Elvis and Kresse has been reimagining the world of luxury since 2005, transforming the most unlikely of materials into high-end handbags and accessories. A recent partnership with Burberry has further solidified the brand’s name, though this prestigious ushering into the world of haute couture hasn’t changed the rather grassroots vision upon which the company was founded. Kresse Wesling and James Henrit (whose nickname is — you guessed it — Elvis) established the label after seeing the vast potential in a previously untapped material: old fire hoses. Thus began a creative exploration into the repurposing of other forgotten items, quite literally turning trash into seriously upscale treasures.
We recently spoke with Wesling to learn more about the unusual story behind the company and its sustainable, forward-thinking visions.
You’ve described the founding of Elvis & Kresse as being precipitated by a “chance encounter” with the London Fire Brigade. Can you tell us more about how that serendipitous meeting unfolded?
It was in the back row of an ISO 14001 auditing seminar. I was chatting with two fire service personnel about their environmental issues. When the discussion turned to hose, I immediately asked to see it and my first visit to Croydon was arranged. It was love at first site and the rescue mission was on. We set up Elvis & Kresse to save it. For over a decade, none of London’s fire-hose has gone to landfill and close to 200,000 kg of material have been reclaimed.
What were your respective backgrounds before forming this unique company?
Neither of us had a background in design. I was in venture capital and green startups; Elvis was in project management.
You’ve been rescuing London’s decommissioned fire hoses for over a decade now and turning them into luxury items. Did the idea for how to reclaim those hoses come instantly, or was there much trial and error involved in figuring out their second lives?
There were years of trial and error. We never wavered from the hose; from the first day we were committed to its rescue, but we didn’t have a clue what we would do with it when we started.
We understand that you use a variety of other materials in both your bags and your branding materials — parachute silk, coffee and tea sacks, auction banners. Were these also chance discoveries, or did you specifically seek out the materials with a purpose in mind?
We are always hunting, always curious about materials that are in need of rescue. Some of these materials we discovered in skips on industrial estates and others came to us. After more than a decade of materials rescue, a lot of businesses reach out to us with their waste issues. Literally once a week we will receive a box of something interesting and only wish we were a large enough business to take them all on.
Which has been the trickiest material to repurpose?
The fire hose was definitely the most difficult. There were no techniques — no established practices for cleaning, preparing, and transforming the material. In a way this was incredible as there were no bad habits to fall into, but it did mean that we faced a series of challenges that are never entirely resolved. I suppose the best thing about our fire hose adventure is that it means we are never static; we never stop looking for ways to improve how we work with our materials or finish our pieces. We are always on our toes.
Is there another mass-waste product on your radar that you see as having a similar potential?
There are too many to name. Billions of tonnes of material go to waste each year and none of this is necessary.
The Burberry Foundation became involved in 2017, partnering with Elvis & Kresse to re-craft the company’s leather cut-offs. How did that partnership come about?
Following a presentation I gave in 2014, [which was] about our leather solution and circular economy style, Burberry approached us. Several years of conversations ensued. Burberry was aware of our commitment to materials rescue and charitable donations, and we started to discuss how we might collaborate. As you can imagine, it took quite a while to develop a plan capable of saving significant material and worthy of both our businesses. We are now implementing that plan.
The bags and accessories of Elvis & Kresse have a very distinct look that is clearly in some way influenced by the roughness of the materials used, but the brand certainly has its own aesthetic. How did you arrive at this overarching identity? Is the design process a complete collaboration between you, or does one person tend to lead in that respect?
This is such a lovely question! Thank you! Elvis is the designer and the aesthetic is based on solving problems. We are always keen to maximize the value of the material, to honour it as it is, and not produce any follow on waste. We focus on creating classic, timeless shapes which celebrate our materials. You can see this in practice in all our pieces, but particularly the larger ones like the Weekend Bags. Fire hose has a 10 cm diameter, which means our patterns consist of several 10 cm strips of hose. We use the natural width of the hose to eliminate off-cut waste, so our environmental goals — our problem-solving focus — is the major contributor to our aesthetic.
Any other luxury brands you’d like to work with to reimagine old materials?
There are 800,000 tonnes of leather waste worldwide. This waste is spread across an enormous supply chain and is associated with almost every luxury company that exists, from furniture makers to car manufacturers to fashion houses. Our solution can solve 70% of this problem — at a minimum — which means that we are keen to work with all brands. We want to solve the whole, industry-wide problem. The fastest and most impactful way to do this is through partnership and collaboration.
Your housewares line is much smaller than your bags/accessories collection at the moment — any plans in the works for new products or items? (And, of course, we need to know! — what will they be made from?)
We always have new products and projects on the go. There are several more to come in our leather system, but we are also doing a lot of R&D with paper and aluminium waste. The best way to keep track of our new projects is to sign up to our newsletter!
Photos courtesy Elvis & Kresse