"Love at first sight”. That’s how Kresse Wesling, one half of Elvis & Kresse, describes the first time she saw old fire hoses – the product that underpins her company. The MBE recipient was on a “very dull” environment management course back in 2005.
Two fellow course participants were from the London Fire Brigade. A few exchanges later, and Wesling learnt that the service was putting all its old fire hoses into landfill. Intrigued, she went down to Croydon to see the spectacle for herself.
“I couldn’t understand how something so strong and beautiful – dripping with history – could just be abandoned. I took some home to Elvis [her partner] and said, ‘this is what we’re going to do’.”
Elvis (real name James Henrit), then a director at a design consultancy, brought the creativity; Wesling the drive and optimism. “He wouldn’t have started the business without me, but I wouldn’t have had the capabilities without him.”
Wesling rattled through ideas of what to do with the old hose: make roof tiles (they’re waterproof – but also degrade in the sun, and think how much you’d need for just one roof). Prototypes kept on coming over the next two years, but it was in June 2007 that the pair had their breakthrough.
Henrit had been making the company’s first belt when Wesling got a call from the team behind Live Earth, who were putting on a concert in London. “They needed some green merchandise for the event. On the spot, I told them we could do belts.”
The pair spent the night armed with scissors and jabbing holes into hose. They made 1,000 belts and sold them all.
BIGGER THAN HOSES
Now, Elvis & Kresse is an award-winning business, which makes accessories – from wallets and washbags to Ipad cases – out of old fire hose. And each piece is astonishingly attractive.
Wesling thinks “backwards design” gives people a new way of thinking about textile waste – it just requires thinking of the right use for a given product. The business has grown 24 per cent a year since 2007, and has stockists in 15 countries.
The pair donate 50 per cent of profits to the Fire Fighters Charity every year. “That tells people all they need to know,” says Wesling, who would much rather talk about waste avoided than money.
“If we celebrated businesses for what they do – how they act – rather than how much they make, we’d have a better shot at improving the world. For us, money is like WD40. It’s a tool, not an objective.”
Wesling knows that she’s “in a minority” when it comes to environmentalism. But she’s sanguine: “when we started, we were outnumbered 10 to one – at least.
Now, above 40 per cent of people understand some of the same sentiments. Mindsets are improving. Young people are taking higher paid jobs so they can give more money away. Something is happening.”
Wesling puts much of her outlook down to her upbringing is Edmonton, Canada.
“My mum was fond of showing me a video on acid rain when I was young. If you grow up in Canada, you get what’s happening in the rest of the world; you can’t help but be an environmentalist. Our parents fought to make a change in the ‘60s – now we’re feeding on that. Bigger shifts need to come from millennials – hopefully they won’t be too late.”
BANGING THE DRUM
As far as Wesling is concerned, the environmental story has “failed in terms of marketing. It’s negative and reductive.” You need, she explains, at least 70 per cent of your brand message to be positive, otherwise no-one will want to listen.
And of course, this is something she’s embodied in her own business. A fire hose serves for 25 years – then Kresse & Elvis can rescue it and give it another 25 years in a new form. “If the whole green movement could speak that way, we’d be closer to solving the problem.”
The business isn’t a global brand “just yet – but watch this space”. Wesling thinks there’s a “lot of emptiness” in the fashion industry, and that means there’s room for far more authenticity and integrity in design – “we just need to turn the customer tide”.
The firm and Wesling herself have won several prizes which, she says, keeps her motivated during the lonelier times of entrepreneurship.
Elvis & Kresse really is something lived and breathed – the pair even reside in the Kent mill where they work. They’ve been engaged for a while, but aren’t “the personal planning types”. I ask Wesling if it’s ever difficult working with her partner.
“The hard part is that, if one of you has a bad day, so does the other. But there’s a massive upside: you only have a short time to live; he’s amazing, and I get to spend my time with him. Working together is a privilege.”
CV KRESSE WESLING
Company name: Elvis & Kresse
Number of staff: 11
Job title: Co-founder
Born: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Lives: Tonge Mill, Kent
Studied: Politics, and East Asian Studies, McGill University
Drinking: Red wine
Eating: Pizza and ice cream
Currently reading: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein, and Windfall, by McKenzie Funk
Favourite Business Book: Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise, by Ray Anderson
Talents: Fast talker, idealistic disrupter, willing to try anything, terrible dancer
Heroes: My grandmother, Rachel Carson, Joni Mitchell, Wangari Maathai, Wayne Gretzsky
First ambition: To be a vet
Motto: Do more, be better
Most likely to say: Let’s go! Come on!
Least likely to say: I asked Elvis. His reply? “Yes, Elvis, you were 100 per cent right on that one. That was a ridiculous idea.”
Awards: MBE; World Economic Forum Young Global Leader; Cartier Women’s Initiative Award; Woman of the Future Award; HSBC Start Up Stars Award