social-good

Designer's sleeping bag coat transforms - and warms - Detroit's homeless

March 26, 2012 at 12:05 PM ET

The Empowerment Plan /
Veronika Scott, with a homeless woman who now sews coats, is helping transform Detroit.

One young designer is using her talents for what lies far beyond Fashion Week: the real world.

Veronika Scott, 22, created the "MWPR" coat, which doubles as a sleeping bag for Detroit’s struggling homeless population (approximately 20,000). Warm and waterproof, the outerwear boasts yet another remarkable feature — it was also constructed by the homeless. Part of Veronika’s project, called “The Empowerment Plan,” is to help give jobless women a way to earn money by teaching them how to sew and produce within the garment industry, offering them a new way to support themselves. It’s a coat that’s giving two-fold.

“If done right, this would be a way to help end the homeless cycle,” Scott told TODAY.com. “We give homeless women jobs while in the shelter, so they can earn money, find a place to live, and gain back their independence for themselves and their family.”

The Empowerment Plan /
The sleeping bag, of which there are now 275, is currently distributed in Detroit.

Interestingly, it all started as a school project “gone awry” at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, says Scott. “After months of developing this product for a class, I had begun to realize that I wasn't really designing for a tangible need, I was trying to solve an emotional one.”

Scott didn’t quite imagine she’d spent her first year out of school working with an outreach program in Detroit, distributing her coat (275 and counting) and building an entire production company with a unique focus: "We are a nonprofit with a product, one that can be offered to the public to help our cause,” she said.

It's an impressive accomplishment that's earned Scott respect from fellow clothing manufacturers in Michigan. "It’s evident that Veronika has put a lot of thought into the technical design of the MPWR coat,” said Mark Valade, president and CEO of Dearborn-based clothing company Carhartt, which specializes in outerwear. “Designing a multi-use product presents many challenges, especially when the uses of the product are so distinctly different... The coat is highly durable, fully-functional, cost-effective and destined to help countless people in need."

In the coming year, Scott intends to go national by selling her product online, and offering a one-to-one donation for every coat sold, much like the TOMS shoes model. Buyers will also be able to view the coat sewer’s history, and then choose the city they want their donated coat to go to. It’s a thoughtful way to connect consumers with the personal work her company accomplishes.

Helping the public good isn’t generally a top priority for a designer, but it’s just that passion that Scott thinks the industry is missing.

“Designers should be more involved in using their talents towards social good issues,” she said, adding that it’s an opportunity for artists and designer to work in an environment that fosters and supports creative endeavors.

And more than anything, it seems, it help fosters collaboration in the most unlikely of places. Scott isn’t just manufacturing her coat, she’s also working with her clients on ways to improve its capabilities.  

“[Homeless individuals] have given us the critique we need to adjust the coat accordingly. Their feedback is being listened to and helping to change the coat, as the coat is always changing. And for them, they feel a part of this whole design process.”

Rina Raphael is a TODAY.com editor who has a great respect for any 22-year-old helping change the world.

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