Ever thought it was possible to create luxury handbags and accessories out of fire hose? Neither did we. At least, not until we met Elvis & Kresse, who founded their ethical brand to rescue and transform London’s fire hoses into sustainable luxury pieces with great design to boot! Let’s say that as fellow supporters of sustainable fashion, our interest was more than piqued. We had a talk with co-founder Kresse about the heart of their business and how they landed a long-term sustainability partnership with Burberry.
Please tell us about how the label started and explain to us a little more about what you do?
In 2005 we had a chance meeting with the London Fire Brigade and a very emotional response to their damaged, decommissioned fire hose. It was too heroic and too beautiful for landfill. Somebody had to do something and it was going to be us, Elvis & I. We mounted a rescue, and over the last 13 years we have saved all of London’s hoses, transforming them into a range of luxury accessories and donating 50% of the profits to the Fire Fighters Charity. From the first day we had a unique DNA: rescue, transform, donate.
What does sustainable luxury mean to you?
I think the best way to define sustainable, is by defining its opposite. An unsustainable thing or activity is one that ‘can’t be maintained at the current rate or level’. Many of our human activities are essentially unsustainable: anything that relies on fossil fuels, or requires large amounts of land, water or toxic chemicals is most likely not sustainable, at least not in its current form. We take this concept a bit further; for us, if it doesn’t make the world better for other people’s grandchildren, then it isn’t sustainable. We built our entire business on this idea. This is why we don’t follow ‘seasons’ or trends and instead focus on utilitarian classics. Although I think luxury is up to the consumer, our products are all hand-made by highly skilled and well paid craftspeople. We believe our products represent sustainable luxury because they make the world better, not worse, and their quality and integrity ensure that they will have a long second life.
What inspired you and what was the most interesting thing you discovered when working with raw materials from fire hoses?
The problem is always the inspiration, and the problem is more than just the material. We fell in love with the hose, that was the spark, but we also needed to understand it. Where does this problem occur, and why, and in what amounts, and what is fire hose anyway? What is it made from, what are its properties, what is its maximum future potential? The most interesting thing that we continue to discover is that waste is a design flaw, it really doesn’t have to exist at all.
What kind of challenges did you face setting up a sustainable brand?
We face the same challenges that any brand would, but then add to that the reality of using completely novel materials, having to develop new techniques and often equipment and ensuring that our whole business is run and managed according to a strong set of environmental and ethical principles – it practically doubles the workload. However, the real reward that comes with the genuine satisfaction of ‘doing good’ makes these additional challenges all the more worthwhile.
Tell us about your collaboration with Burberry & what prompted this partnership?
No matter how carefully patterns for leather goods are planned, high quality, unused, freshly tanned and dyed leather falls to the cutting room floor as seemingly unusable pieces. Globally this amounts to 800,000 tonnes each year. We have designed a system to transforms leather fragments into components which are then hand woven, piece by piece, into whole new hides. When we decided to tackle the leather problem, we knew we would need a brave partner. We are grateful for the support of the Burberry Foundation to address this issue together. Late last year, we launched our 5-year partnership and we are truly excited to scale this solution and magnify its impact. This is the kind of work we are made for and it’s the kind of partnership that will change the future of luxury.
Donating 50% of your profits to charity is no small feat, what made you decide this is the way forward and how has this impacted your business?
When we first found the hose and took it home, we promised that we would share half of our profits with the fire service community. It was a snap decision, and certainly one of our best. The hose comes to us from a heroic community that we instinctively knew we needed to honour and include in our project. Sharing, is genuinely important, why else would society spend so much time teaching children to share? Profit is a surplus; it is what is left over at the end of the year. It is important to reinvest half of this in the business but why shouldn’t we also reinvest half in our community of stakeholders. The donation has also allowed us to open up in more helpful ways; both the Fire Fighters Charity and the London Fire Brigade have access to our books. This openness was also instinctive, but it has made us one of the most radically transparent luxury brands, and given us a unique platform to communicate the inherent value of transparency.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
We started Elvis & Kresse to solve the problem of London’s fire hoses. Each day, kilo-by-kilo we are solving problems.
Your brand is dedicated to craftsmanship and durability; how do you apply this principle to your daily life?
The DNA of Elvis & Kresse is prevalent in a lot of our choices and possessions. We think twice, and buy once and always reclaim if we can. In 2013 we bought Tonge Mill, a former flourmill that was mostly derelict. We have converted it into our workshop and home by salvaging everything that was there and fitting out the interiors with items we have been collecting from skips, building sites, ebay or gumtree. Everything from the beds to the sinks, skirting boards, flooring, tiles and light fixtures are rescued. It was certainly a labour of love, but it is an extension of the same values that are at the heart of Elvis & Kresse.
What are your investment pieces and how do you look after them?
I inherited a pair of cowboy boots that my brother bought when he was 13. They are from an amazing Canadian brand called Alberta Boot. I look after them by resoling and repairing as needed and they are still going strong after 26 years of solid use.
What can you not live without?
Oxygen, water, food… and it would be really tough without Elvis.