One day in 2005 I was at a hideously dull course in London about how to make your business more environmentally efficient. Two guys from the London Fire Brigade were joking around at the back, so I sat with them. I said, “What are you guys doing here? Are you wasting too much water when you’re saving our lives?” It turned out that the fire service was putting all its old fire hose into landfill, so I asked if I could come and see for myself.
They invited me down to Croydon Fire Station – and a few days later I was sitting on the bus home with 22m of red fire hose slung over my shoulder. When I got in I said to my partner, Elvis, “Look, what are we going to do with this?” and he said, “What do you mean, ‘What are we going to do?’ What are you going to do?” He took some convincing.
Originally I thought roof tiles – brilliant, because it’s this rich terracotta red, and I thought fireproof, waterproof, it’s going to be excellent. But the hose degrades with UV exposure and there isn’t enough fire hose waste globally, annually to have a sustainable roofing business.
I knew I could come up with a solution, but it took a long time. To begin with I was storing the hose in our house and scrubbing it clean in the bathtub. I’d roped Elvis in, and we were prototyping all kinds of things on this old workbench in the garden.
The prototypes that turned out to be horrendously rubbish tended to be the things that I made – I am completely unable to get my hands to do what my brain is thinking. I tried to make a chandelier and it looked like a medieval torture contraption. I tried to make a clutch bag, and because my stitching is so bad I made it with rivets. It was really ugly. Once, for Christmas, I decorated a cactus in little stars made out of hose and that was pretty awful. Elvis’s mother was like, “Ooh, this is lovely.” She’s a kind woman.
Then, in June 2007, some friends put the merchandising team for the London Live Earth concert in touch because they knew they were worried their products weren’t that green. At that point Elvis had made one belt; the leather on one of his old ones had perished so he cut some hose and was literally in the process of fixing it to the buckle when I got this call. I told the Live Earth people, “We can make incredible belts for you.”
That first night we started cutting the hose with scissors – in the morning I couldn’t unclench my fingers. Thankfully we found a rotary cutter for £40. We made 1,000 belts, sold them all, and spent the profits on a sewing machine.
After that, we went to all kinds of factories with the hose but they said, “No, we’re leather people – we don’t even know what this is.” Elvis was designing bags by then and once we had prototypes, no matter how rudimentary, we’d take it back to those same factories and they’d say, “Oh yes, not only can we make that, we can make that a lot better.”
We got there in the end. By 2010 we were using all of the LFB’s 10 tonnes of annual hose waste and in the same year Elvis & Kresse, the brand we established to rescue the hose, sold nearly 4,000 pieces – belts, bags, wallets, iPad cases. And to my surprise, in 2011 Cartier gave me one of their Women’s Initiative Awards.
Right at the beginning, I told the LFB I’d give 50 per cent of our profits to the Fire Fighters Charity. They definitely thought nothing would ever come of that, I can guarantee you. Then we started inviting firefighters to product launches, and they started to show up in their dress uniforms; they are a huge support.
Elvis and I have to find the time to get married, but when we do I think there’ll be a lot of fire hose at the ceremony. It’s our life – it’s what we do. I think you’ll find some pretty interesting centrepieces.