Nicole McLaughlin, Queen of Mocs

In an exclusive interview, the superstar up-cycler and designer tells Hypebeast about the full-circle nature of her “MocLaughlin” collection with Merrell 1TRL, her thoughts on sustainability, and her dad’s favorite sneakers.

Footwear 
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How’s it feel to be the queen of mocs? Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good, according to designer and upcycler Nicole McLaughlin, a lifelong fan of laceless footwear who’s preparing to drop her Moc Speed Streak collaboration with Merrell 1TRL. “It’s an amazing title, and one I’ll accept generously,” she says with a warm laugh. Currently based in Boulder, Colorado, McLaughlin is one of the sneaker industry’s most in-demand collaborators — she’s worked with Crocs, Reebok, Diemme, Vans and HOKA, not to mention partnerships with Russell Athletic, JanSport and Arc’Teryx, among others — and her origin story is the stuff of modern-day footwear legend.

Here’s the Cliffs Notes version if you’re unfamiliar: after landing an internship with Reebok out of college, McLaughlin worked on collabs like the Vetements x Reebok Instapump Fury, was eventually hired on as a full-time designer and even did a stint at the famed adidas (then the parent company of Reebok) Creator Farm in Brooklyn. All the while, her interest in thrifting and upcycling led her on frequent trips to Reebok’s vacant former headquarters, where she’d grab whatever samples and scraps she could get her hands on to create the viral one-off upcycled pieces — equal parts wearable bricolage art and attention-demanding, meme-able fodder — that rocketed her to Internet fame. She left Reebok in 2018, and has been working as a freelance designer ever since, a fruitful endeavor as shown by the above-mentioned collaborative Rolodex she’s established and her litany of viral projects.

These projects include (but are not limited to) a jacket made of goalkeeper gloves, bras constructed from golf clubs, a cored-out sourdough loaf that serves as an oven mit, shorts knit from Carhartt beanies or air fresheners, and a “house shoe” contest she ran with Merrell in 2020, encouraging participants to make moc-inspired footwear out of everything from Fruit By the Foot to baseball gloves during the global lockdown, that both served as the first chapter in her relationship with the brand and launched discussion of a proper collaboration.

“[Merrell 1TRL creative director] Paul Ruffles had reached out when I left Reebok, and we were like ‘we’ve got to find a way to work together’ because there was so much in common with Merrell’s history and what I was doing with my projects,” says McLaughlin. “The response to the house shoe challenge was so great that we were like ‘let’s see what happens when we make an actual shoe together.’”

“My interest in product history drives both my design and my upcycling practices.”

So how did McLaughlin stumble across a deep cut of a slip-on shoe like the Moc Speed Streak, a turn-of-the-century women’s trail-running-slash approach silhouette that had been lost to the sands of time? A method that any Internet-era fashion fiend is familiar with: the late-night eBay jawn hunting excursion. “My interest in product history drives both my design and my upcycling practices, so I’m always hunting for things I haven’t seen before,” she notes. “When I came across the Moc Speed Streak on eBay, I was blown away.”

Although McLaughlin had been collecting vintage Merrell mocs for years, spending hours scouring the internet and thrift stores (it’s not unreasonable to assume the selection in Colorado is particularly robust), she’d never seen the Moc Speed Streak before. It had all been erased from the brand’s memory as well — even Ruffles hadn’t seen it, and immediately greenlit the project. “It’s exciting to think that I may have uncovered a piece of Merrell Moc history,” McLaughlin says, a hint of a satisfied collector’s giddiness sneaking into her voice.

After the Moc Speed Streak was cemented as the collection’s centerpiece, it was time for McLaughlin to get down to the business of revitalizing it. Bringing back an archival silhouette can be somewhat of a tangled web. Most sneaker lovers want it to be as true to the original as humanly possible, a perfect 1:1 reproduction for the sake of nostalgia both firm and false. However, due to the loss of original molds, production differences, or dozens of other brand bureaucracies, an exact replica is often a fool’s hope. Thankfully for McLaughlin, her silhouette of choice was such a deep cut, one with an untold story, that she was able to both pay homage to its mysterious origins and put her unique twist on it without compromising either the brand’s or her integrity.

Through her journey, McLaughlin has maintained a strong affection for laceless footwear that’s fueled by experiences both personal and professional. She notes that from a design perspective, a moc’s sleek shape serves as the perfect base for “endless iterations” of material and ornamentation experimentation. “It’s kind of cool because I can still express myself through the materials [I use on a moc custom or collaboration] — it doesn’t have to be so wild, so crazy for it to still be me,” she says. She notes mocs both bridge the gap between her design aesthetic and her wardrobe and remind her of her “muse” for the project: her father, who’s an avid Merrell Jungle Moc fan.

Three colorways of the Nicole McLaughlin x Merrell 1TRL Moc Speed Streak — or the “MocLaughlin,” if you will — were produced: an original “Black/Amber” that McLaughlin included as a nod to the OG Moc Speed Streak’s palette as well as brand-new “Birch/Hi-Vis” and “Coyote/Olive” makeups. The new hues were inspired by vintage Merrell catalogs and the brand’s relationship with the outdoors, while small custom-branded details added a little extra flair for collectors. McLaughlin also notes that in a proof-of-concept moment, the colors in her collaboration kept popping up during its campaign shoot. “We’d see them in the lichen, the leaves,” she said. “It was a cool moment that spoke to what Merrell’s all about.”

“I don’t want to have to advertise my products as ‘sustainable shoes’, nor do I want to compromise on look or quality … I want the [footwear] industry to get to the point where customers expect sustainable materials in their footwear and are buying because of both a product’s aesthetic and the ethical decisions behind it.”

The outdoors were much more than just an opportunity for color and design inspiration. Over our near-half-hour conversation, McLaughlin continuously mentioned the importance of sustainability in her design practice. “That’s a good question,” she said, pausing for a brief moment when asked how she strikes the balance between sustainability and style when collaborating. “I don’t want to have to advertise my products as ‘sustainable shoes’, nor do I want to compromise on look or quality,” she says, pointing out that her Moc Speed Streak was made with plant-based leathers and recycled suedes. “I want the [footwear] industry to get to the point where customers expect sustainable materials in their footwear and are buying because of both a product’s aesthetic and the ethical decisions behind it.”

McLaughlin’s journey to this point feels like kismet — from the childhood memories of her dad’s Jungle Moc that fueled the collaboration to the above-mentioned, Merrell-focused design contest in 2020 to revealing her collection at Paris Fashion Week, putting the humble Merrell Moc on the same stage as the world’s biggest fashion brands and, now, the long-awaited release of the collection “The fact that I was able to find this shoe on eBay and make it come to life through my own lens is awesome,” she says as our conversation draws to a close.

Now, there’s only one thing left to do: make sure her dad gets the first pair. “Of all the projects I’ve done, this is the one that got him the most excited,” she says. “Up until now, he’s been like ‘yeah, okay, I know these brands’ but now he’s like ‘you’ve made it.’”

The Nicole McLaughlin x Merrell 1TRL Moc Speed Streak releases exclusively at Dover Street Market on November 24, then drops on the Merrell 1TRL webstore and via select global stockists December 1

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