Make Do: Nicole McLaughlin’s Movement For Circularity
A friend slid into my DMs with a few of Nicole McLaughlin’s crafty and practical inventions, and we were instantly in love: Sharpie earrings, bread mittens, practical high heels with a built-in lint roller, a beanie made of tennis balls—the artist’s concoctions combine humor, fashion, and above all else, a lucid and lively plea for sustainability. Describing her practice, McLaughlin has a sourcing strategy: “Making do with what we have.”
While a Carhartt-head or Gorp-core fan might covet her work’s singularity, McLaughlin is not focused on fashion but concerned with exploring industrial paradigm shifts. The broader field wants more, with her collaborative energy in high-demand by the brands indoctrinated in the very systems she critiques. These opportunities already demonstrate the changes she seeks. You may be surprised to learn that some of her creations are made of food, which afterwards, conscientious to the core, she enjoys as a doubly sustaining meal.
Kristin Farr: How do you categorize your work?
Nicole McLaughlin: My work sits somewhere between design and art, but it's mainly a vehicle used to push forward a message around sustainability and upcycling.
I was marveling at your Crocs collab, and then suddenly, you were working with Hermès. Tell me about your recent brand collaborations.
They range from brand partnerships to social media, magazines, to charities. I recently did an auction to raise money for Women Win and have one upcoming with JanSport to benefit the Slow Factory Foundation.
What’s been the most thrilling dead stock material to work with?
I'm currently collecting mini display tents, and I'm obsessed.
Tell me about your workshops and movement for sustainability.
Workshops are not only vital to help raise awareness around sustainability, they’re also my passion. I can't wait to be able to travel safely and start doing them again.
What are your thoughts on how to change the future?
Every little step does matter. It's just about getting everyone to take that first step.
How did you engage with apparel and accessories as a kid?
I wasn't a sneakerhead growing up. I was more focused on the outdoors, activities, tinkering, and objects. My grandpa was an engineer, my mom is an interior designer, and my dad is a carpenter. They nurtured a greater understanding and appreciation for making, so, in turn, such objects grew into what you see now.
The time I spent in my grandfather's workshop, tinkering away, laid the foundation for who I am today. It was the freedom and trust he gave me to make and explore that has helped me keep that childlike sense of wonder that I still possess.
Do you consider the mass-production of any of your pieces?
Mass production is tricky. I think any brand that is sustainable or trying to be sustainable struggles with numbers, production, manufacturing, resources, etc. My focus is on researching and trying to find solutions to work with what we have.
Did the time spent at home during the pandemic affect your process in significant ways (besides incorporating sanitizer?)
It made me more resourceful and reaffirmed my belief that I could make do with what I have.
What kind of production tools do you work with?
I have a JUKI sewing machine, Global Industrial machines, a flatbed, a surger, and a lot of other things. But sometimes, I go back to where it all started—with my hot glue gun and X-Acto knife.
What’s your favorite snack?
Smart Foods White Cheddar Popcorn.
I saw the binder of sauce packets you referenced to make the condiment shorts. Tell me more about your laboratory research tools.
I get ideas from what I have. I'm fortunate to have a materials library, but I think anyone can relate when it comes to sauce packets. They've become a staple during the pandemic.
Are you your own model?
I am, but that's because I work alone. However, I rarely show my face; the focus should always be the work.
What’s your theme song for 2021 so far?
I've been listening to Dance Gavin Dance's discography. They help keep the energy levels up.
Why is humor important in life?
Humor is essential. It makes things easier to digest and is a great icebreaker when delving deeper into more serious topics, like sustainability, upcycling, and waste.
Are there brands you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
I'm open to working within any industry. My goal is about circularity, and that's something all fields could benefit from.
What are the steps needed to achieve circularity, and how do you build it into your process?
The first step to working towards circularity is the understanding that it's not easy to achieve. It requires constant researching, resources, patience, and perseverance. However, a good first step is to be aware of your consuming habits. It's about what you think you need versus what you have, and how to maximize the latter.
My upcycling process focuses on creating circularity. I try to avoid using new materials and focus on what’s available, and create from there. I don't have to look hard for materials because what I use is often readily discarded.
What concerns you most about the lack of sustainability, and how do you suggest people shift their everyday patterns?
I think the main concern is the amount of waste that is still being generated and how little change is actually being implemented, knowing how rapidly climate change is happening. When it comes to consumption patterns, those habits are incredibly difficult to break. You have to start small and work your way up.
We need to address the unwillingness of a lot of brands that do not speak up about sustainability. Even when they're trying to do something positive, like an eco-friendly capsule collection, they avoid making it a more significant talking point as a means of shying away from the accountability to do more within that space. But they don't realize that these are the small steps we need to achieve a better future. In these instances, I hope they understand that optimism is vital. You have to have hope in what you do and what you see, and the actions you take to achieve change.
What has been your most ambitious or precarious project?
The bread vest, for instance, required a lot of work. Food projects are often tricky. They have to be assembled such that I can eat them afterward, so I don't use glue. And sometimes they can take a long time to construct. I think people underestimate how much time goes into each piece.
Do you keep all of your creations in an archive, or recycle them for new work?
I have a few pieces that I've kept to archive, but most of my work is deconstructed almost the next day to use the materials on other projects.
Have you worn any of your inventions in a practical way?
I've worn some of them, but I'm pretty low-key when it comes to fashion.
Do you make objects for your own house?
I do make pieces to use at home, mostly furniture.
This interview was originally published in the Summer 2021 Quarterly edition // Nicolemclaughlin.com