Nicole McLaughlin Wants to Talk About Responsible Design

Teaming with Allbirds and Chinatown Market, the in-demand artist debuts a collection of upcycled accessories that aims to teach rising creatives how to move the needle in sustainable design.

When Nicole McLaughlin was working as a graphic designer for Reebok, her office teemed with fabric samples that were free for the taking. At the same time, she was rediscovering vintage sportswear from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and itched to see if she could create her own articles of clothing sustainably from scrap materials. “I started doing a lot of research, and naturally found myself trying to construct products in the rawest form,” she tells Teen Vogue, “like stapling things and just kind of figuring it out from there.” 

Fast forward a couple years, and McLaughlin has established herself as an emerging force that’s helping steer conversations around sustainable fashion. Her eye-catching creations, which exclusively feature upcycled fabrics and materials, often make clever use of everyday objects and brand iconography. After she found an entire box of vehicle air fresheners, she stitched together the unopened packets to create a pair of shorts that replicates an all-over print; she also repurposed ice cube trays, egg cartons, and bags of Haribo gummies into straps for sandals that riff on Reebok’s recognizable silhouettes. Not only have they propelled McLaughlin into an overnight Instagram sensation, they afforded her the courage to quit her day job and try her hand as an independent artist, with fruitful results: Prada, Puma, and Opening Ceremony have all since tapped her for high-profile projects.

McLaughlin’s playful yet forward-thinking approach to upcycled fashion makes her an ideal collaborator for the sustainable footwear brand Allbirds, which has joined forces with the irreverent L.A. streetwear studio Chinatown Market to educate up-and-coming creatives about responsible design practices. The two brands enlisted her to create a one-of-a-kind collection of original upcycled accessories that incorporate scrap materials from Allbirds sneakers, which make use of a revolutionary fabric sourced from New Zealand’s abundance of merino wool. Consisting of slippers, a vest, handbags, and even a lawn chair, the collection feels true to form for McLaughlin, yet abounds with the plush textures that have helped propel Allbirds to popularity among those seeking lightweight, unfussy alternatives to athletic footwear. 

McLaughlin was aware of Allbirds long before working together, but wasn’t entirely versed in the brand’s commitment to sustainability until listening to co-founder Tim Brown speak on Jeff Staple’s Business of HYPE podcast for Hypebeast. She was immediately drawn to Brown’s driving ethos of carbon reduction, which ventures far beyond a simple mission statement. “When it comes to sustainability, people get stuck on the word rather than the action required to achieve it,” she says, noting that Allbirds “focuses on making products sustainably by challenging and changing the way they problem-solve.” 

Speaking of taking action, the collection also benefits two causes close to the hearts of McLaughlin, Allbirds, and Chinatown Market. On August 7, each piece will be auctioned on the latter’s website with all proceeds benefiting The Okra Project, which provides healthy, home-cooked meals to the Black Trans community, and Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group that advocates for political action on climate change. 

Following the auction kickoff, the partnership between Allbirds and Chinatown Market will continue with the launch of a five-episode IGTV series, live-streamed by both brands, that will feature renowned creatives leading digital sessions on sustainable design and DIY methods. At the end of the series, viewers can submit their own projects for the chance to win a two-week digital mentorship with the Allbirds and Chinatown Market teams, getting a crash course on sustainable practices and gaining access to each brand’s materials, sustainability teams, and executive leadership. McLaughlin will lead the first session, which is slated to launch after the auction. 

For McLaughlin, finding ways to engage the community (beyond sharing viral images on Instagram) helps fuel her creativity. Workshops and panels are her favorite: “There aren’t enough resources available to those who want to learn more and do more around sustainability,” she says. “I hope this Instagram Live series continues to build and give back to those hungry for change,” whether it’s through free classes, access to materials, or a guided mentorship. “With sustainability being such a buzzword nowadays, the conversations around it and waste seem to stop short of long-term actions and goals, and more on ‘greenwashing.’ We need to shift gears and align our practices to what is genuinely going to move the needle and go from there.” 

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