Nicole McLaughlin’s Creative Climb With Endless Beta

*Interview by Lei Takanashi. Photos by Wes Knoll.

Nicole McLaughlin is an artist/designer whose upcycled works explore the greater potential of discarded materials and mass produced waste. As a self-proclaimed “Industry Dumpster,” McLaughlin collaborates with major brands like Arc’teryx and Hermes on sustainability initiatives while also challenging these labels to rethink how they work with leftover materials. For Living Proof New York, McLaughlin details her work as a creative problem solver while also ruminating on how everything from rock climbing to social media algorithms impacts her ever popular upcycled design practice.

You’ve been living on the East Coast your whole life, right? What captivated you to move from Brooklyn to Boulder, Colorado? 

My husband Ryan works for Crocs and does their collaborations. So that’s where the company’s based. When he took the job, that required us to move but we technically had the opportunity to not do that. We went out there to just see it and we both really fell in love with it. 

I think it just fits our lifestyle. We’re both really into climbing and I get really inspired by nature for my work. My designs are heavy on the “Gorp” inspiration just in terms of what materials I use and the utility it serves. 

We originally went out and stayed in Denver just to see if we like it. We weren’t super keen on Denver because coming from New York and then going to another city like that is just not the same. So we just got in a car and drove towards the mountains to see what would happen. We ended up in Boulder and it sounded pretty cool. It’s kind of bougie, but it’s also like a college town. It’s a bit of an odd place but it’s really wonderful because it’s so accessible to nature. You can literally be on a trail run in five minutes. So that’s what really brought me out there. 

Then my studio out there is sick because it’s really big. I don’t think I ever would have had that kind of space in New York or in Boston where I lived before. So I’m pretty hyped on having space to just spread out and do stuff. 

It’s funny because when I learned you were out there, my first thought was like “Damn, she really did that!” I feel like New Yorkers catch this fever to actually be outside. But to really scratch that itch, it feels damn near impossible. I mean we don’t even have real National Parks in the tri-state area alone. Now, you live an hour away from Rocky Mountain. How has the new environment impacted your creative process? 

The thrifting out there is insane. Especially if you’re into gear or any type of vintage outdoors. It’s just the amount of stuff because people out there really just have all of this since that’s just what they use. A thrift store in New York may only have a couple of Nuptse jackets. But out there, you’ll find a lot of Arc’teryx jackets in the thrift store and really amazing outdoor gear. So that’s definitely a big inspiration. There’s a place called Boulder Sports Recycler that I’ll name drop only because it’s the sickest store ever. 

It’s not even like I’m necessarily buying it. I just go and look at it because it’s almost like going through a museum of history for old outdoor gear. 

I also have a better work-life balance out there. Since I’ve moved there, I find that I really give myself the space to be creative for myself. I let myself leave work a little early so I can go outside on a trail run. In New York, I feel like I just kept working and didn’t really have any boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in New York and think about it all the time. I miss my friends and that’s why I kept my studio there because I still get a lot of creative inspiration from being in the city. But I think I’m built for a more slower-paced lifestyle and I’m fine to admit that.

I think that’s one problem that comes with living in New York. You always feel like you have to be on that fast-paced lifestyle. I think that’s why so many of us try to address this outdoor itch. I personally love long-distance running along the West Side of Upper Manhattan, because it mirrors the Palisades cliffs in Jersey. Others love fishing in Van Cortlandt Park or the East River. Was climbing always your go-to “outdoor indulgence” when living in New York?

Yeah, climbing’s always been my main sport. I got into it eight years ago when I was living in Boston and it’s a really good sport when you are city living just because of indoor bouldering gyms. But I did have that itch to go outside and explore. So I’d go up to the Gunks in New Paltz or just go boulder at Rat Rock in Central Park. I’d even come back to Jersey, since that’s where I’m from and my parents are still there, because there’s actually quite a bit of places to climb outside. It’s not that I ran out of excitement when it comes to climbing gyms but there’s just real rock I could be climbing.

Now, I open up Mountain Project. It’s like this App similar to All Trails that just shows you a map with all the climbs around you. People rate them, put notes about them, it’s just endless. I’ve been in Colorado for two years and I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to how many boulders are out here. So living here has been giving me more confidence in the outdoors. I’ve been trying lead climbing and trad climbing here, which is something I don’t think I would have necessarily tried before. But since there’s a lot of really experienced people out there, I could learn from them. 

Climbing is honestly the best thing I could have found, especially at the time that I found it, only because it is such a good mental sport. It’s the closest thing to my work and my process because it’s both problem solving. I’m constantly using my brain, trying to pivot, trying to figure out how to get to that final thing. I get such a high from doing it. So I always compare the two. 

I was actually going to ask you about that because I think it’s so interesting how climbing translates into art. I mean, there’s literally people rappelling off buildings to paint graffiti in New York City now. That’s a more literal example but with your work I’ve definitely noticed the problem solving element coming through. What other parallels do you see between climbing and designing or making art? 

“Beta” is a word that’s used a lot in climbing and that’s something that I think about a lot when it comes to upcycling because there’s never just one way to do something. Everyone approaches it differently. 

For example, my husband is 6’1″, I’m 5’5″, and we have completely different body types. He’s super bulky and I’m small. While I could crunch up and be super flexible, he has this crazy wingspan and could just go for the top. So even if we’re doing the same climb it looks completely different. 

That’s sort of how I look at any piece that I do. I can upcycle the same type of material in 100 different ways. It doesn’t look the same every time I use it. I actually upcycle my own work, over and over again, to prove to myself that I can create so many different things. It doesn’t just have to just be a shoe or a pair of shorts. So that’s probably the main thing. 

Another thing is I’m very competitive with myself. That’s something I’ve been owning a little bit more recently. I’m not necessarily competitive with other people. I’m very goal oriented because I find that that helps me achieve the things that I want to achieve. If this is a dream of mine, I want to be able to do that and I work towards it. With climbing, I have projects that I’m working on that I’m constantly coming back to. I’m even thinking about it when I’m not at the wall. I’ll go home and think about how I could go back to the gym, crag, or rock and figure out how to get there?

I think what’s so captivating about your work as an artist or designer is that you’re solving problems by breathing life into discarded materials. You dub yourself to be an “Industry Dumpster” because every brand from Hermes to Arc’teryx is asking “What can you do with our leftover materials?” What do you find to be the greatest rewards that come from being this designated problem-solver for major clothing brands?

It’s kind of a cool responsibility that I’ve sort of taken on. I like to be the person that people can rely on to put some use to this stuff. If anything, it’s just an opportunity for me to show everybody that there’s so much potential with all of it. The craziest thing to me is that all these brands are so willing to just throw it away or get rid of it.

Why? There’s literally so many things you could use this for. It just takes people too much time and resources to want to figure it out. So I like being that middleman. This liaison between these giant companies and the consumer or everyday person. I sit in this place between them where I have a good relationship with all these brands that feel comfortable approaching me to say “We don’t know what we’re doing with upcycling, can you help us?” But I’m also still able to be a consumer and be like “Shut up big brand, you’re ruining everything by mass producing stuff.”

So I consider it to be like the perfect spot and I’m grateful to have access to this material.

Something that I’ve been working really hard on is trying to connect the dots between these large companies with everyday people, consumers, and those looking to get into upcycling themselves. 

What are the challenges that come with being in that position as well?

I think it’s being able to also challenge these brands and feel like I’m making a difference. I also think a lot of people look at my work and don’t really get it. They’re like: “You’re not really changing anything, you’re making one-of-one pieces, that’s not making a difference.”

But a lot of the behind the scenes work that I do is taking that one-of-one piece and presenting it to a brand as a scalable project. Upcycling is possible at scale. It might not be the easiest, but there’s so much value left in the materials. Like you already spent the money, natural resources, and people’s time to create all this. Instead of throwing away all that effort, just look and position it in a different way. 

So with a lot of the work I do, the challenge I constantly face is how do you keep it sustainable? When upcycling at scale, you’re sending any material back to a factory to try to disassemble and reassemble it. So can we localize that? Can we find ways of doing things like a repair center? Arc’teryx is always the best example I can give for that. They have ReBird, where they have opportunities for you to bring a jacket back to a store to get a zipper replaced or a hole repaired. If it’s too far beyond repair, they’ll take the jacket back and they’ll give you a discount for a new jacket. They keep those materials and then that’s what I end up using. I take these returned products that can’t be re-used and find ways to work with them. Then they’ll produce small runs of 200 jackets where it’s completely made from reworked materials or we’ll use them for workshops.

Like there’s just so many opportunities for us to still use this stuff even if it’s too far gone to be used as a jacket. That’s where I think a lot of people get stuck. “Oh it’s a jacket, but it can’t function as one” Okay, so use it for something else. Let’s make a bag or hat out of it. It doesn’t have to stay as it originally was. 

The other day, I was digesting this interesting chart Virgil Abloh drew. It was basically outlining that working creatives cycle back and forth between being “Grassroots Creatives” and “Corporate Creatives.”  

That popped up in my head before speaking to you today because you started your career in the corporate world as a graphic designer for Reebok before going independent. Yet I see you still step back into a corporate setting through brand collaborations, most recently working with major footwear labels like Hoka, Vans, and Merrell. How do you balance being creative, making art/designs purely for yourself, and then aligning this distinct vision you have with these brands you collaborate with? 

I mean it’s not easy, but I do think that having that previous corporate experience has really given me the upper hand. I don’t want to credit it too much because I think there’s pros and cons from working in a corporation. But I don’t think I’d be able to do what I’m doing if I didn’t have that experience because it made me a smarter designer.

It made me understand how companies work and all the different jobs that are in a company. As a designer my job is focused on the creative part but it can’t just end there. I have to understand how this is going to be marketed. How, development wise, I could have the craziest and coolest idea but to make that in the factory would be a nightmare for someone to create. It would cost way too much money or not even be affordable. So you have to be able to wear all those hats and understand the whole process. So that’s step one for me, to tap back into that side of things. 

To be honest, the brands that I have partnered with are really open minded to my ideas and have always been down to try and figure things out. I don’t usually have to water down anything and that’s the coolest thing. Hoka is a great example where I created this multifunctional gaiter that sits on a running shoe. They’ve never made a gaiter before but were super down to figure it out. It was not an easy process, it took a long time to figure out, but it came out exactly how I envisioned it. It was even better than I imagined. So it’s great that brands are willing to work with me because they want what I do. They’re not trying to change the way I approach design.

In terms of the personal side of things, that’s still my priority. I cannot have brand collaborations unless I still take the time to create stuff on my own because that’s where I get my creative inspiration from. That’s how I try things out, see if it’s working or not, and try different avenues like furniture or homeware. 

I think that’s where creatives get stuck the most. They might give up that personal work, whether they’re in a company or working for themselves, because you become a part of the grind and forget why you started doing all this stuff. So I prioritize that a lot. I have a journal where I write at least three ideas every day. I’ve been doing that for a long time. A lot of them aren’t that good but it’s still just something, you know?

The few times I’ve seen you sell your art, outside of a commercial collaboration, is usually through raffles for charity. I’ve always found that super admirable. But I also understand that you raffle these pieces by nature of it being a 1-of-1 upcycled design. You might have touched upon this already but based on what you’ve seen within the industry, do you think it’s possible for companies to upcycle at scale. Or is it more so on us as individuals to think about the larger potential of their own personal waste? 

Upcycling is a complicated thing. I think an individual can make a lot of impact in that space. I think learning how to upcycle on your own, that’s more on the grassroots level that I’m trying to reach by holding upcycling workshops and teaching people how to sew.  

Even just making these pieces and posting them on the internet. It’s being a little bit vulnerable by showing my own growth when it comes to learning how to sew myself. That’s me inviting people into the conversation, inviting them to join me, and do this.

I think the upcycling at scale within companies is more like me trying to help problem solve. Like I created this as a one-on-one, so how can we maybe apply a similar method at scale? 

That’s why I don’t like having the thought process of the consumers being the ones responsible for this. I personally have a feeling of responsibility only because I really committed myself to this space. But we shouldn’t feel like we are the ones that need to be problem solving this.

We didn’t make all of this stuff. Yes, we bought it, but they’re the ones producing this at a huge mass level. The responsibility should really fall on them for them to at least figure out solutions for where we should put all this stuff and what to do with it. Because even when people are going to thrift stores and donating used items, those thrift stores are still overflowing. We just throw things out straight up. There’s better solutions for that so I’m hoping that more brands will take responsibility by implementing a “take back” program or repairs program. At least taking items back and getting it into people’s hands that really need it instead of just dumping it in countries that are overflowing with used goods specifically from the United States. But it all goes back to what I said before, which is the trials of localization. How do you keep a sustainable model? If you’re already shipping things all around the world is it even sustainable anymore? 

Do you see upcycling as an art movement? 

In a way I guess it’s an art movement but it’s sort of a necessary thing. I’m not saying this because I want to correct you or anything but I think I think a lot of people use the term “upcycling as a trend” whereas I feel like it shouldn’t be considered that. That’s because it’s almost like a necessary way of how we need to think moving forward. 

Like 20, 30 years ago, we had thrift stores but they weren’t bursting at the seams because consumerism is at an all time high. Today we have Amazon, Shein, Temu, and all these fast fashion sites. It’s a really bad thing because there’s just so much consumerism and people feel like they need to own so many things. In the past, that wasn’t really an option. So in the cyber day and age we’re left with all this stuff. So unless we find a better way of recycling it, upcycling has to be some part of our future because now we’re stuck with all of it. In terms of it being an art movement, I like that idea because it takes it out of the fashion space and puts it in a more general space. Clothes don’t have to just stay as clothes. It could be used for many different types of projects.

*Full article featured in Issue 6, Living Proof Magazine.

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