Thursday, March 8, 2012

Altering Clothes, and Lives, With Design

Veronika Scott, right, has designed a coat, that doubles as a sleeping bag.  Demetria Stewart, left, a seamstress for the company who had been homeless, has found housing.
 IT’S not exactly “Project Runway,” but in Detroit a group of young fashion designers is focusing its talents on one of that economically depressed city’s biggest challenges: designing clothing that will benefit many of the more than 20,000 homeless people now living on the streets.

Ms. Scott's nonprofit, the Empowerment Plan, trains and pays recently homeless women to make the coats.
“I looked around and thought, This city has such need, we have to figure out a way to have our students become problem-solvers here,” explained Stephen Schock, a professor of industrial design at the College for Creative Studies, an undergraduate and graduate art and design school in downtown Detroit that has redefined its mission in recent years to help the city with economic and community development. “So I started a design activism class,” he said of the curriculum he began offering in 2010.
The instructions were simple and open-ended: “Design to fill a need.” 

One of his students, Veronika Scott, a native of Detroit and then a junior, quickly focused on the homeless population and began researching her project at the Neighborhood Service Organization, a community development center. “I noticed that there were people sleeping outside of shelters even when they could have been inside,” she said, adding that she quickly learned that many actually prefer the street because of pride, privacy issues or an array of mental health problems. 

“There are many reasons why people are homeless, but I could see one thing all of them needed: warmth,” she said. 

Ms. Scott, now 22, soon came up with the idea to design a coat that could double as a sleeping bag.
“I am now known as the ‘Crazy Coat Lady,’ ” said Ms. Scott, who began her research by asking a group of 30 homeless men at the shelter for advice on designing it. “At first they were angry because I turned off their TV, but then they started talking to me,” she said. 

Mike Forbes, 27, a classmate of Ms. Scott’s and then a junior, similarly focused on the city’s neediest cases, deciding to design the Ulterior Survival Bag, which transforms into a boot. (The bag’s rubber base becomes the sole of a shoe when turned inside out.) “I saw how many people in Detroit were suffering from frostbite and trench foot, and with a shortage of winter footwear it seemed the right product to try to design,” Mr. Forbes recalled.
“It is meant to provide the homeless with a better option than garbage bags, which they usually use to carry their stuff and cover their feet,” he said. 

Mr. Forbes also runs a charitable T-shirt company, Anymile Clothing (a play off the Eight Mile thoroughfare in Detroit), which helps support local families facing hardship. By selling these shirts at concerts and music festivals, he hopes to finance more research and development to perfect his boot.
Similarly, members of Soleology, a Saturday design club of current and former Creative Studies students who have a passion for shoes (graduates typically go on to top positions at athletic shoe companies like Nike, Adidas and New Balance), have also been working on a footwear solution for Detroit’s homeless population, as has a group of students from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
Such a challenge came from Cass Community Social Services in Detroit, which operates a micro-enterprise in which homeless men convert abandoned tire parts into mud mats that are then sold at markets and fairs, bringing its clients some much needed income. But with the mats being made from the sidewalls of the tires, the Rev. Faith Fowler, a Methodist pastor and Cass’s executive director, couldn’t help but wonder if the treads could also be used in some way that might benefit those in need. 

Enter the University of Michigan’s integrated product design class, which combines design, engineering and business. Its solution? Treads Motor City sandals, which can be sold to the public, but will be produced by Ms. Fowler’s constituents, giving them yet another income stream. (The soles are made from tire treads while the straps are harvested from seatbelts found in junkyards.)