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This artist turned old Allbirds sneakers into a beach chair

Nicole McLaughlin is known for her upcycled designs. Now she’s made six unique creations that will be auctioned for charity.

This artist turned old Allbirds sneakers into a beach chair
[Photo: courtesy Allbirds]
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All this time in quarantine has forced many of us to clean out our closets. But what if you could turn the discarded clothing into beautiful objects? A new collaboration from Allbirds and Chinatown Market is designed to spur your imagination.

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The two brands are joining forces to sell six handcrafted works of art made from shoe scraps. There’s a functional beach chair made with a patchwork of fabrics, a vest that features sneaker eyelets in a fun design, and two bags with laces for straps. My favorite are slippers with cute little pockets on top. The online auction begins Friday and will last 72 hours. All proceeds will go to the Okra Project, which supports Black trans people, and the Sunrise Movement, which is devoted to climate change.

[Photo: courtesy Allbirds]
Mike Cherman, Chinatown Market’s founder, has long admired the work of designer Nicole McLaughlin, who specializes in upcycling items destined for the landfill, turning them into fantastical, eye-catching works of art. Cherman brought her into this collaboration. In the past, McLaughlin has worked with brands such as Prada, Puma, and Opening Ceremony, and she’s also led courses that teach others how to make their own upcycled creations. She’s particularly well-known for her shoe series, which is made from objects such as tennis and soccer balls, camera straps, wet wipe packages, and ice trays. These items aren’t meant to be functional but rather to inspire people to get creative. “I want to show people what is possible with upcycling, so they can do it themselves,” says McLaughlin.

[Photo: courtesy Allbirds]
Once McLaughlin made the items, she passed them on to designers at Chinatown Market, who added their own twist, such as spray-painting the brand’s logo or adding a tag. After the auction, Chinatown Market and Allbirds will do a series of Instagram Live conversations about sustainable design and DIY methods. Viewers can submit their own projects for a chance to win a digital mentorship from the design teams at both brands.

[Photo: courtesy Allbirds]
Cherman, who’s a trained graphic designer, believes this collaboration could help bring more streetwear designers into the sustainability conversation. “You never want to work with someone who does exactly what you do in any collaboration,” he says. “We look at this partnership with Allbirds as a way for us to smash two different worlds together to make something both audiences haven’t experienced before.”

[Photo: courtesy Allbirds]
Allbirds is well known for its material innovation, pioneering sneakers made from sustainably sourced wool and sugar, but it has yet to crack the problem of how to recycle the shoes at the end of their lifespan. Other sports brands are trying various recycling strategies: Adidas is building a sneaker that can be made into new sneakers, while Nike grinds up old sneakers to turn them into flooring. For now, Allbirds invites customers to send back old, but usable, shoes to be donated to those in need. And projects like this one with McLaughlin are a way to explore repurposing materials that might otherwise be wasted.

McLaughlin was particularly excited about the objects Allbirds gave her, which consisted of shoe samples and swatches of fabric for Allbirds prototypes. “In some cases, I only got a single shoe, rather than a pair,” says McLaughlin. “Most people don’t realize how much waste is created in the design process, but I love to work with these materials because they are destined to be thrown away.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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