How do you go from fire hose to haute couture? Terence Steinberg (MBA 2017) sat down with Elvis & Kresse, to uncover how fashion is giving fire hose a second life.
Curious setting for a business, I think to myself as I tuck my bicycle behind the gates of Elvis & Kresse’s workshop. Occupying a historic flour mill in the English countryside, this may not be where you would expect the head office of one of fashion’s most up-and-coming brands, but here a quiet revolution is flaring up. Inside, I sit down for tea with Kresse Wesling, cofounder of Elvis & Kresse, to discuss whether her company’s rapid success in the fashion industry suggests a new way of doing business is possible.
The irony is, Elvis & Kresse never set out to be industry leaders. “Our mission isn’t to be the world’s best fashion brand,” Kresse admits. “It’s to reclaim, innovate, and give money away.” Despite their products being showcased by Cameron Diaz on the cover of Vogue, Kresse is adamant: “We’re in fashion because that happens to be the most suitable solution to the fire hose problem.”
It’s been said that innovation stems either from problems in search of solutions, or solutions in search of problems. In 2005 when Kresse learned that the London Fire Brigade disposed of ten tonnes of decommissioned fire hose each year, she discovered a problem seeking a solution. She hauled a hose back to her London house-share, cut it apart with her partner Elvis, and started working on prototypes – shed roof tiles bearing little resemblance to the haute couture her brand pioneers today. Over time they homed in on belts, and the founders launched their namesake shortly afterwards.
Business climbed through the recession as Elvis & Kresse expanded on belts with a range of bags and wallets – each constructed of rescued hose and other durable, salvaged material. Through to today, organic growth has enabled Elvis & Kresse to roughly double in turnover and impact each year. The company has now reclaimed 400 tonnes of discarded material from the UK and donates tens of thousands to charities.
Kresse Wesling inspecting a batch of bags at their warehouse.
Sitting in the company’s top office – a rustic room that feels more suited to sipping tea than tending to business – I listen carefully to Kresse’s story. Yet, I can’t help noticing the subtle clues that the fire hose has been eclipsed as the company’s main focus. The sofa pillow beside me, the throw rug beneath my feet, the upholstery on a nearby stool – each is crafted from interlocking weaves of palm-sized cuts of leather.
Experience Under the Belt
“It’s almost helpful we didn’t have a design background,” Kresse reflects, “because designers are taught to draw something, to go out and get the materials – whereas we just put the material there and said, ‘Okay, what can we do with that? How can we solve that problem?’”
The problem, this time, is even larger. Each year factories in Western Europe throw away 35,000 tonnes of high quality scrap leather. This figure climbs to 180,000 tonnes globally. “If we want to solve the leather problem, organic isn’t enough.”
"...designers are taught to draw something, to go out and get the materials – whereas we just put the material there and said, ‘Okay, what can we do with that? How can we solve that problem?’”
Over several months Elvis & Kresse designed a series of shapes that could interlock indefinitely to create all kinds of pieces, a bit like Lego meets Louis Vuitton. They are currently working with FLOR in the US to bring the idea to market. It is a circular, innovative solution designed specifically to create value from discarded leather. The pillow, rug, and stool before me are prototypes, the production runs of which have been a hit. Orders are pouring in, she tells me, and this novel solution is turning a pretty profit – for the company, the environment, and charity.
Stitching Your Own Bootstraps
The hallmark of Kresse and her brand, I come to realise, reflects the leather: a collaborative weave of modular solutions forged through close partnerships – and clear boundaries. To support the company’s mission of charitable donations, Kresse has honed a sharp focus on the bottom line. “We don’t do anything that doesn’t move the business forward,” Kresse says. Each product must make profit, or it’s not a genuine solution to the waste.
But realising black through operations is far more elusive than calculating it on paper. Since their launch, manufacturers repeatedly rejected Elvis & Kresse’s requests for services, insisting that vintage hose was no substitute for leather. The founders visited factories both domestic and international in search of a luxury manufacturing partner who would produce to their desired specs.
“We had this one belt design,” Kresse commented about an early trial. “Most buckles have a .1 per cent defect, and this had 2 per cent. It was a nightmare, but we just replaced them for people.” In one swift response, the budding company demonstrated commitment to service while refining their partnerships and design. Eventually, they found one brave group with a history of producing for Prada, Chloe, and Tods, and manufacturing hurdles began to fall.
To overcome such practical as well as other ethical obstacles, Elvis & Kresse vertically integrated their chain in 2010. Today they now manage two separate and fully capable factories, one in the UK and the other in Turkey. Further, they have successfully eschewed any outside investment – since day one, Elvis & Kresse bootstrapped their entire value chain through sales. “We save and save and save. Elvis calls it a war chest,” Kresse chuckles.
Elvis and Kreese 'Weekender' bag
What’s next for this brand remains to be seen. While they seek an astute marketer to help navigate the current upward inflection, Kresse and her partner recast their gaze locally towards renovating the 200-year-old mill housing their workshop. They may outgrow the facility in just a few years, but are still investing in local energy production to make the operation carbon neutral. As Kresse explains her logic, it strikes me as an analogy for re-envisioning business – sustaining itself through circular supplies and local power, while contributing to an economy that benefits everyone.
No surprise, then, that Elvis & Kresse have become a prominent example of the B Corps' recent wave of popularity. “I wish that was how people looked at the entrepreneurial landscape,” Kresse explains. “Instead of ‘Oh, I can monetise that, ’I wish that language was just different, like ‘Yes, I can fix that,’ because solutions are going to be increasingly valuable. And growth - we grow to the size of the problem we decide to solve, but I don’t think growth in and of itself is necessary.”
“I wish that was how people looked at the entrepreneurial landscape,” Kresse explains. “Instead of ‘Oh, I can monetise that, ’I wish that language was just different, like ‘Yes, I can fix that,’ because solutions are going to be increasingly valuable.
The fact that her company is now recognised as an industry leader, while charging in the opposite direction of industry standards, is testament to this philosophy.
We at the LER are left wondering, can the example of Elvis & Kresse make you rethink how you go about your business?
The LER would like to thank and acknowledge Nancy Sawan (Sloan Fellow 2014) and Graeme Burns (MBA 2016) for making this article possible.