A belting idea: meet the pioneers turning discarded firehose into fashion
12th October, 2011
Firehose isn’t an obvious choice of textile for an accessories range, but for the entrepreneurs behind Elvis & Kresse, it’s simply perfect. Gavin Haines reports
If the devil wears Prada, then Elvis & Kresse must be the fashion label for angels. Not only are their unique bags, belts and iPhone holders made from recycled fire hose; 50 per cent of their profits go to the Fire Fighters Charity. It’s a win-win situation; the environment is spared rubbish, a charity gains a new revenue source and Elvis & Kresse get a fabulous fabric for nothing. ‘It’s such an amazing material to work with,’ says Kresse Wesling, who founded the label with her boyfriend, James ‘Elvis’ Henrit, in 2005. ‘It seems mad to throw it away.’ But before Kresse came along that’s exactly what was happening to the decommissioned fire hose. ‘Because it’s a composite material, it couldn’t be recycled,’ she explains. ‘Tonnes of old fire hose was going straight to landfill.’ Not only did this create a problem for the environment; it made one for the fire brigade too as they had to pick up the bill for its disposal. Happily, all that changed in 2005 when Kresse was invited along to a London fire station to advise the brigade on how they could become more environmentally friendly.
‘When I got to the station I saw all this old fire hose piled up on the roof; the sun was shining on it and it looked beautiful,’ she recalls. ‘That’s when I found out about the hose problem and decided to take ownership of it. I carried a length of hose home with me; I had no idea what I was going to do with it. Originally I wanted to make roof tiles out of it – the material is waterproof and fireproof so I thought that it would be perfect – but there wasn’t enough of it to sustain a roofing business.’ Kresse racked her brain trying to work out what she could do with the material but in the end the idea of using it to make fashion accessories came about by accident.
‘James’s belt broke,’ explains Kresse, as she takes me on a tour of their workshop in Poole, Dorset. ‘He really liked the buckle but the leather had cracked so we thought “well we’ve got all this fire hose lying around, why don’t we replace it with that?”’ By coincidence, as the pair worked on James’s new belt, the phone rang. It was the company that supplies merchandise for Live Earth, an annual festival aimed at raising awareness about the environment. ‘They asked if I had any eco products they could sell at the event,’ says Kresse, handing me a belt that she’d made earlier. ‘So I said I’d make 1,000 belts for them.’ That figure turned out to be somewhat optimistic; Kresse and James hadn’t realised what a painstaking process it was mass-producing the belts by hand and revised that number to 500. ‘We cut the first 30 belts with scissors; it took half an hour just to cut the material for each one – and it really hurt,’ laughs Kresse. ‘We only had three weeks to make them so we did some research into cutting tools and found this rotary cutter.’ This sped up the process and meant they were able to hit their target of 500. It was still hard graft but the enterprise was a resounding success with the belts selling well. ‘From that moment on we have been cash positive,’ explains Kresse. ‘We reinvested the money we made and bought sewing machines.’
Although Kresse calls England home for now, she was born in Canada and educated in Hong Kong. ‘I moved to Hong Kong in 1994 and went to high school there until 1996,’ says Kresse, who attended a school run by United World Colleges, an educational movement that promotes world peace through education. ‘There were 250 students there from 70 different countries.’ After graduating from high school, Kresse moved back to Canada only to return to Hong Kong in 1999, where she set up a green packaging company. ‘I met James there in 2001 when we had just turned 25,” she says. “He was working in Hong Kong and when he moved back to England I followed him.’ Kresse embarked on a new life in London with James, where they discovered the material that would set them on a new and exciting path. The business is now approaching its fifth year and continues to grow with a constantly evolving line of products. ‘We have just launched an iPad satchel,’ explains Kresse. ‘This incorporates decommissioned parachute material, which we get off the MOD.’ And fire hose, right? ‘Of course, fire hose will always be the cornerstone of our business – that’s where we came from and we love working with it,’ she says.
Spurred on by the success of their belts, Elvis & Kresse began developing other products such as iPhone holders, laptop cases and luxury bags. These items sell worldwide via their website (www.elvisandkresse.com) and have even had celebrity endorsement with actress Cameron Diaz donning one of their belts for a photo shoot in American Vogue. ‘Our biggest market is Holland,’ explains Kresse. ‘I think they are more into green products over there.’
While Kresse and James still make the belts by hand in their Poole workshop, the bigger items are produced by artisan leather workers in Romania. I ask her whether this clashes with their ethical ethos. ‘A lot of people here wouldn’t work with the material, so our specialist stuff is produced by a family business based in the Carpathian Mountains – they have been working with leather forever,’ she says. ‘We just couldn’t get the speed or quality in Britain.’ As well as the environment, quality is a priority for Elvis & Kresse; it has to be when you consider some of their bags sell for as much as £215 in Harrods. Yes, their recycled accessories don’t come cheap, but with half the profits going to the Fire Fighters Charity, it is undoubtedly an ethical investment.
However, it’s not just firemen and women benefitting from sales. Elvis & Kress also provide work for staff at Poole’s Remploy factory, which was set up after WWII to help disabled people find employment. ‘They make all of our packaging out of old coffee sacks,’ says Kresse, who moved to Poole from London after falling in love with the south coast. ‘We try to reuse as much as possible.’ Their industrious, Womble like approach to recycling has saved thousands of tonnes of waste fire hose, coffee sacks and other packaging from being consigned to landfill sites. ‘There are some amazing materials going to waste that just shouldn’t be thrown away,’ says Kresse, who even recycles used flight strips from air traffic control, which she fashions into novel business cards.
So what’s next for Elvis & Kresse, what other products can we expect from them? ‘In November we’ll be launching our home ware line,’ enthuses Kresse. ‘We’ve been making furniture.’ If the success of their fashion accessories is anything to go by, expect talk of their fire hose furniture to be hot on everyone’s lips this autumn.
Find out more at www.fire-hose.co.uk
Elvis & Kresse aren’t the only company turning old textiles into fabulous fashion accessories or something equally useful. From recycled sari notebooks to upcycled sails, here are three companies making a stylish difference
While travelling around India, Mark Woolley and Claire Gibson were inspired by the resourcefulness of people they met along the way, who were turning old cotton rags into beautiful paper. Joining forces with a family in Rajasthan, Western India, the duo founded a company called Mimosa Style, which produces a range of eco friendly journals. The paper in their products is made from unbleached, hard-spun cotton rags left over from the garment industry.
Simon Lee Guitars
Simon Lee trained as a guitar maker and was shocked to discover that endangered hardwoods were being used to make the instruments. ‘The destruction of the rainforests concerns me so I wanted to build guitars that didn’t glamorise exotic hardwoods,’ he says. Simon has since manufactured a range of guitars using sheets of recycled plastic, which is made from old milk containers, yogurt pots and other waste packaging. ‘They have very good acoustic properties,’ he adds.
Wind Bag Company
‘From blew to green’ is the slogan used by the Wind Bag Company in Nova Scotia, Canada, which turns old boat sails into chic canvas beach bags. Each piece of arm candy comes with a little tag, which details the story behind the boat from where the sails came. The bag straps are usually made with reclaimed seatbelts that would have otherwise gone straight to landfill.
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