

For the second product in the commission, Nicole investigated a wholly different route. Thinking about the waste produced by the rapid speed at which technology is updated, she has created a bra made from two iPhones and their charging cables. “With constant access to information, our phones are such a helpful tool; but on the other hand, they have consumed us,” Nicole says. “How are we recycling the items we once saw value in? I hope my bra sparks conversation around technology use and abuse, and how we can design eco-friendly tech products and prolong the lifespan of the tech items we already own.”

Lastly, when it came to Nicole’s final object, the designer wanted to address one of the most pressing environmental issues today: single-use plastics. “We should all have our own reusable water bottles,” she says. The third product in her survival kit is a hyper-utilitarian storage system to hold a couple of water bottles attached to a garment. “This also brings attention to the importance of having clean water, worldwide, for every single person,” she says. Making use of two water bottle holders for a bike, as well as two water bottles from home, the garment came together using materials that were all already in her possession.

For Nicole, the most enjoyable part of the project was the idea generation and “searching for the right materials” to then execute an idea. Her overall practice demonstrates how we can be creative with the ordinary things we have lying around, putting them to good use instead of throwing them away. “I hope these objects help viewers think about existing products in a different way,” she says. “Often, we don’t think about things outside their usual context and I hope that these pieces can help spark ideas and conversations around what sustainability means, and what we can do in our own lives to contribute.”

Through her three upcycled products, Nicole points to three global issues that are set to define 2020 and beyond: over-consumption and single-use plastics, the ubiquity of technology, and the scarcity of water. Food for thought in the form of fashion, for whatever 2020 might bring.

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About the Author

Jynann Ong

Jynann joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. She went freelance in 2022.

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