Natalie Berry speaks to New York-based designer, climber and upcycling pioneer Nicole McLaughlin about how climbing inspires her work, sustainability in outdoor fashion and how to get creative with what you already have in your gear cupboard...
When Nicole McLaughlin misjudged a dyno and fell onto her arm at her local bouldering gym in New York City, she quite literally took her injury recovery into her own hands: she stitched together a colourful patchwork of old The North Face jacket offcuts to form a sling. This creation is exemplar of McLaughlin's approach to design work, blending functionality with fashion and sustainability in a fun and experimental way - often sourcing second-hand materials from outdoor clothing and climbing gear. Shoes made with chalkbags, skirts stitched from fleeces, bras built from bumbags - not to mention Haribo shorts and a cereal packet puffer vest. Yes, you read that right.
"That was a bummer, I was pretty sad about it," McLaughlin laughs in a video call, remembering her bouldering mishap. "It was actually right before COVID-19 arrived. The boulder wasn't even too bad - there was one reach for me that was really far, so I thought if I dyno for it, it'd be better! No - it was like whipper of the week or something - I caught it with one arm and swung out before landing badly. But I made the best of it and used it as a project opportunity. I'm better now, and ready to climb!"
At just 27, McLaughlin's custom designs have been featured in global fashion media including Vogue, High Snobiety and Hypebeast amongst others, and her work is increasingly attracting major partnerships with brands such as Reebok, Adidas, Fila and Prada. What started out as a hobby to occupy her time and hands in the evenings following her working day as a graphic designer for Reebok has now - just two years after first posting a bespoke L.L. Bean slipper on Instagram - become her full-time occupation. "At Reebok, I was introduced to product and from there the world was opened up to me - I started to see how clothing and footwear was made," she explains. "I really got into materials as well as second-hand items, that's really where my upcycling journey started. It's been a crazy couple of years just learning and trying everything!" Today, McLaughlin trawls resell apps such as eBay, Depop and Poshmark to find her fabrics and transforms them into wearable, or sometimes downright whimsical, designs.
Although McLaughlin's 480K followers on Instagram might be aware of her tendency to plump for outdoorsy and sporty materials to work with, her personal interest in climbing is kept relatively low-key. A brief flash of a climbing wall in a Story and a wince-worthy, split-second clip of her fateful fall are the only clues suggesting that McLaughlin isn't just another designer in the fashion world grasping at our sport's aesthetic, but rather she's a keen climber herself - and climbing has greatly influenced her work. "People don't know that side of me," she says. Nonetheless, a wooden chair adorned with chalked climbing holds and a sneak-preview prototype of a Croc featuring a chalkbag bootie and complete with brush are enough to make it clear to the climbing community that she's a bona fide boulderer.
"I followed Nicole McLaughlin before I even realised that she climbed," GB pro climber and skilled craftsman himself, Jim Pope, shared in a message. "From sewing and making a few things myself, I really appreciate the time and skill going into each piece, as well as the creativity in upcycling random products and clothing to make what she does."
Although she didn't climb in her youth, McLaughlin was nonetheless active and outdoorsy. "I was always pretty fearless when snowboarding and doing other sports outside," McLaughlin explains. "It was only about four years ago that I started to climb and I really loved it for the challenge and self-fulfilment it gave me. Climbing has been such a huge part of my life and it's also influenced a lot of my design decisions." Since moving from Boston - where she would hike and climb near Maine and Vermont - to New York, McLaughlin's outdoor forays have become more limited. When she's not in her Brooklyn-based studio, she can be found at the indoor bouldering wall or in NYC's famous Central Park boulders."It's a really nice pocket of nature in the midst of complete chaos, which I love," she explains. "It's so much fun, it's a nice community and everyone brings mats and food and we hang out and climb. I'm taking the time to get good at bouldering before trying anything more challenging!"
While McLaughlin's designs featuring popular outdoor brands such as The North Face, Arc'teryx and Patagonia will appeal to climbers and the fashion-conscious, it's primarily her zanier wearable creations involving foodstuffs, household objects and her complete subversion of these objects' original purpose that have made her a viral Instagram artist. "I love to make things that are so crazy, like too hyperfunctional, so much so that probably in theory it wouldn't work." she says. "There are definitely some pieces I make knowing it will only last for the photo and it's really just to get you thinking. If anything, I hope to inspire other designers to make something more functional and at least give them inspiration when it comes to the material or the colour. That's really what I consider when I make those wild projects, but I try to have a balance."
The fragments of fleeces, offcuts of Gore-Tex and haberdashery of zips, cord and carabiners are both familiar and ideal materials for McLaughlin. "I love technical garments and any type of sportswear or gear because of the practical and utilitarian aspect of it," she says. "It's really important to me to have functional clothing, so that's why I tend to use these items to make hyperfunctional projects. Some of those materials aren't usually used for clothing or footwear, so when you create those pieces you start to see a whole other world - puffer or Ripstop on slippers or items that wouldn't normally expect to see it on. Climbing gear also has quite a lot of options when it comes to clips and attachments and pullers - it just coincides with what you wear."
Indeed, it's not just outdoor clothing that McLaughlin works into her creations. "I actually use chalkbags quite a lot in projects. Climbing really inspired my upcoming Crocs shoes because I use the chalkbag as a bootie within the Crocs!" she explains. In many of her projects, climbing gear quite literally makes up the bells and whistles. "I use carabiners and ropes are always something I try to consider. I made a shoe last year using a Fila outdoor bag that had a compass on it and a whistle, so I was really channelling the survivor vibe which you definitely see in a lot of my projects." The bold aesthetic of climbing hardware is an added bonus for McLaughlin. "The colours are always so bright and considered and I love using it because everything I make with it pops out." she says.
McLaughlin adds that a lot of outdoor wear can be sourced second-hand, especially jackets. "There's just so much to work with on a jacket!" she enthuses. In a world where fast fashion is trending and there are currently enough garments in existence to clothe the next six generations of the human race, McLaughlin's focus on reducing, reusing and recycling items is a refreshing and worthy cause. Given the complexity of recycling textiles, reselling, upcycling and repurposing are becoming increasingly popular, helped by current initiatives such as Oxfam's Second Hand September.
"I try to design smart, really create things well and think about all the details of the functionality and aesthetics," McLaughlin explains, "but I'd say sustainability and upcycling are definitely at the forefront because there are so many materials that we can take from that are already out there - we don't need to create anything new at this point, there's already so much." It's a mindset that McLaughlin has perceived as existing within the climbing industry. "You really work with what you have and climbers are just like 'This is my outfit, I only have a couple of outfits to climb in.' You make it work with what you have and patch it up if it gets old - I love that mindset!" she says. "When you go back and learn about the history of climbing and learn about the dirtbag climbers, they were living out of vans and their lives were dedicated to climbing and just generally being resourceful." But that's not to say that modern climbers haven't been roped-in to the fast fashion and consumerism craze. "There's definitely a new wave of climbers, too," McLaughlin admits. "I love Arc'teryx and having the newest stuff - it can be an expensive sport! But I try to focus on what I really need and if I can make it work using second hand stuff. I don't tend to buy my shoes second hand, but everything else I'm usually OK with!" she adds.
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Through her work within the hustle and bustle of the fashion industry, McLaughlin remarks that outdoor companies are leading the way in sustainable fashion. "I definitely see them as being a pioneer when it comes to sustainability. Patagonia and The North Face both have take-back programmes for reuse - they'll patch it up if there's a hole or if it's too damaged they'll break it down and find another use for it," she explains. "I think they're setting such a good example for the rest of the fashion space. It's the mindset that everyone should have - just because it has a stain or a hole doesn't mean it's trash." In the US, some retailers resell second-hand items, McLaughlin says. "I see preloved clothing and equipment on REI and other websites - sleeping bags, tents, etc. - those are all things that could be made with recyclable materials and patched up and reworked. I think there's so much more to be done, but this space has made a great start."
The influence of outdoor brands and the adventure aesthetic on high street and designer fashion isn't limited to sustainability, however. In recent years, the increasing emergence of climbing-related clothing and accessories in the collections of high-end fashion houses and the adoption of technical clothing more suited to high summits than the high street has been noticeable. Louis Vuitton chalkbags have a price tag of £1,020 (or £1,300 in black). Ralph Lauren stamp 'CLIMB' and 'ALPINE' on retro pieces. Prada dabbles in technical fabrics. Elsewhere, 18 karat gold diamond-encrusted carabiners sell for $18,000. In streetwear, the trend even has a term: gorpcore, while a broader word to describe a general dressing-down in work and play has resulted in the portmanteau athleisure.
For McLaughlin, the overlap between her work and this trend was a happy accident: she didn't intentionally jump on this fashion bandwagon, rather it's always been a part of her life. "I definitely feel like the fashion space has picked up on this trend! I see it a lot on mood boards," she reveals. "I've always had it in my life as a functional element, so it's maybe the vibe, the colours they're gravitating towards and also once they use those 'biners for the functionality they're like, 'Oh that makes sense!' and build a trend. It's been around for a while and for some people it's just the way that they dress. It's not a trend to them. It's become more popular because of Instagram making it more curated and accessible for people to gain inspiration."
The obsession might also hinge on an aspiration to present an adventurous, or environmentally-conscious persona, McLaughlin posits. "Everyone wants to be that outdoorsy, at-one-with-nature person - especially if you're in a city, you maybe don't have access to the outdoors, so people pick it up through social media," she says. "I hope it does encourage people to get outdoors and they're not just jumping on the trend for a fashion statement!"
A clear pattern throughout McLaughlin's collection is logo repetition: she doesn't shy away from placing brands front and centre, or sometimes all over. "I think it partly comes from being a graphic designer in my past job," she explains. "Branding identity and logo placement is something I definitely gravitate towards, but it's more a feeling of nostalgia I'd say, so the outdoor brands that I choose - Patagonia or Columbia or The North Face - those are the brands that my mom would dress me in with big jackets and puffy cocoons when I was younger, so I always like to tap into that nostalgia for things that we've owned and had strong experiences with. I pick brands that I have some connection to and I assume that someone else out there might have one as well."
Not all of McLaughlin's work is clothing or footwear-focused. As the daughter of an interior designer, she seemingly has a keen eye for her surroundings and draws inspiration for furniture designs, too. Enter the climbing hold chair, complete with a smattering of chalk, the product of an unusual restaurant encounter. "I was on a design trip and we ate at a restaurant and the owner was into climbing," McLaughlin takes up the story. "It was a very fancy restaurant, but in a cocktail area he had a bouldering wall in the space where you would sit and have a drink. I thought it was so funny - it's so integrated into this space where you're hanging out having a drink and having a conversation. I'm thinking about the wood chair and the wooden wall and I was like...'Why not just put holds on the chair!' It really just spoke to me and it was right in front of my face."
It might not rank amongst the most practical items of McLaughlin's work, but the chair was enough to attract almost 30,000 likes and got people talking. "Of course, as with everything I make, I had to try it out and see how would it feel if I actually walked on it or sat on it," she laughs. "It felt more like a massage chair - if you moved around on it it would get a knot out of your back!" Upholstery - be it with down jackets, fleeces, shoe uppers, or plastic bottles - is another skill that she can turn her hand to in myriad ways.
McLaughlin's upcoming first official footwear collaboration with Crocs will be a major career highpoint and one which climbers might have their eye on. "I'm excited as they have lots of features and each one is unique." McLaughlin holds up the prototype to the camera. "It has a light, a pocket - I tried to consider how much I could put on the shoe that's functional and the opposite shoe has more stuff on it as well."
While McLaughlin clearly has a knack for repurposing technical materials and accessories, she is equally adept at recognising material properties of more mundane, everyday objects and incorporating them into a functional item. "When I made the oven mitt jacket I was thinking 'Oh it would be flame retardant!' and 'It'd be pretty warm if you created that!'" she explains. "It took a while to make because I had to collect all the used oven mitts. It's another item that once people are done with it, if it's gross they throw it away. I do try to think about the material and ask: if it was taken out of the original context and put in something else, would it function, would it actually keep you warm? It definitely did." Some creations are more ephemeral in nature. "There are other things I've done out of paper and napkins that'll last a little while maybe, but if you seriously wore it..." McLaughlin looks out the window at the rain and wind battering her Brooklyn studio. "On a day like today....nope!" she laughs.
Food in all its forms has featured in some of McLaughlin's most appetising designs. Her waffle vest, popcorn gilet, cupcake sandal, sushi shoe (shoeshi) and croissant bra have all turned heads. "I often use snacks and different foods," she says. "I try to make it something functional - grab a gummy bear on the go, or whatever it is."
McLaughlin's experimentation with climbing gear still has room to grow. Harnesses are her next adventure. 'I've been looking at a tonne on eBay - they're really, really interesting," she says. "I've been thinking of using them as a bag. They have so many ideal places to put clips on, so just taking ten or twenty of them and sewing them together to have so many loops would be fun. They come in all different colours and the materials and attachments are perfect for me, but they're quite expensive, even second hand."
As a designer, McLaughlin is constantly thinking about improving and upgrading existing items. Having successfully dabbled in footwear - from sneakers to slippers to Crocs - climbing shoes, McLaughlin reveals, are something she'd like to rework. "I've been talking with a couple of companies to see if we could revolutionise the climbing shoe in any way," she says. "It's a really interesting process because with the traditional shoe there is a last, so the shape of the shoe is created based upon the last, but with a climbing shoe it's actually inverted - so that's how you get the pointed toe shape to have better grip. Of course, there's also the rubber type to consider."
McLaughlin knows that the climbing shoe has made it to the point at which it is because of these needs, but as a designer, she often feels there are things that could be pushed or improved upon. "I always try to consider when I'm climbing if there is something about the gear that I'm using that could work better," she says. "I think 'Oh, if it had another pull tab on the side, that could make it easier!' I love to ask friends too, 'What's your biggest issue with the gear that you use?' It tends to be shoe tightness, but it's really what you need. I'm definitely open to improving designs and talking to brands."
Slippers feature prominently in McLaughlin's portfolio and - once again - climbing was a catalyst for creation. "After climbing, I always want to put on something that's comfy, so the slippers really came from having so many in my house as it was my go-to after climbing," she explains. "I'm like, I'm not going to put sneakers on now - I want to put on something that's relaxing! So that's where I got the shape from. I was inspired by The North Face's Thermoball slipper. I love that design, so that idea of comfiness and leisure has inspired a lot of my work."
With her sizeable social media platform, McLaughlin aims to do more than just simply accumulate likes and promote her work. She regularly auctions bespoke pieces for charitable causes, one of which recently raised over $18,000 in just a couple of days. "I really think that I have such a perfect opportunity to reach so many different people with my work: it's not just designers, it's not just climbers - there are so many people who can see it and I really try to use that as an opportunity to share things that I'm passionate about," she says. McLaughlin places special emphasis on the deaf community and getting people into the outdoors. "People always love the items that use outdoor materials in my auctions. I love that it gives me an opportunity to get products in people's hands because I'm not a factory, I'm not out here making tonnes and tonnes of stuff, so it's just a nice feeling to give people these pieces and raise awareness and money for different organisations," she explains.
Having no formal training, McLaughlin was a self-professed newbie when it came to garment assembly and seamstress skills for creating her first items just a few years ago. "I started by just hot-gluing and stapling clothes together. I would hand sew garments until I learned to use machines, which really cut my time in half when making pieces! It really was just trial and error, getting advice and opinions from people," she says. Today, McLaughlin runs workshops teaching design and construction skills to budding upcyclers. "Being mindful of the things that you own and the purchases you've made in your life and finding ways to give it longevity is key," she says. "You don't have to be a designer or be able to sew perfectly to find another use - there are so many unique ways that you can use these pieces that you probably already have right next to you in your house! That's really what I try to do in my workshops, teach people skills to show them 'You can do this too, this is possible!'"
Learning to look at objects from new perspectives comes with practice, McLaughlin explains. "The more you do it, the more you start to see things differently," she says. "The more you use items you have in your closet that you otherwise might donate or throw away, hopefully you can look at them in a different way and think 'OK, this jacket could be a bag, it could be a shoe, or it could be x number of things and you really start to see the beauty in all of those ideas."
With COVID-19 stitching-up some work and climbing plans so far this year, McLaughlin is looking forward to upcoming collaborations, installations and workshops. A home climbing wall is also in the pipeline, and maybe a climbing holiday. "I'm definitely trying to arrange a rock trip, obviously," she says. "All the gyms have been closed here, but I'm actually in the process of getting a home board in the works. I'm trying to get a board that can be deconstructed, put up and put down as and when to continue building strength, because with my injury and then with the coronavirus I've been out for quite a while!"
Given her talent and passion for both designing and climbing, there's space yet for more crossover between the two in McLaughlin's work. If nothing else, her approach to repurposing old rope, dusty chalkbags and duct-taped down jackets might spark some more considered purchases and interesting creations from the climbing community. After all, it's Second Hand September, and The Great British Sewing Bee is inspiring people to pick up needle and thread. Why not get scavenging for scraps and see if you can turn old climbing rags into riches?
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