Upcycling case history: from firehose to luxury goods

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Upcycling case history: from firehose to luxury goods” was written by Bibi van der Zee, for theguardian.com on Thursday 15th May 2014 13.46 UTC

Kresse Wesling: I’d always been really interested in the environment, so back in 2004 I went along to do an ISO 14001 course. Which was great in many ways – you learn how to audit absolutely everything – but was also really really tedious. There were a couple of guys from the London Fire Brigade along too and we all sat together in the back row, cracking jokes, that sort of thing. And it turned that they’d come along because they were trying to solve a few environmental problems. And one of them was that they had all these firehoses they were having to put into landfill and they just couldn’t find any other use for it.

Basically if there’s a hole in firehose which can’t be fixed then you can’t just cut it in half and use it anyway. A firehose has to be long so that you can reach the fire. And part of the hose was also just coming to the end of its 30-year lifespan. I went to visit them at work, and they had tonnes and tonnes of this beautiful, heroic material that was just going into landfill. I made a promise to them right then, that I’d come up with a way to use it and I’d give half the profits back to them. They’ve told me since they thought at the time that it was all hysterically funny and never really expected to hear from me again. But actually it’s ended being their longest-running, most successful recycling partnership.

When we actually started making the bags, we hit snag after snag. We couldn’t find a sewing machine that was strong enough, to begin with; we killed four before we managed to find one that could cope. Then we got in touch with all the craft leather workshops in the UK, but they all turned us down, so in the end Elvis had to teach himself to sew to begin with.

Then we had no cash. So we made four prototypes and then I went round London, showing them to people, and asking them to buy off-plan, like an apartment. And about 200 people trusted us and went for it, and then we were off. The first two years were hard, very hard, but after a couple of years word started to get around. Since then it has been amazing; we now sell all over the world. Cameron Diaz wore one of our belts in Vogue, that was wonderful. And we did a collaboration recently with Bill Amberg which was just great; when we met up with him we spent the first three hours talking about water mills and self-sufficiency before we got down to the actual bag.

Live Better: Satchel
Elvis & Kresse make items from genuine decommissioned fire-hoses. This messenger bag also uses reclaimed military-grade parachute silk lining. Photograph: Elvis & Kresse Photograph: Elvis & Kresse

We’ve spent the last four years working on a leather reclamation project; did you know that we throw away 2000 tonnes a year? It’s the patches, the leftovers, the little scraps left over by our leatherworkers. And it’s such a beautiful material, it’s got such a wonderful smell. You can’t compost it, it would be terrible to incinerate it. There’s a German process for recycling it but it involves shredding it and turning it into something else and that just seems such a shame.

We’ve come up with a kind of jigsaw solution, a way of weaving a multitude of pieces together in an entirely organic form that can be used as a rug, or to cover your sofa, or for your walls. And we’re just rolling that out now.

I’m now entrepreneur in residence at the Said School in Oxford, and one of the students asked me the other day if I feel as if I can relax now. No! I feel as if we’re only just getting started. At the moment we’re only diverting a tiny fraction of the UK’s waste stream from landfill, and I lie awake at nights trying to think of ways of diverting more. We need, we urgently need to change people, to change the way people value our environment.

As told to Bibi van der Zee.

Kresse Wesling and her partner James Henrit are the team behind Elvis & Kresse. To find out more, visit elvisandkresse.com.

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