Images courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

meet the designer behind these bizarre sustainable shoes

Nicole McLaughlin will make you rethink your basic summer slides.

by Laura Pitcher
08 May 2019, 4:17pm

Images courtesy of Nicole McLaughlin.

If there are two things that designer Nicole McLaughlin has always been good at, it’s sports and side projects. With those two passions, the 25-year-old has built a cult following for her upcycled clothing and shoe creations while working as a designer for Reebok full-time.

McLaughlin’s background is somewhat unconventional. Her parents are both artistic and always encouraged her to draw and create as a child, but art eventually took the back seat to her passion for sign language.

“At around age 15, I started dating a guy who was deaf, but I knew no sign language so I had to learn it,” she says. “It was an interesting time in my life because I discovered it was a more artistic language and I chose where to go to school because of that.”

After school, McLaughlin went on to study speech pathology at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. She soon realized that her degree was more about neurology and phonetics than an exploration of the “more artistic language” and decided to pursue design. She entered East Stroudsburg University’s small program for general media studies.


“That was probably the best decision I have made because, since it wasn’t an art school, I would use the time and the equipment that I had to do personal projects on the weekends and at night,” she explains.

These projects began as graphic design and photography manipulation until she started looking for an apprenticeship that would combine her design skills with her passion for sports. That led her to Reebok.

“I was very active and was always going to lacrosse and running, so I applied for a year-long internship with Reebok, but didn’t think I’d get it because I wasn’t in art school,” she says.

McLaughlin was hired by Reebok right before her graduation, moved to Boston and has been working there ever since. While interning, McLaughlin was eager to learn as many skills as possible and saw the apparel industry was a “whole new world.”

“I didn’t even know what 'Hypebeast' was,” she explains. “I had to learn about footwear and apparel, construction and patterns, and then the marketing part of it. I stayed in University mode and spent lots of late nights learning.” Her internship soon became a full-time graphic design position.


This passion for learning followed her home into the weekends and weeknights, as she taught herself to sew and started the beginning stages of her upcycled clothing project. While the designs repurpose old and unused items for a new purpose, sustainability wasn’t at the front of her mind when she first started creating.

“I think the best part is that I didn’t even know that I was being sustainable, I was just finding old clothes because they were cheaper and because then I felt less bad about cutting them up,” she says. “People often think that sustainable solutions have to look a certain way and to be able to change people's minds and show people that these things can look interesting has been so cool.”

McLaughlin’s designs are clearly humorous, often reshaping strange sporting equipment into the shape of a shoe or repurposing old Haribo gummy wrappers. This is something she’s intentional with, wanting to poke fun at how serious major fashion brands take themselves. She explains that she often starts to create a shoe and it turns into pants, or the other way around.

As her side-project designs develop, Reebok has been supportive of her personal creativity. Last year, McLaughlin was involved in a three-month design residency with Adidas (who owns the Rebook brand).

It was through this program that she began to design every day, and post to social media. She quickly and, to her, unexpectedly gained a large social following and has made sure to keep the momentum ever since. She also hints at more opportunities for her to bring in elements of her personal work to Reebok, hoping to encourage the large brand, and the industry as a whole, to think of interesting sustainable solutions.

McLaughlin’s designs are currently not for sale, wanting to take a stand that “not everything you see on Instagram you need to own.” Keeping them as more of an art form, she is open to collaborations in the future, but never sees it being her own “brand.”


She also rarely wears her own designs, both personal and for Reebok, beyond taking a photo of them. In fact, most of her upcycled designs will then be taken apart and upcycled again into something completely different, in keeping with her newfound passion for sustainable fashion.

“People may think that working for a corporation is a conflict of interest for someone who preaches sustainability,” she says. “But actually people with these mindsets are supposed to be in these types of places to try to help change things”.