Elvis & Kresse’s Loving War on Leather Waste
by Gene Fowler
Shortly before the pandemic kicked in last year, a gas leak in my home led to the presence of a houseful of firefighters. And despite my concern about the leak, I found myself—to a degree I hadn’t anticipated—swept up in a wave of admiration. Ever since the nation, and the world, witnessed the heroic actions of the FDNY on 9.11.01, any American with an ounce of feeling, when encountering firefighters, reacts much the same as I did that day: “You guys are the best…. You guys are the best.”
The anniversary of the terror attacks renews our appreciation, our absolute awe, for those who run toward the danger every year. And the hundreds of New York’s noblest souls we lost that day were on my mind as I spoke with Kresse Wesling of Kent, England, on September 9th. Elvis & Kresse, the luxury goods company that she operates with James “Elvis” Henrit, which brilliantly fashions its accessory products from various waste materials, donates half the profits from one of its lines to the UK’s Fire Fighters Charity.
A native of Western Canada, Kresse arrived in Great Britain in 2004, after working in Hong Kong for a venture capital firm. “I was obsessed with waste,” she says. “This was the pre-Google era, but I researched the waste matrix at the British Library, where I learned that England dumped 100 million tonnes of waste each year.” (I looked it up. A “ton,” of course, is the unit of measurement for 2,000 pounds. The British “tonne” is a metric measurement denoting 1,000 kilograms, or 2,204 pounds.)
“For an island that is smaller than Texas, that’s a lot of waste. So, I began making pilgrimages to landfills,” Kresse continues. “I would sit and watch materials arrive and think about what shouldn’t be there. And when I saw the fire hoses, I wondered why that was being dumped in the landfill.” By chance, in 2005, she then met two members of the London Fire Brigade and traveled to Croydon, where a team kept the hoses in working order, decommissioning them after 25 years or when a hose became too damaged to repair.
“I fell in love with those brave old hoses and their lustrous red color, so I mounted a rescue,” says Kresse. “They were just too beautiful to be consigned to the scrap heap.”
In Hong Kong in 2002, she met her partner James, a like-minded soul equally committed to addressing the environmental mess we humans have made in the course of attaining our 21st-century industrialized lifestyle. And not only did he walk the walk and talk the talk, but he was…. Elvis! “It was six months after I met him before I even knew that Elvis wasn’t his real name,” Kresse recalls. “He got the name at university on the first day of field hockey tryouts when he jumped up on the bar, played guitar and sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ People called him Elvis from that day on.” Together, they founded Elvis & Kresse.
In time, E & K added items to their product lines made from other reclaimed materials such as parachute silk, auction banners, tea sacks, paraglider wings and life rafts made of industrial nylon, printing blankets (rubber laminated to canvas) and, of course, leather. Even the company’s packaging is crafted from rescued material.
Elvis & Kresse’s Fire-hose Collection for men and women features a variety of bags, purses, belts, wallets and other accessories made from the red and (rarer) yellow salvaged fire hoses. A fire hose bag called the Tooley Tote MK III references a fire that started in 1861, on London’s Tooley Street. The conflagration raged for two weeks and spurred the creation of the city’s first fire brigade.
Half of the profits from Fire-hose Collection sales have been donated to the Fire Fighters Charity for 16 consecutive years. In the first year, 2005, that amounted to 130 British pounds. (The British pound, for which the symbol is £, currently equates to 1.37 American dollars.) In 2021, Elvis & Kresse has donated £66,977 to the Fire Fighters Charity.
“Our Fire-hose pieces are more than just a collection,” says Kresse. “They represent a whole new kind of luxury. One that is sustainable, ethical, transparent, generous and kind. We love that these hoses are still working hard, long after their first life; the firefighters rescue us, we rescue the fire-hose and the proceeds help to rescue firefighters and their families in their time of need.”
The real-life services Elvis & Kresse’s donations provide to firefighters include physiotherapy, psychological therapies, medications, food, Personal Protective Equipment and assistance with the many new responsibilities fire brigades have taken on in response to COVID-19.
“It wasn’t just help with my injury,” said one assisted firefighter, of the charity’s services funded by Elvis & Kresse, “but you get help with all sorts of things, from sleep to eating healthy or mental health awareness. The range of support they have for all sorts of things, it was mind-blowing. I didn’t realize they offered half of what they do. The Fire Fighters Charity got me back to being able to work and fully functional. In my opinion, they’ve saved my career and I’ll be forever grateful to them.”
Additionally, since the company’s founding in 2005 and the introduction of the Fire-hose Collection, none of London’s old fire hoses have gone into a landfill. And that amounts to about 200 tonnes of reclaimed material.
I don’t claim to be the world’s leading authority on the leather business, but in several years of researching articles for Shop Talk! on the industry, one aspect that hadn’t previously come up is the amount of leather waste produced in the creation of a great range of goods. Kresse filled me in. “In the last big global study of the subject, in 2010, it was determined that 800,000 tonnes of leather off-cuts went into landfills or incinerators. And that’s probably an underestimate of just one type of leather waste. The United States was in the top 10, but the most waste was produced in China, Pakistan and Brazil.”
Concerned about that waste, the non-profit foundation arm of the historic, yet contemporary, luxury fashion house of Burberry approached Elvis & Kresse in 2013. After four years of research and development, the two companies partnered together in 2017, to work on the problem. Announcing the initiative, Burberry outlined a broad range of issues and challenges.
“The impacts of leather production can be significant and stretch right along its value chain, from methane emissions and conversion of natural ecosystems to pastureland, to the chemicals, water and energy used in the processing and tanning of leather,” the company noted in a statement. “With leather accessories accounting for more than 10% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, we are focused on working with our supply chain partners to mitigate any adverse impacts from leather production.
“We have committed to sourcing 100% of our leather from tanneries with environmental, traceability and social compliance certifications by 2022…We are a member of the Leather Working Group, a multi-stakeholder organisation that aims to improve the tanning industry by creating alignment on environmental priorities, bringing visibility to best practices and providing guidelines for continual improvement…Through the Burberry Foundation, we are working with sustainable luxury company Elvis & Kresse to transform leather off-cuts from the production of our products into a range of accessories and homeware. Half of the profits from this range are donated to charitable organisations promoting renewable energy, while the remaining half is reinvested by Elvis & Kresse to expand their work and generate apprenticeship and work experience opportunities.”
At Elvis & Kresse, the partnership resulted in a new line, the Fire and Hide Collection. The line’s Dutch Tote, for example, combines rescued leather waste and fire-hose and was inspired by the couple’s trip to the Netherlands. Available in “colours” (British spelling) ranging from ink blue to bubblegum pink and candy apple red, the tote can accommodate a laptop and three bottles of wine.
Another item in the Fire and Hide Collection, the Weekend Bag, is currently included in Bags: Inside Out, an exhibition on the history of bags at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which Kresse describes as “the world’s largest museum dedicated to human culture.” Slated to tour the world after its lengthy London run, the exhibition includes such items as a 16th-century embroidered burse made to carry the royal seal and a 1921 Despatch Box owned and used by Winston Churchill. The Elvis & Kresse Weekend Bag made from rescued materials fits right in with what Kresse describes as “activist bags” in the exhibition. These include an 1825 bag embroidered with abolitionist-themed art and a 2004 International Woman bag designed by cutting-edge artist Tracey Emin for the French luxury leather goods company Longchamp.
Burberry’s leather off-cuts arrive at Elvis & Kresse as small scraps. “They have also been crushed,” explains Kresse, “and we have to weave them together by hand to, in effect, create a new hide. It takes an enormous amount of time, but to date, some 120 tonnes have been saved from the landfill.”
In addition to bags and other accessories, Elvis & Kresse’s modular leather components have been applied to rugs and furniture. Last year, the company partnered with British furniture maker Katie Walker. “By crafting and marrying form and tension,” says Walker of her work, “I aim to produce sculptural and user-friendly furniture that can be enjoyed and handed down the generations.” She approached E&K to see if they could upholster some of her pieces.
The resulting creation, a removable leather covering on Walker’s Beam Bench, is now available in E&K’s Homeware Collection. “We’ve been getting orders for it from all over the world,” says Kresse, “especially from the U.S.”
Elvis & Kresse teamed up with FLOR, an Atlanta, Georgia-headquartered custom carpet and flooring company, in 2015, to offer customizable rugs made from reclaimed leather off-cuts. Still another rescued-leather product, cubes or pouffes made from the stitched-together hides and stuffed with the leather, function as doorstops or pieces of furniture.
E&K’s modular leather components have also been utilized in commissions for art pieces. One, an all-black, tessellated matrix tapestry made up of 11,000 leather pieces, graces the Nashville Renaissance Hotel. “It’s like Lego for leather,” Kresse explains. “You can redesign and change the work however you like.”
I plan to continue following Elvis & Kresse’s fascinating activities. They’re currently working with Queen Mary University to develop a solar forge that will melt aluminum cans that can then be reconstituted into key rings, bracelets, buckles and other hardware and jewelry. And like true global citizens, they don’t plan to patent the device. “In England alone,” Kresse explains, “some 16 million aluminum cans a year get pitched onto highways, with many ending up in the sea. The world needs this forge.”
People send the British problem solvers various forms of waste material from all over the world. “What can you do with this?” A Scottish jeweler recently sent a pile of metal watchband chunks and another correspondent sent a vial of platinum powder that had been scrubbed out of cancer drugs. “It arrived in a locked silver briefcase,” says Kresse. “I had to contact them to get the key code.”
Engaged in a mission for which the ultimate, hoped-for results may not be seen until sometime after their own lifespans, James—er, Elvis—and Kresse are deeply passionate about all their projects. Still, some are imbued with especially personal significance.
In 2011, Kresse’s brother was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, recovering only after a lengthy process of surgeries and physiotherapy. “The leather motorcycle jacket he was wearing, though, saved his skin,” Kresse says. A year later, the brother sent the jacket to Elvis & Kresse. “The jacket did its job, but it wasn’t done yet. We applied our modular process to the leather and made a bag, two belts, four clutch bags and several cuff links from it. They were given to family members. I kept a coin purse piece that remains very close to me.”
Recounting the emotional reclamation in a website video and on the British podcast Be More Pirate, Kresse testifies, “We need to save this leather. It deserves a second chance.”