How a sleeping bag became a Sheltersuit

How a sleeping bag became a Sheltersuit

Bas Timmer is living the American Dream

Making a global impact with his designs. That is the mission of fashion designer and social entrepreneur Bas Timmer. His Sheltersuit – a wind and waterproof jacket-cum-sleeping bag for homeless people and refugees – is a first step towards achieving that mission. “I have seen the international light,” he tells us from his New York home, where the dream is unfolding. “I cancelled my rental home in the Netherlands, sold my car and moved to the US to roll out the Sheltersuit here.”

Millions of people are forced to sleep in the street, night after night. In the Netherlands alone, the number of homeless people has doubled in the past decade: from 18,000 in 2009 to almost 40,000 at the moment. Poverty, psychological problems, sudden loss of a job, natural disasters and war are the most common causes. Bas Timmer experienced it first hand five years ago: A friend’s father, who had become homeless, died on the street from hypothermia. Timmer, who had recently graduated from fashion academy, was working on his own line of winter clothes at the time. “I couldn’t accept that a mere five hundred metres from my studio someone died because they didn’t have any warm clothing.”

“Every Sheltersuit is assembled sustainably and produced responsibly in our own sheltered workplace’

‘Humanitarian startup’
This dramatic event changed the young fashion designer’s plans. Based on the firm belief that everyone is entitled to warm clothes, he founded Stichting Sheltersuit, a humanitarian startup that uses innovative Dutch design to protect people against harsh weather conditions. The first design launched by Timmer, the Sheltersuit is a waterproof and windproof jacket that can easily be transformed into a sleeping bag. The extra-large hood protects against the light from street lamps and an integrated scarf provides additional warmth. The suit is made from high-quality upcycled materials from odd lots from textile companies. The lining of the Sheltersuit is made from old sleeping bags collected at festivals or handed in to the foundation. “Every Sheltersuit is assembled sustainably and produced responsibly in our own sheltered workplace by former refugees, homeless people, and people with poor job prospects,” says Timmer. “We give them a job, training and coaching. We hope our foundation can offer them some form of dignity by enabling them to make a meaningful contribution to society.”

Refugee camps
Timmer gave the first prototype of the Sheltersuit to a homeless person in Amsterdam, who immediately started sharing it with two homeless immigrants from Africa. Helped by a team of volunteers and a handful of paid employees, the social entrepreneur has meanwhile handed out 6,000 of the suits in various places, such as refugee camps in Sarajevo and Duinkerke and on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos. “The living conditions in these camps are extremely basic, unhygienic and appalling,” explains Timmer, who visited the camps to personally hand over his Sheltersuits to the people living there. “The few toilets that there are, are dirty or broken. Children walk around on their bare feet, tents get flooded after heavy downpours. These camps turn into one big quagmire. With winter around the corner, the Sheltersuit may help keep these people warm.”

“The high-tech version contains solar cells with which you can charge a mobile phone, so that you can be contacted at any time.”

In 2018, the Sheltersuit 4.0 won the Public Award during Dutch Design Week. And the suit is still steadily evolving, including by the addition of technology. The high-tech version contains solar cells with which you can charge a mobile phone, so that you can be contacted at any time. This is of vital importance for refugees and homeless people. The smart sleeping bag also has sensors to prevent hypothermia. An alarm will sound as soon as the body starts showing signs of low body temperature. The extension with this Urban Safety Kit is the result of cooperation between Stichting Sheltersuit and the DesignLab of the University of Twente. Timmer is also working on a Sheltersuit with a mattress and a model for warmer climates.

South by Southwest
Timmer’s innovative design scored highly in March 2019 at South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual event in Austin, Texas, on music, film, digital storytelling and digital culture. Timmer attended at the invitation of Brabant C and Dutch Design Foundation. “When I saw all the homeless people in the States, I just knew I had to come here. The government does nothing, but there is big money here to help them.”

“In New York alone, over 60,000 people are living in the street.”

And so he travelled west again. This time to participate in the Smart Cities mission New York, at the invitation of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, headed by the Minister for the Interior. This innovation mission promotes Dutch initiatives and helps them integrate in American cities. The visit turned out to be so successful for Timmer that he decided to pack his bags in the Netherlands and move to New York for a longer period of time. In New York alone, over 60,000 people are living in the street, and his Sheltersuit is direly needed there. These days, he goesfrom one meeting to the next, meets celebrities and sits around the table with influential CEOs. But as a down-to-earth Dutchman, he doesn’t let himself be carried away. “Doing business in capitalist America is quite different; people are offering you millions of dollars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a deal.”

Live the dream
Apart from the States, Timmer is brimming with ideas. He will be travelling to Cape Town shortly to introduce his Sheltersuit to Africa. His main lesson in this big adventure: “Live your dream and don’t let yourself be stopped by fear. You create the biggest obstacles yourself, in your head. But once you get past these, you will move forward.”

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