Info

Your Cart is Empty

Tiffany Chung

21 Feb 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

ØLÅF CITIZENS : Nicole McLaughlin

21 Feb 2021

Designer, artist, and social media phenomenon, Nicole McLaughlin, has changed the way the fashion industry thinks about upcycling and sustainability. It’s her unexpected translation of materials and tongue-in-cheek concepts that make her a leader in innovative design. In this edition of Citizens, Nicole reflects on how her career started and where she wants to take it in the future.

 

Hey Nicole, you’re a highly sought-after designer working with international fashion brands. What gravitated you to the industry?

“Yeah, I have kind of a weird backstory. I went to school for speech language pathology. I had a deaf boyfriend when I was in high school and became fluent in sign language. I was very passionate about it, so I went to school to pursue it. Then I got to school and realized that I liked sign language more for the art of it and the visual form of communication. I toyed around with switching to an art or design school, but I ended up staying at the college I was at and started doing a general media program. I was doing more design, website design, packaging, that kind of stuff. That led me to my internship with Reebok right after I graduated. I still don’t know to this day how I ended up getting this internship because I had zero experience in terms of the fashion industry and footwear. But they had me come on as a graphic designer making graphics and prints for sports apparel, like running tights and tanks. That’s really when I started to learn about fashion; the patterns and the construction that comes with making clothing as well as the production side of it, like going to factories and understanding timelines. It was really during that time where I was curious to know how things are made. That's when I started to mess around with footwear, taking samples and things that were just laying around the office, cutting them up and frankensteining them together, just seeing what I could make out of it. During that time, everything was exploration and that’s kind of where I still am today. Everything I do is always practice. It’s always exploration. It’s never anything that’s meant to function perfectly or to be sold and mass produced. That’s never the intention behind it."

 

Yeah, it seems like a lot of your pieces can also be considered art.

“I get that question quite a lot, ‘Do you consider yourself more of a fashion designer or an artist?’. It took me a little while to figure out where I sit in the space. To me, I think I’m more of an artist and it just so happens that my medium is fashion. A lot of the pieces I make do function, they can be wearable pieces, but it’s just more about concept and an idea. So, I think that would sit more in the art space."

 

Sushi slide.

 

How long does a project usually take?

“Uhm, it depends what I’m making. I think footwear is probably the thing that I’ve gotten the fastest at because I make shoes the most. I think a shoe would take me up to 1 or 2 hours. It involves the least amount of material and pattern making. I’ve spent days on things, and I’ve spent 20 minutes on things. It varies. The funny thing is — in terms of social media which is the more instant gratification type projects — the less time I spend on a project, the better it does in terms of engagement. The things where I just think of an idea that’s kind of stupid and it only takes me a couple minutes to put together are the ones that tend to do really well. It’s never the ones where I painstakingly spend hours stitching, sculpting, and figuring it out. But I always hope that the people that really understand what I’m doing in terms of construction are the ones that see it and can appreciate it."

 

Which projects were the quickest to make but had the biggest impact?

“Recently, I did a glove made out of bread which surprisingly did super well. I literally just carved out a piece of bread and stuck my hand in it. The idea was ‘warm and toasty’. That project only took me less than half an hour to make and it did quite well. It had a little bit of a viral moment. I also did a project where I put a stamp on the bottom of a high heel. It was such a simple thing and did so well."

 

Warm and toasty.

 

Is there a project you’re particularly proud of?

“It was a personal project. I did an auction in June last year for Black Lives Matter. I put my head down and was grinding and made 6 or 7 pieces by hand in less than a week. I put them up for auction. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but I just felt like I needed to do something to help in some way. I think we raised $20,000 in a couple of days and that’s probably the most fulfilling thing I had done as a freelancer. To share and help as much as I could through creating art was very rewarding. I was very happy about that. It inspired me to go and pitch to work with brands for more charitable opportunities. Finding ways to do auctions and have them donate, raise money, and raise awareness."

 

 

When making the transition to freelance, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

“A lot of things. I never intended on going freelance. I always thought I was going to work in a company. The way I grew up, my parents taught me that secure jobs are a good thing, growing in one company from start to finish is a good thing. So, when all this started to take off and I was talking to my parents about the opportunity to work for myself and be a freelancer, they were freaking out and were like, ‘What about your 401K? What about health care?’. It was really nerve-racking to take that jump. You do lose this sense of security. At the same time, it's a very rewarding decision. Working for yourself, you're making your own luck in a way. Everything that you do, you can take a step back afterwards and say, ‘I did that. That was mine and take ownership over it.’ It's a good feeling. I’ve always kind of gone with my gut and that usually tends to work. But there are a couple things I wish that I was a little bit more knowledgeable in and on myself about, like understanding taxes, establishing my residence and my studio residence, and all of the more logistical things of running a business. I’d also say, maybe save a little bit more before you quit your full-time job."

 

You went freelance just before 2020 and the pandemic. That must’ve affected you.

“Yeah, that was such an ‘oh shit’ moment to go through. Especially to have that happen in less than a year of being freelance because a large part of my business was traveling for workshops, meeting with brands, and hosting events throughout the world. Right before the pandemic, I just finished teaching a workshop in China, I was about to leave to go to South Africa, and the following week I was going to be in London, then all of a sudden all that just gets pulled out from under me. I was like, ‘Woah, woah, what's going to happen now? That's a huge part of my business. If I can’t travel and I can't do these things, what’s about to go down?’ I freaked out a little bit. I was nervous but I took a step back and let everyone regroup because all these brands were in the same situation where they're freaking out too. Two weeks later, all these brands came back to me and proposed digital workshops and social media things. It was a way to leverage being home and because so many people are consuming content in masses which is a big part of what I do, I was like, ‘Okay, what if I work with brands and help find cool ways to help their brands on social media?’ So, my business became a little bit different during this time, but I've embraced it and it's been fun."

 

Jacquemus.

 

Have any of the places that you visited influenced the work you’re doing now?

“Yeah, I’m really fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have. I mean obviously not during this time, but when I was working at Reebok traveling was a really important part of our job. We would go to the factories in China and Vietnam. From there, I would always take trips to Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan. I loved that part of my job. When I left Reebok, I was really nervous that I wasn’t going to get to travel as much. It was so amazing when Adidas reached out and invited me to come to Shanghai and teach a workshop. So, I went to China and that was a cool experience because I felt a connection to sign language by teaching a workshop to people where we don’t speak the same language at all. We were making something together but had to communicate and speak to each other in a visual way. That really inspired me. I want to continue to travel to other countries and try to find ways to teach workshops to young people and people who are just curious about the industry."

 

What advice would you give to up-and-coming designers?

“I’d say this is probably the most important advice as a freelancer, it’s kind of corny, but don’t lose the reason why you started doing it. I think sometimes it gets really blurry and all these amazing commission projects come into play — and obviously you have to make a living, that’s first and foremost — but a lot of the time you lose the passion of why you started creating the things, or writing the things, or doing the things you were doing that inspired you to want to be a freelancer. Personal projects are still something that I feel very passionate about and something I carve out a lot of time to try to do that. A lot of the time it ends up being late nights and weekends to still maintain those projects. It’s tough but you have to make sure you do it or you’re going to lose your sanity."

 

 

What’s the most challenging part of your career right now?

“Finding the balance between the commissioned projects versus the personal projects. It gets busy sometimes and the first things to go are your personal well-being and mental health because you’re just in grind mode and sometimes that can last a really long time. Right before Christmas, I was back-to-back-to-back on so many projects and by the time Christmas came I slept for like a week straight. It was amazing but I realized that I pushed myself way past my limits. It was kind of funny because the week that I was able to sleep and rest and not check my email, my skin was so good."

 

Do you ever have to overcome the feeling of imposter syndrome?

“Yeah, I mean I still do. Full transparency. It’s really hard not to feel like that sometimes. Especially not coming from a fashion background or product design background. I just kind of show up and am like, ‘Oh look at these things that I’m making that could fall apart at any moment.’ It’s hard but you have to find this level of confidence and ride that. Ride the line of staying open and humbled by what you're doing, but also feeling confident in what you're making and your ideas. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to come from a prestigious school where you learned all the tricks of the trade. You can learn as you go and own that and be okay with that. I’ve always kind of been this way. If I’m curious enough about something I’ll figure it out. I think a lot of people are that way. You just have to be confident enough."

 

 

What career milestones or goals are you hoping to achieve?

“I would love to continue to build upon the workshops and become more of a non-profit. I see myself going in less of a brand direction and more of an educational direction or become a resource within the industry to support younger people who are looking to get into design. Kind of what I’m doing now but on a larger scale. I hope to have a team of people that can help come up with solutions for brands that have excess materials and get those materials to schools that need it. I hope to still be making things for fun too. I want to explore homeware and larger scale things. I started working in the furniture space, like chairs, but it'd be great to do bigger installations with upcycled materials."

 

Nike chair.

North face puffer umbrella.

 

 

You’re an outdoorsy person.

“Yeah, I rock climb. That’s my preferred sport. I love outdoor anything: clothing, accessories. There is just so much design detail that I think also gets lost quite a bit, like reflective details or trims, stuff that we don't always look at and get excited about. I love that kind of stuff."

 

What’s your go to outdoor activity outfit?

“Ooh. Well, I’m always wearing a beanie. Mainly, I like Carhartt for beanies. I’m kind of traditional like that, I guess. I’d say Arc’Teryx jackets are my favorites. If I’m to buy anything new, Arc’Teryx would be the only outdoor brand I would go buy a jacket from. I find a lot of Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and Colombia in thrift stores. I usually wear climbing pants, Gramicci or North Face. Then shoes, I have National Geographic shoes. They’re really cool and no one really knows that National Geographic has shoes. They’re really sick. They’re like my prized possessions. I like Smartwool socks too. Socks are very important to me. Even for my projects too. The way I style my stuff, my socks are usually visible, so I don’t skimp out on the socks. Gotta go all in."

 

Gummy.

Toolbelt.

 

 

For a thing that inspires me, this is kind of weird and I guess it's ‘things’ plural, but I like oversized objects. Things that are meant to be in store displays. I have this oversized Vans shoe for example. I actually have a couple of these. I like the idea that things could be taken out of context completely and I think store displays are the best example of that. They just go crazy with it and then the stuff is always on eBay for really cheap after because no one knows what to do with it. So, I’d say my giant shoes have inspired me."

Tiffany Chung

18 Apr 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

Citizens: Ahmed Ismail

18 Apr 2021

Ahmed Ismail is an entrepreneur, political thinker, public relations marketer, and philanthropist whose purpose has always been about serving the community. In this edition of Citizens, the future-minded businessman tells us about his inspirational journey from hospitality to becoming the co-founder of HXOUSE – an incubator devoted to helping foster innovation and opportunity for young creatives.

 

Hey Ahmed, you’ve achieved a lot of career success. Where did your career journey start?

“When I was 19, I had already dropped out of high school because my teacher and guidance counselor were putting me in programming to become a janitor. They didn't care about my political IQ or my business IQ. They didn't see me. So, I dropped out and started to work as a valet at the Fairmont Royal York. That job changed my whole perspective on life forever."

 

How did that first job change your perspective?

“I got to see everybody: high roller guests, mom and pop, politicians. When you live in a concentrated urban neighborhood, like the ghetto or one of the projects, you always see the cops or people like you. You don't really see people from other worlds. Every day, I got to see what position or career I wanted for myself. I tried to ask every guest one question and learn how to connect with older people. I asked one guest who had all these cars, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and he asked me ‘Are you in school?’ I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Don’t waste my time.’ The first time I ever approached a Black man at the hotel, and he shuts me down. I was so mad. That motivated me to prove myself."

 

 

Did you go back to school?

“I went back to school and got into a university. When I saw that guest again, I told him which university I was going to and he said the school was garbage and I should go to Wayne State in Detroit where he was a professor. He even offered to help me get a scholarship and hook me up with a job so I could afford it. What ended up happening is once I get to Detroit, the professor ended up transferring to another school before he could help me. I didn't have the money and I couldn't ask my family for money 'cause they didn't have it. My whole plan just fell apart. "

 

How did you handle that setback?

“So, the day that I'm about to give up on university, another guest from the hotel pulled up in front of me. We talk, he gives me his business card and tells me to call him. I don’t call him. But I stay and study political science. In my fourth month at school, I was running out of money. In America, if you run out of money for school immigration deports you. What ended up happening is I was reading one of my history books and recognized a face. I'm like, why do I know this man? He was an old civil rights politician who got Rosa Parks out of jail and fought for Martin Luther King. I don't know why but something made me check my wallet and the former guest who gave me his business card, Christian Barton, was the Chief of Staff for the Congressman that I was reading about in my history textbook. So, I call him and he's like, ‘Why the hell did you wait three months? I’m at this bar, meet me there.’ We start to talk, and he offers me an internship with the United States Congress. The highest office in the country. I say yes and he mentors me. When he quits, he recommends me to replace him. That just boosted my confidence. So, I would go to work and watch them change laws and then at night I'd be studying the laws they were changing in school."

 

With @The Weekend and @Cashxo.

 

What do you think he saw in you to give you that internship?

“I think he saw that I was just really hungry. I had no baggage. I just wanted to work. He saw my immigrant spirit. He knew I had only one agenda which was to dominate and work hard and he gave me the opportunity to do that. I never let him down. When I was supposed to go home at 4 in the afternoon, I would stay till 10 at night to learn what I don't know. He mentored me. He told me what to do and who to stay away from, which is very important because nobody ever told me that people in an office could also be cancerous."

 

 

Who are the people to stay away from?

“The people only working to make a check and don't believe in what they’re doing. The ones that are only are working when the boss walks by. Everybody sees it. Management knows and they're just waiting for the right moment to dump you."

 

How did you move from politics to PR?

“I did the same thing I did at the hotel, I started to look around at other people and their positions and saw Karen Morgan. She was the public relations person for the congressman. If you look at a congressman’s schedule, they could be in 3 or 4 states a night, 2 or 3 planes a day, 10 meetings, and she gets to go tell the congressman who they’re meeting, give them the research, give them the speeches. I never wanted to be locked in an office, so I was like that's my job. I went back to school for public relations. Long story short, that opened up a lot of doors because I didn’t want to do political PR. I did a little bit of automotive PR and then I started to work in sports and entertainment because I realized it's recession proof. When people have no money, they still watch basketball games on TV. I quickly realized what I liked about being in politics and what I liked about sports and entertainment and combined them both to start a socially sustainable marketing PR firm. Helping celebrities and corporations make money, but also help them build their philanthropy or teach them how to become better philanthropists."

 

2018 Toronto Brand Star and host Ahmed Ismail begins the ceremony.

 

So, how did HXOUSE begin?

“December 2016, La Mar Taylor tweeted after winning Forbes 30 under 30, ‘There's so much talent in my city, we’re undervalued. Before I’m 30, I'm going to build a facility for young creatives so they can outshine me and The Weeknd.’ So, I called him and said, ‘Brother, two years ago I designed exactly this project, but nobody wanted it. If you’re serious about this, we can build it together."

 

Do you look for an immigrant spirit and hunger when considering future tenants at HXOUSE?

“100,000,000%. That's all I look for. I look for somebody who doesn't want me to build their dream. Anybody can have an original idea. So, I just check how hard they're going to work on it. Time and consistency equals success. Some of my friends became successful in the first 3 years of their career, I waited 12 before my career started to make sense but I still came with the same energy every day and knew I was destined for my opportunity sooner or later. You have to work. If you don't put in the work, you don't get the results."

 

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Speaking of your career and results, can you name a few of your proudest moments?

“In my neighborhood, owning a vehicle was a big deal, all the street dudes had nice cars. So, having my first nice car and making money was a proud moment. Second, was getting the job in the US Congress because it gave me a confidence that I can't overlook ever again. HXOUSE is definitely my biggest accomplishment and I don't even want anything to be bigger. Then the icing on the cake is seeing my career come full circle, from learning to speak English by watching news about politics, to studying political science in school, to now speaking to the Prime Minister regularly and helping him come up with ideas on how to get the Canadian economy back on track."

 

Today annocuement of 200+ million to Black Entrepreneurs is a testiment of my father's two favourite teachings he instilled in me.

 

Originally, the government didn't fully support your idea for HXOUSE. So, it must’ve been a big deal to host the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau?

“Almost two years to the day that we opened HXOUSE, the Prime Minister came to make a historic announcement and offer the Black community $250 million to launch a fund to repair the relationship with the Black community that has suffered and endured systemic racism in Canada. Why that was so monumentally important to me is because it was hard for us to get a grant, it was hard for us to talk to the government, the only thing that really helped was my patience in knowing how the government works from my previous political experience in the US. It was historic because it's one thing to give a check, but it's another thing to acknowledge there was wrongdoing. To have the Prime Minister say that systematic racism is real, it's happening, and it's stopping our growth, became a wake-up call for corporations to get their act together. Now money is flowing in Toronto for Black organizations which has never happened before."

 

With co-founder La Mar Taylor.

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Describe your partnership dynamic with HXOUSE co-founders La Mar Taylor and The Weeknd.

“A lot of respect. I feel like the little guy because when I talk to them about politics or community or partnerships it's like I'm almost over excited about it and seeing something they can't see. Then when they're talking about creative things that the world doesn't see but needs, I feel like I don't even know what they're talking about, I’m just in awe and I always try to catch up. So, we have a very supportive nature where we all help build each other's ideas."

Celebrating the opening of Hxouse with Swizz Beatz.

 

Are you more of a traveler or a homebody?

“As you get older you become a homebody, but traveling is the only way I live because it’s my inspiration. I write and my writing becomes a plan. My plan becomes a project. When my project is in a place where I'm happy with it, I like to come home and build. So, I'm a homebody when I'm building but I still travel as well."

 

Are you a thinker or doer?

“Both."

 

Zanzibar doors.

 

Any causes you think need attention right now?

“I'm in Europe and what they’re doing with migrants is appalling. Corrupt colonial countries that still haven't acknowledged their wrongdoing have benefited and continue to benefit off of bad policies that disrespect immigrants without ever acknowledging what these countries have done to those communities. So, I would love to see a version of Black Lives Matter but for immigrants. I would love to see our communities wake up because you can only be enslaved if you allow whatever they're telling you to become your truth. Canada has had to acknowledge they've got to start finding ways to pay things back. America compensates by still allowing minorities to grow, have jobs, or even become the president of the United States. I just feel like Europe has made zero concessions and is still exploiting Africa every day. Europe needs to change."

 

We like to conclude each interview by asking our citizens to name a person, place, and thing they find inspiring.

“People that inspire me are immigrants. All immigrants have a story. I'm always keen to plug in and ask them where they are from, where their journey started and why it started. It sparks my imagination and when I ask those questions, it always takes me back to when I started as an immigrant and first arrived in the United States and Canada. One of the places that inspires me is Amsterdam. It has this introverted, communal vibe. If you don't want to be around anyone you can ride your bike, you can walk the shops, check things out and have a great day. But if you want to see people, they are also very community oriented. It’s one of those places that helps recharge my battery. I think the only ‘thing’ that inspires me is I try to be a better Muslim every day. It's not easy but I feel that when I pray more, I have structured order and my life makes sense. "