Innovative Retailer – Elvis & Kresse

Brought to you by Retail Insider and PCMS Group

Name: Elvis & Kresse

The Place: The manufacturing workshop is in a picturesque water mill in deepest Kent – Tonge to be exact. And there are no shops.

Elvis and Kresse Wesling

The Story: This is a story of a company that wants to redefine luxury in the most surprising way. Kresse Wesling is co-founder of Elvis & Kresse and what do you think her favourite thing to do with her time used to be?

Um, now wait, walking in the Kentish countryside? Nope

Ok, another guess. Baking brownies? Nope. You are so not going to get this that I am going to put you out of your misery. She used to go around visiting landfill sites.

I was actually just going to say that! Of course you were. So she was casting about in the UK trying to find a business idea that fitted with her ethical and sustainable values hence she pottered about recycling plants and waste sites. And what do think she discovered.

I’m not going to dare answer for anyone who wades about in rubbish for fun… Well, that’s just the thing. She found that instead of it being dirty nappies, filth and chaos, all sorts of things arrive at landfill in large lorries where the waste goods are all neatly packed together, not mixed up with any other items and completely clean like, for example, the truck she saw chock full of black foam fillers and she had that thought that every crafting parent has ever had.

What could I do with those? Precisely. It was an epiphany moment and although Wesling did not end up using those fillers it started her on the path – which eventually took her to the London Fire Brigade.

Right, to be brutally honest, I’ve lost the thread again: Fire hoses. Made of very heavy duty material which lasts for 25 years but which were not being recycled in any way, although they are luscious, red, almost snakeskin patterned and very, very durable.

It’s a bleedin’ crime: Each one weighing 18kg and measuring 22m long.

That’s very specific. Is it something to do with the length of a fire engine? No, that’s how long the factory in North Yorkshire that makes all Fire Brigade hoses is.

I’m going to give up asking sensible questions: So she departed with a fire hose under her arm and pondered it at home while her husband got very cross at tripping over it all the time.

I’m loving this domestic detail: First idea – roof tiles but that was no go as the material will crack after 10 years or so if it gets too much exposure to the sun Second idea – luxury accessories.

Of course, completely logical progression: And then it’s just a few short years to arriving at Burberry where we are now.

Yes, absolutely. Wait, what? A five year long partnership just announced with Burberry Foundation to re-purpose thousands of tonnes of their leather off-cuts into brand new pieces of hide to create Fire and Hide masterpieces (many lined with recycled parachute silk).

Goodness. Can we fill in some of the intervening years for our readers? Researching the luxury sector Wesling realised that a company like LVMH no longer uses leather at all on some of its signature brown bags and that the high-end category does not score highly in the sustainability stakes.

Bad rich people: It’s all about craftsmanship but not about ethical values at all. And being a stubborn person she decided that this could change. But first they had to find a way of selling these fine belts that they were manufacturing out of old fire hoses.

It’s very niche: And who better than the London Fire Brigade to service that niche? So initially the products were sold online via the LFB online store, with 50% of profits going to the firefighters charity (that still happens by the way and last year Elvis & Kresse sent £30k their way).

 

Still, selling via an emergency service will only take you so far: Quite so and by now the range was expanding rapidly. A capsule collection was in the offing – card holders, tote bags and so in 2005 Wesling and her co-founder (and husband) built their own website to sell on – she is of the opinion that people who come to the site and read the story become brand ambassadors for the products in a way that visitors to shops do not.

So shops are a big no-no? Not at all, but the provenance is better communicated by their website. Actually they had a pop-up in Harrods early on which went very well and Wesling maintains that anybody who asked the store assistants a question about the products in the shop went on to make a purchase once they’d heard the story.

Crikey. Who starts off with a pop-up in Harrods? Like I said Elvis & Kresse always pitched itself as a luxury brand one problem has been: seasons/styles.

Aah. They want summer/winter bags…. And fire hose bags are heavy duty and red – whatever the season. Like a Ferrari. But nonetheless the range kept expanding and there are now 100+ pieces. Some see the limelight for only one production cycle, others are always available.

Give me a flavour: Top selling item = washbag and has been for the past decade. Wipe clean, see. At the lower end there are beautiful notebooks (£10), baggage tags and cufflinks (£36). Moving up to the mid-range laptop cases (£80) and purses (£110).

Cut to the chase. Go high end: Reporter bags (£145), totes (£199), duffel bags (£350). Prices are based on the labour involved and there is plenty. And in the unlikely event that you do enough damage to your fire hose goods to require repair, this service is provided free. Wesling is adamant she does not want to sell the same person two belts as that defies the point of the business.

 

Please tell me they are making silk stockings out of RAF parachutes: No, not yet anyway. You’re thinking of the Second World War but lots of products feature parachute silk lining which surely adds a touch of glamour to your ablutions.

It’s just a teeny bit depressing that the components of my wash bag have had a more exciting life than me: Well, I think we filled in time now so back to Burberry. Elvis & Kresse have turned their attention to the scandalous waste of high quality leather on the cutting room floor and Burberry was, like, so on board. But Wesling now has some decisions to make.

I know, whether to make that move into firehose dresses? No. To continue with organic growth or take a quantum leap over that.

Aha, investors: To date the two co-founders have funded everything. 250k tonnes of waste material has been used, £120,000 has been given to charities, several million pounds of revenue has been generated and 16 people are now employed. But people would probably put serious money in now to take the company to another level.

Can I just ask who the customers are? They include youngsters who have to save up for a wallet, aged ex-firemen who buy for nostalgic reasons, design-focused people, and ethically-focused individuals. Elvis & Kresse ticks lots of boxes. And the breadth of the customer base leads to another question.

I know, whether Britain is ready for waste leather lampshades? No. Again. Whether to open shops? Boutique stockists already sell the range domestically as they can explain the provenance properly and they do well with the products but the online reach is global and Elvis & Kresse ships all over the world.

So perhaps they just don’t need any stores? The first digital-only luxury brand… why not? Certainly neither founder has any experience of running shops so it is likely that any branch opened in, London for example, would be a rescue and repair workshop in the first instance.

Just before I go, are there any other materials the enterprising Ms Wesling has her beady eye on? Used auction house banners. And coffee sacks.

Hey, I’ll tell you what I’m thinking – scratch’n’sniff opportunities there: And this is exactly why we never want to know what you’re thinking.

PCMS is a global provider of IT software and services for the retail industry. PCMS offers a full-range of integrated commerce solutions across selling touch points and also provides turnkey managed services and cloud hosting. Its client list includes John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Whole Foods, as well as Walgreens in the US and fashion brands including Prada and Ferragamo across Europe.

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