Upcycling as a medium for sustainability, a vessel for reform. Nicole McLaughlin and SUFE Fund showcase divergent goals through a common lens
Drawing on her time spent outdoors while growing up in New Jersey and playing lacrosse during her university years, she started fabricating goods out of sports equipment, including a pair of Winston tennis ball slippers. «Sportswear brands. There’s a level of nostalgia when you’re working with an item with a strong visual identity like a tennis ball. It has a specific use. The tennis shoe ball is recognizable because the color and materials remain faithful to the source. The goal here is to change how you approach pieces that many deem to have one purpose».
During her time at Reebok and Adidas Brooklyn Farm, the designer McLaughlin spent hours assembling and disassembling products. Scrutinizing the component elements needed to create a pair of shoes, she developed a desire to create her own items. There was a financial incentive behind her choice. «When I started making, I bought used items because they were cheaper. I upcycled them as a cost-saving measure. It pushed me to maximize what little I had, which is what I still do to this day». With the technical and fabrication skills accumulated through her employment at Reebok, McLaughlin began creating prototype garments and posting them online.
In her first creation, she used tissue paper used to package goods at Dover Street Market to create a shirt. A conceptual garment, too delicate to wear, the shirt represented McLaughlin’s confrontation with the limitations of common objects. «Upcycling is about potential: the ability to see beyond what we deem an item to be and see what it can become».
Sustainability starting from the design process
McLaughlin uses myriad materials to create upcycled garments: Adidas sweatbands, Carhartt beanies, badminton shuttlecocks. «I find most of my materials at second-hand stores and searching on eBay for used pieces. When it comes to fabrication, I use a mix of traditional and unconventional techniques ». The life of these objects is sometimes as brief as a day. Their existance is long enough to take a photo before they are deconstructed to make something new. When asked to classify her creations as either art or product, she hesitates. «There isn’t a box to put them in. My goal is to create change through what I make in a fun and digestible way. We all need to shift our perspectives around waste. We need action».
Leaving Reebok in 2019, McLaughlin’s transformed her experimental side project into a full-time business. Using the attention generated from her unique pieces, she is creating a practice for reducing the waste reduction in the fashion industry. «Nowadays, I get excess materials from brands to help them re-approach sustainability and upcycling from a design process». McLaughlin launched a capsule collection with Crocs in October of this year.
DJ4Animals approaches upcycling «to create a brand that has a clear message and uses these materials for inclusion, to put design into public service. My collection leverages design to promote civic engagement amongst the youth and streetwear community to try to bring something wholesome to the ‘culture’. To move away from exclusivity, and flexing».
Raised in New York, DJ4Animals entered community college before transferring to NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he was intrigued by the special status given to students attending prestigious universities. «Are these opportunities afforded to everyone in the same way?». Although he majored in history, his time spent working among mood boards and alongside concept designers during a Ralph Lauren creative summer internship pushed DJ4Animals towards unconventional design.
«I saw how corporate design works from initial sketch or concept board to final product. That whole time I didn’t see one sewing machine. It made me reconsider design». Leaving school, he worked as a sales associate at Dover Street Market, New York.
Combining inspiration from his concept work at Ralph Lauren and the avant-garde design featured at Dover Street Market, he uses authentic college hoodies to create his version of DIY items – taking mass-produced clothing and upcycling them into prêt-à-porter garments. DJ4Animals refers to his practice as ‘process design’, as he takes ready-made materials and tries to «find the process of streamlining them so they can be remade. This is the evolution of what a designer or artist is today».
Created at Brooklyn-based garment factory Storytellers and Creators Mfg. Co., his garments feature embroidered strips of fabric, sourced from vintage college hoodies found in thrift shops and on eBay. «I treat these hoodies as a raw material that must go through a refining process to reach an elevated concept.
I’m not a trained designer, but I have a vision. I find university hoodies that have interesting embroidery and alter them to fit my sensibility. A lot of people wear Cornell University on their chest. Why hasn’t someone repurposed these materials to kind of convey an educational message and reform?».
State University for Free Education Fund
Saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt himself, DJ4Animals titled his brand State University for Free Education Fund. «After graduating I was focused on self-survival in a big city and grappling with what it means to be a creative under financial constraint. My brand is open-ended. I don’t know if we’ll achieve free education, but we should consider how to alleviate that financial pressure». The SUFE Fund capsule debuted in November 2021 at Dover Street Market, and a portion of the proceeds was set aside to fund scholarship and mentoring programs.
Nicole Mclaughlin’s creations frame upcycling as the cornerstone to achieving a sustainable fashion industry, «prolonging the life and functionality of something as long as possible to minimize waste». Enrolling in East Stroudsburg University as a speech pathology major, a chance photography class spurred McLaughlin to take advantage of her school’s unused studio facilities, where she discovered an interest in design. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Digital Media Technology, Reebok recruited her for their graphic design apprenticeship program.
SUFE Fund is a design brand that advocates for student debt relief and education reform