What do we think of when we say the word ‘luxury’ in relation to a brand? Isn’t part of the value proposition that it’s the creator of items with a no-expense-spared policy on materials, and a whatever it takes attitude to waste? Absolutely not, says Kresse Wesling, co-founder and director of sustainable luxury brand Elvis & Kresse, makers of beautifully crafted leather goods whose entire business philosophy evolved from a starting point of reclamation, rescue and reuse of materials, with a view to tackling the global waste crisis.
“If you go back to the beginning of luxury, they wanted to make something pure and perfect and utilitarian. Hermès made saddles, Louis Vuitton made travel cases. They weren't decadent they were well made,” says Wesling. “If you trace these companies back to their roots, it wasn't about overuse of materials or abundance or bling, it was about really amazing craftsmanship and quality. And one thing that I can tell you about amazing craftspeople or artisans is that they really cherish the material.”
It’s a position that clearly aligns with the Canada-born entrepreneur’s own passion. The Elvis & Kresse story begins with the unlikely candidate of used fire hoses from the London Fire Brigade, and the insight that, despite having come to the end of its original life, this beautiful and durable product was a resource with the potential to be transformed for an entirely new purpose.
“When I came to UK I went to the British Library and started learning about the waste situation - in 2004 it was about 100 million tonnes. I was really intrigued by that so I started going to landfill sites just to see what 100 million tonnes looks like, or a portion of 100 million tonnes.
“And I thought I've got to do something about this because it's clearly deeply, visibly, unsustainable in all senses. It's a tiny island here, there's no more land. Then we had a chance meeting with someone in the London Fire Brigade and discovered their damaged and decommissioned fire hoses were contributing to this problem. But it was manageable amounts for someone that wanted to start a small business; between 3 and 12 tonnes a year. So I thought, yes, that's what we can do, we can use that as a raw material. But I didn't know to what end.”
We didn't want to make something average, we wanted to make something exceptional.
Fire hoses globally are made from nitrile rubber. Its very reliability as a material also makes it problematic when it becomes a waste product. Designed for a prolonged and hardworking life, it takes millions of years to eventually break down in landfill. As Wesling describes, understanding it could be repurposed wasn’t enough to build a strong business proposition. It took extensive research to shape the right path.
“We didn't want to make something average, we wanted to make something exceptional. Although I love waste and fire-hoses, the only way to make sure other people do is to embed them with love, care, value, attention, skill and craftsmanship and all those things. And that really is the domain of luxury.”
Knowing they wanted to create a sustainable luxury product that celebrated the materials it was composed from was just the starting point. Cue further research and a list of questions for existing high-end retailers. What did people really need, not just desire this season? What had true utilitarian value and were regular elements of collections?
The result was 16 key pieces, including bags, purses, wallets and belts that were considered staples of most brands. But it was a design insight that made the concept come to life: a modular approach would allow them to produce according to their principals. By weaving together small components of ‘waste’ leather, they could create the larger sheets of material needed for their accessories range, while at the same time designing for deconstruction, repair and replacement.
Neither Wesling nor her business partner James Henrit is design school trained, which she credits with giving them the unconventional solution of allowing the material to guide the creative process. “I think there can sometimes be a focus on creativity and blue sky thinking,” says Wesling. “But actually we have problems to solve that are sitting right in front of us, and we can solve those in the most creative way possible. What we didn't want to do is create new problems, we didn't want to create more collateral damage. So our aesthetic is entirely achieved through basically following our values, and that's not what designers are taught in design school.”
The brand was ahead of its time in its thinking and philosophy, pre-dating what has come to be known as the circular economy. The practice of eliminating waste from all aspects of a business’s value chain has gained traction across every sector, with the credo of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle a vital part of the current conversation, in acknowledgment of ever dwindling natural resources.
I don't want to have a circular economy where we cut and paste the existing capitalist structure onto it.
Their clear sense of purpose combined with a dedication to craftsmanship put them on the radar of established luxury players; they’re currently 18 months into a 5-year collaboration with the Burberry Foundation. The leather goods industry produces an estimated 800,000 tonnes of leather waste a year. The partnership means Elvis & Kresse will transform at least 120 tonnes of leather offcuts from the production of Burberry goods into accessories and homeware, with half of the profits from the range going to charitable causes focused on renewable energy. The remaining half will be reinvested by Elvis & Kresse to expand their work in reducing and reusing waste, protecting the environment and inspiring craftspeople.
Despite the brand’s runaway success, Wesling remains a tireless vocal advocate of all aspects of the zero waste cause. Our conversation takes in diverse topics such as indigenous First Nations peoples and how much we need to learn from them in terms of living sustainably; her hopes for the children in the Fridays for Future school strikes; the social and historical impact of the early Green movement; the current political climate and its lack of inspiring leadership and, vitally, her concerns around the possible direction of the circular economy itself.
“I don't want to have a circular economy where we cut and paste the existing capitalist structure onto it. The reason for that is that right now a company is legally obliged to maximise shareholder value. It's not legally obliged to protect the environment and prevent the exploitation of people. If you're a B Corp like we are you change the constitution of your business so the shareholder is not king, they are not more important than the planet and its people. So unless the circular economy adopts that I find it problematic, because it won't achieve the change that we really actually need. We're asking people to make great changes; if a company's business model is to extract and make and sell, then it truly is revolutionary to ask them and their shareholders to not do any of that anymore.
“This is kind of tricky, a bit of nuance maybe; the circular economy is great but it is not a get out of jail free card. It does not mean that we can continue to consume and produce at the same rate. Pace absolutely has to be addressed. We're not asking the right creative questions if people think the circular economy will solve all our problems. Why not take these crises as opportunities and do something really interesting?”