Design Indaba, a think tank and conference in South Africa founded by Ravi Naidoo, annually brings the brightest and most driven design graduates and professionals to converge in Cape Town for three days of presentations and workshops. It’s a way for keen minds around the world to share their latest work in design, architecture, and science, as well as be inspired by the endeavors of their colleagues in parallel creative industries.
At this year’s Design Indaba, one speaker captured the crowd, received multiple standing ovations, and moved people to tears with his design project – a labor of love from Amsterdam to New York to Cape Town, to provide a safe, portable, wearable shelter to the homeless. Meet Bas Timmer and his Sheltersuit.
Bas Timmer was a fashion school graduate making winter clothing when in 2014, the homeless father of his friend passed away due to hypothermia. “I was selling clothes, and 500 meters from my small studio, a person died because he didn’t have warm clothes,” Timmer recounted.
Timmer found that at music festivals, festival goers would often leave colorful tents behind. Instead of the tents ending up in the trash, Timmer found that the quirky tent fabrics could be upcycled and made into sleeping bags.
These sleeping bags are now Sheltersuits: sturdy, well-made, colorful winter coats constructed from tent fabrics. These suits are made in the Netherlands in a “social workshop” where Timmer and his team provide refugees, homeless people, and people removed from the labor market with the opportunity to learn how to make Sheltersuits.
These Sheltersuits are then distributed in the cities Timmer visits, such as Netherlands and in New York, but you can’t just get them on demand. When Timmer sees a homeless person, he’ll sit down with them, get to know them and ask them a few questions about what they need and the difficulties they’re facing, in order to determine whether a Sheltersuit is right for them. If it is, he’ll offer them a suit in their size, or if he doesn’t have one on hand, he’ll take their details down and then set up a time to meet them in a day or two.
The Sheltersuit is a sleeping bag, a backpack, and even a makeshift stool.
To rest, these coats can be unfolded and used as sleeping bags.
When not in use, they can be stowed away into a stuffed sack which doubles as a backpack. Timmer also demonstrated that these stuffed bags can be used as comfortable seats on the street.
Design-wise, Timmer pointed out that the pockets on the jacket have to be large in order to store a lot of things. When used as a sleeping bag, it must not be too restraining – there has to be freedom of mobility, since sleeping on the streets entails being proximate to many dangers.
In just a year, Timmer has managed to set up an office in New York as well as operations in Cape Town to make and distribute shelterbags – like Sheltersuits but without the winter lining – to homeless Capetonians. With Design Indaba as a platform, Timmer also encouraged the people in the audience and corporate sponsors to purchase Sheltersuits in Cape Town that they can then make and distribute to the homeless there. Design Indaba was an important step for Timmer to seed his operations in Cape Town—who knows where Bas will go next?
Photos by Tony Dočekal for Sheltersuit Foundation.