Remix and Repair: Sustainable Fashion’s New Aesthetic

As the second most polluting sector in the world, the fashion industry – especially when driven by fast fashion’s dominant business model - is still a long way from implementing durable, efficient solutions, but new forms of consciousness are guiding upcoming designers. While large and indie labels alike are stepping up their sustainability initiatives, a wave of young emerging designers are exploring innovative and resourceful ways to rethink fashion.

Nicole McLaughlin - who until not long ago worked as a graphic designer for Reebok - has become an important figure in upcycling, developing a unique design ethos of garment reconstruction, almost by chance. “While I was at Reebok, I was surrounded by samples and materials, ‘old’ product that was often discarded,” she explained. “I thought, ‘If it was just going to get thrown away then why couldn’t I use it?’ So, I began to cut up shoe samples and would try to put them back together. It was then when I started to see things I’d never really see before.”

Unlike many of her industry’s peers, who received training and guidance, McLaughlin learns new techniques and discovers new materials as she goes, growing her skill set to match her creative ambition. “When I started making these pieces, I didn’t know how to properly construct them,” she admitted. “My background is not in fashion or industrial design. I was just looking at the shapes of product. I started making things by essentially sculpting it with glue, tape, and staples. The more I sculpted these products, I taught myself to hand sew, and then to use sewing machines.”

The originality of her work garnered plenty of attention, almost from the onset. Since posting her first custom piece - a slipper made from an L.L. Bean fleece - on Instagram a few summers ago, the designer has been garnering a strong following both on social media and within the industry. While creating her own bespoke upcycled pieces, which range from slippers made with tennis balls to a carry-on structured with shoe scraps and a bra constructed using camera cases, she's also published a book of her work (a second one is already in the making) and collaborated with numerous brands including Adidas, Open Ceremony, Puma, Foot Locker and Reebok.

One of her latest projects was with SSENSE, a Montreal based e-commerce and brick-and-mortar luxury retailer. "It was me and four other creatives from different disciplines, in a room uninterrupted by phones for 24 hours straight," she explained. "We were there to create whatever we wanted within the time allotted. It was to display the Bottega Veneta collection, so we were all styled so nicely. It was such an amazing project." As far as what lies ahead, the New York-based designer intends to experiment with varying formats. “In the future I would love to expand more into furniture and larger scale items, so I’m looking for the right partners for this. The exciting thing about what I am doing is that it can be applied in so many ways.”

Part of a younger generation of impromptu, self-taught creatives, much of her work lies somewhere in between art and design, between artifacts and products. “The line between art and fashion is blurred to me. Even though I make fashion items, I don’t see it as a fashion brand,” she clarified. “I think it’s great that we don’t need to classify designers as ‘artists’ or ‘fashion designers' nowadays. If I am able to sell ready to wear one day, I could, but if I want to make one-off pieces, I could do that too. Even though I don’t wear every piece, functionality is very important to me, so I always consider if it is possible to wear or use when making something.”

McLaughlin is quickly becoming somewhat of an ambassador for this new sustainability trend, periodically speaking at workshops and panels about her upcycling approach. “I love that my projects are upcycled materials because I’ve been able to change the minds of so many who doubted the longevity or versatility of these items”, she said. “These sustainable concepts help generate ideas and conversations around the future of sustainability. We need everyone to step up contribute, especially in the fashion industry. Although I didn’t start with the goal of becoming a sustainable designer, now I couldn’t see it any other way and I am so excited to be a part of the sustainability effort.”

According to the World Economic Forum, an astonishing 150 billion new pieces of clothing are made annually and we’re a long way from being able to recycle or upcycle most of it. Still, no effort is in vain and McLaughlin remains hopeful. “Even though current business and production models in place are conducive for a rough road ahead, I always will remain optimistic about this. As consumers, the more pressure we can put on big corporations, the faster change will happen. In this sense, we are all accountable for what comes next.” 

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