Farm trips make for a perfect outing. You get to see where your food comes from and it also offers visitors the chance to connect with the farmers. I foresee a future where the equivalent, within the fashion industry, could take shape, focussing on provenance, the craft of making and the skilled artisans. A proponent of an open-door policy
A one hour train ride from London, I arrived in the garden of England aka Kent. The train journey was followed by a short car ride that took me to the doorstep of the workshop-cum-office-cum-residence of Elvis & Kresse. While soaking in the picturesque English countryside, I encountered stacks of coiled red and yellow fire hoses, that in their first life probably put out fires and saved lives in London. Now resting in peace at Elvis & Kresse’s workshop, they wait to be transformed into a luxury material for handbags and accessories.
Elvis & Kresse, set up in 2005, has become known for rescuing London’s decommissioned fire hoses from the landfill. Upcycling what would generally be tagged as ‘waste’, it was nice to be greeted by founders, Kresse and Elvis, who on my arrival welcomed me into their cosy workshop housed in a building that dates back to 1800s. For the first few seconds, it felt like I had travelled back in time where it was common for one to enter an atelier with warmly lit wooden interiors, dotted with second-hand machines. Home to apprentices deftly crafting pieces of leather, the quaint looking workshop is powered by renewable energy and that tells you its 2019.
The Problem Solver Cum Designer Duo
The UK sends close to 15 million tonnes of municipal waste to landfills every year. Trying to tackle a gross 21st-century problem of stuff being shoved into the earth, Kresse says, “Materials have a lot more to give before they are landfilled or incinerated”.
Sharing alarming stats Kresse took me on a walkabout of the workshop before we sat down in the office space for a chat while Elvis could be heard in the background, discussing and negotiating projects on the phone. One thing I noticed about Kresse is that she speaks in tweets: a crisp, hard-hitting and honest point-of-view. “We are problem solvers first and then designers. If we had a conventional design background, we would have never considered 25-year-old fire hose as a luxury raw material.”
Tackling the heavy-duty fire hose would not have been easy in terms of cleaning, repurposing and manufacturing but the founders persevered. While Kresse, who has a background in venture capital and waste management, runs the operations and business development, Elvis oversees product and design. He worked in project management before. Together, they apply creative energy to maximise the potential of what is seen as throwaway waste.
“Reports suggest textile waste that gets thrown away has a value of 2 to 3 thousand dollars a tonne. We say let’s push the boat out and take a tonne of industrial leather waste and turn it into something that carries 100,000 pounds worth of value,” said Kresse. It is an effort that reflects in the finished product. Shiny red or yellow, it is well-made, scores on aesthetics and has received favourable press mentions over the last few years.
The Journey From Fire Hose To Leather
Kresse recounts that in the first year they made only one product; belts from the fire hose. Within two years, the portfolio expanded to include bags and accessories. Meanwhile, with the fire hose problem under control, i.e. no more landfill sendoffs, Kresse was on the hunt for more waste streams to work with. The team created shopping bags for Sainsbury’s using coffee-sac waste sourced from the coffee chain, Costa. Currently, they also work with parachute silk, shoe boxes and air traffic control flight strips.
Amid waste hunting, one material that caught Kresse’s fancy big-time was leather. It ends up as scrap on cutting room floors and seems unusable at face value. Determined to rescue it from landfill, Elvis & Kresse developed a unique modular approach. Kresse explained, “My design brief to Elvis was to design for deconstruction. I wanted the leather waste creations to be fun and also have a DIY element, so people engage with them. After several prototypes, he came up with three shapes.” She took me to the table where lego-like shapes of leather scraps were being assembled to create a new hide. It looks simple, yet so ingenious. These handwoven interlock patterns have become quite the signature look for Elvis & Kresse product ranges, be it bags, rugs or leather cubes.
Digging further into leather, the brand has also taken on B2B leather projects and worked with interiors designers and developers. “We made a tapestry for a hotel in Tennessee that is 8 feet high and 34 feet long, using over 9000 rescued leather pieces, individually cut and handwoven,” explains Kresse. However, the big one was still around the corner. In October 2017, Elvis & Kresse entered into a 5-year partnership with the Burberry Foundation. The stated aim is to utilise at least 120 tonnes of leather off-cuts left from the production of Burberry products into new luxury accessories and homeware.
“Our system is labour intensive, and we are proud of the many ways that it can create meaningful, living wage employment.”
In comparison, their fire hose phase seems like a trickle, when they handled 3 to 10 tonnes of
A significant scale-up of operations is in the offing. Even so, Kresse insists that machines won’t take over their artisanal approach to business. “You can scale and remain focused on high-quality hand-craftsmanship. Our system is labour intensive, and we are proud of the many ways that it can create meaningful, living wage employment.” The Burberry partnership includes a yearly grant of £100,000 to cover the hiring of more apprentices into the business. With a sense of curious optimism, I look forward to creative solutions these problem solvers will come up with, both for the mountain of leather waste and perhaps also for Burberry’s supply chain.
Fashioning a Unique Growth Story
As we continued to talk, I was served herbal tea. Monty, the resident dog and also a model for Elvis & Kresse collars joined the discussion as a rather solemn participant. Equally pensive, I was thinking of all the times this brand broke away from the conventional definition of fashion while it sits in the fashion space. A few weeks prior, I had heard Kresse at an event, delivering yet another quotable quote: “We will never do fashion weeks. However, we would be happy to participate in a permanent week that celebrates durability and timeless designs”.
The brand offers lifelong repairs and never discounts its products. Even if they make small batch-sizes at their workshops in Kent and Istanbul, no two products look the same since they are made from rescued materials. I asked her about the pricing of the product, given the almost nil raw material cost. She informed that the pricing is based on labour costs and emphasised on paying handsome wages to her craftsmen. At the same time, giving is part of the brand’s DNA. 50% of the profits are donated to charities associated with the waste used like The Fire Fighters Charity and more recently Barefoot College that includes sponsoring scholarships for three female solar engineers.
In terms of retail, Elvis & Kresse sells 70% of products from its site. Kresse says, “For wholesale, we are happy to work with regional boutiques than department stores who want new collections every three months.” The business remains self-funded to date. She added, “Initially people thought this was our hobby. They started taking us seriously when we started to build a team and take on sizeable projects. By staying open, by growing over the last 13 years we have proven that materials rescue can succeed as a business, that is how we can have a lasting impact, beyond Elvis & Kresse”.
The trajectory of Elvis & Kresse is unique. And for someone like me, who has spent all her time working in a corporate setup, it took me a while to wrap my head around what these people do and still make money. It is hard, but the hustle and bustle at the workshop prove it is possible. The only thing conventional about this business seems to be their marketing as the founders believe that they still have a long way to go to reach a wider audience. They count the firefighting community and ethical consumers as their core base.
Currently, the brand is at an inflexion point where they are looking to scale their innovations. The global leather waste produced annually is a staggering 800,000 tonnes. That is enough and more leather for Elvis & Kresse and similar businesses to tackle with. Rather than shipping that waste to the UK, Kresse spoke of solving the problem at the source. She is open to the idea of setting up an Elvis & Kresse India in partnership with local leather business.
Meanwhile, having finished his telethon, Elvis came downstairs to check on the preparation for an evening event at the workshop where the visitors will learn to design and assemble a bespoke leather rug. While the doors at the Elvis & Kresse workshop are always open for drop-ins, the team hosts specials on an ongoing basis to help people cherish and appreciate raw materials.
As I got up to leave the inspiring chat that ensured that I’d return for an encore, I wished Kresse and her team the very best for the event and bid farewell to this unique leather Legoland.
The FashNerd team’s Roadtrip Series takes readers on a journey that explores the person behind the accomplishments. Be sure to catch up on previous articles.