Nicole McLaughlin on Her Journey from Reebok to Becoming a Major Name in Sustainable Fashion

Nicole McLaughlin’s journey through footwear is an atypical one, to say the least. Without a background in footwear, the 26-year-old artist landed an internship at Reebok during her college days. A year later, the company hired her as a graphic designer. Although her efforts inside the brand’s Boston headquarters, such as working on the acclaimed “Scribbled” Vetements Instapump Fury, were gaining traction, it was her upcycling-focused design passion outside of the office that made her attractive to a broader audience.

“I was working full-time [at Reebok] and at night I would go home and practice hand-sewing, I was gluing things, just to see what it would look like,” McLaughlin said. “I started to put things on Instagram and was consistent about it. I was coming up with stuff pretty much every day and that started to take off. My following started to grow.”

Her notoriety led to several opportunities outside of Reebok, including speaking at workshops and panels, sharing her approach to upcycling and sustainable fashion. But having essentially two careers became too much to handle.

“I was still working at Reebok and did it up until I physically couldn’t anymore,” she said. “I was not sleeping, so I had to make a choice and I ended up leaving my full-time job to pursue [my own business].”

Today, McLaughlin is a mainstay at panels worldwide and is hired by top brands in the industry, including Puma and Adidas, to host design workshops. Also, she collaborated with Foot Locker for its new Greenhouse incubator program in September. And despite not being employed by Reebok anymore, she still works with the brand.

In early September, McLaughlin and Reebok collaborated on a 17-piece upcycled collection that was available via online raffle and at the brand’s Union Square NYC store.

Here, the artist breaks down her creative process and what inspires her, and she provides a glimpse into her personal footwear collection.

Nicole McLaughlin
A boot designed by Nicole McLaughlin.
CREDIT: Nicole McLaughlin

Education

East Stroudsburg University. McLaughlin originally studied speech language pathology before finding a creative outlet in photography, followed by an internship at Reebok.

Ongoing Projects

Working with the Montreal-based store Ssense, she did branded design panels and magazine editorials.

Current Role

“I just say I’m a designer-artist. I technically have a brand now, Nicole McLaughlin LLC — that’s my true business title. But I don’t like to look at myself as a creative director or a brand owner. I’m just a creative trying to figure things out.”

Creative Process

“It’s more of a sculpting process than traditional shoe creation. A huge part is taking things apart and using those for different projects. I’ll take a jacket and work it onto my foot or someone else’s foot — I don’t use lasts — and sculpt as I go, creating my pattern from there, pinning it where I like. All the soles I use are secondhand. I take them off existing shoes and use the uppers for other things.”

Nicole McLaughlin
A tennis ball shoe created by Nicole McLaughlin.
CREDIT: Nicole McLaughlin

Mentors

“I was the first person from Reebok to work at the [Adidas] Brooklyn Farm, and I worked with John Khalife. He taught me footwear from a more technical standpoint, about materials and tooling. That’s when I created a footwear tech pack for the first time. And I reach out to friends like [designer] Daniel Bailey and Jeff Staple. Also, I’m in the Jim’s Web mentorship program.”

Breakthrough Design

The “Scribbled” Reebok x Vetements Instapump Fury

Shoes I Wear

“Salomons that are more like a hiking silhouette, the Merrell Hydro Moc and these National Geographic shoes pretty much on the daily. [Also] anything thrifted. I’ll wear Nike ACGs but from the ’90s or 2000s, and if the sole starts to crumble, I’ll re-sole them.”

Want more?

Exclusive: Ronnie Fieg Gets Candid About Kith’s Rise, Critics Who Don’t Understand Him & Pressures of Staying on Top

How John Geiger Plans to Expand His Rapidly Growing Business Beyond High-End Sneakers

Diversity & Inclusion in the Sneaker Industry: Insiders Talk What’s Working and the Difficult Road Ahead

Watch on FN

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content