For the third part of its new Conversations series, The Macallan Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Wallpaper* meet Kresse Wesling, an environmentalist and entrepreneur whose life and career changed forever after a visit to a London fire station.
As soon as she saw them, piled up in towering, brick-red swirls, Kresse Wesling knew her life would never be the same again. On the hunt for inspiration and an exciting new material to work with, the Canadian-born, UK-based entrepreneur and environmentalist had been invited by the London Fire Brigade to visit its vast cache of discarded firehoses in Croydon. ‘It’s basically where hoses go to die – between three and 12 tonnes of waste every year,’ says Kresse. ‘We walked up this very small, dark staircase and through a door onto the roof. It was a hot day and there they were, glinting and gleaming in the sun, these red, lustrous coils of lifesaving material sitting on a rooftop.’
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Kresse fell in love. ‘I think it would have been impossible not to. Impossible not to take responsibility,’ she says. ‘That was it. I said to myself, I'm going to fix this, I'm going to take these hoses home and I'm going to solve this problem.’ With her husband’s help, Kresse created the Elvis & Kresse brand, rescuing scrap and transforming it into ‘wonderful things for everyone else to enjoy’.
Elvis & Kresse’s factory is a converted, renewable energy-powered, north Kent mill house. This is where the red and yellow firehoses (made from a woven nylon core with a nitrile rubber jacket - a similar material used by many luxury goods manufacturers) are stripped, washed, treated and trimmed. Then a small team of craftspeople turn them into smart holdalls, handbags, wallets and belts to be sold online via the company website and the independent e-tailer, notonthehighstreet.com. 50% of profits from the Elvis & Kresse fire hose collection are donated to the fire fighters’ charity.
‘I'm going to fix this, I'm going to take these hoses home and I'm going to solve this problem’
It’s an impressive, compact, responsible and highly innovative operation that prompted Walpole, the official sector body for promoting the UK luxury industry, to call Elvis & Kresse ‘the future of luxury’.
Hong Kong to North Kent
Before studying Politics and Chinese at Montreal’s McGill University, Kresse’s business journey began at Li Po Chun United World College, an International Baccalaureate school in Hong Kong where she was placed on a scholarship from the Alberta Government. ‘The school brings kids together from all over the world. In my class of 125, there were people from 70 countries. You do the diploma together, then go out into the world to try and fix it, to save it.’
‘You do the diploma together, then go out into the world to try and fix it, to save it’
After her studies, Kresse spent two years in Hong Kong working in venture capital before launching her own biodegradable packaging start-up. ‘Even though I started my first business when I was just 22, no one there thought that I was crazy. No one said, ‘You're too young. You don't know what you're doing.’ It's an entrepreneurial city, so people said, ‘This is fantastic. Do you need an office? Do you need money?’
But being in a densely populated city where single-use goods were the norm, encouraged Kresse to consider the future of the planet, and to realise that she didn't want to live in a big city. ‘When you're in a concentrated urban environment like Hong Kong, stuff like that (i.e. waste and sustainability) becomes very, very apparent.’
‘I wanted to understand the waste situation, understand what we were throwing away, because that's the kind of tourist I am’
With husband Elvis (real name James Henrit) in tow, she moved to the UK and began touring the country’s network of industrial refuse and landfill sites. ‘When I came to the UK in 2004, I wanted to understand the waste situation, understand what we were throwing away, because that's the kind of tourist I am!’ A visit to the British Library revealed that, in one year alone, one hundred million tonnes of waste had gone to British landfill sites. ‘That seemed like an inconceivable amount to me. We knew we could do much better if we just changed the game from day one,’ recalls Kresse. ‘We decided to make the best bags in the world without participating in trends or seasonal collections.’
Beyond firehoses, Elvis & Kresse is guided by a process that Kresse has playfully dubbed ‘backwards design’. Driven by found materials and then designing upcycled product around them (instead of designing the product first then sourcing suitable materials) she is now working on collections that can be made from repurposed and recycled printing blankets, aluminium cans, parachute silk, shoeboxes, tea sacks, newspapers….and leather.
Discovering that around 800,000 tons of leather and suede offcuts were annually being incinerated or discarded as landfill, Elvis & Kresse devised a way to turn oddly shaped scraps into tessellated components that can be woven together to make complete hides. In 2017, the company began working on a five year-long collaborative partnership with one of the UKs biggest luxury goods manufacturers (Burberry) to produce a new leather accessories range. Last year the Renaissance Nashville Hotel in Tennessee commissioned Elvis & Kresse to make an enormous, 10,000 piece tapestry that hangs behind its reception desk. ‘It's a beautiful piece and a real testament to the circular economy and leather rescue.’
Describing herself an environmentalist first and lover of waste second, the fickle notion of fast fashion is low down on Kresse’s company manifesto. ‘Do you need to constantly have a new shape of handbag when research suggests that there are just 16 shapes of bags that people use every day? Shouldn't we just be perfecting those shapes instead?”
What really propels the Elvis & Kresse business forward is the founders’ unique approach, their innovative backwards design process and a belief that good responsible design can make a better, more sustainable world. “We look at bags and accessories from a completely practical angle,” she says. “From a love of the environment….and a love of its people. Our growth opportunities are limitless.”