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'Feuerwear' turns old fire hoses into trendy bags

Used products can be fashionable - and new. A Cologne-based company turns old fire hoses into trendy laptop bags in a process called 'upcycling.' It's fashion with a conscience, if you can afford it.

A laptop bag made from used fire hoses

Once an old fire hose, now a trendy bag - for a price.

They're called Bill, Dan or Hank and once upon a time they put out fires. Now their job is just to look cool - as belts, purses, or bags.

Martin and Robert Kluesener

Brothers Martin and Robert Kluesener own the label Feuerwear

Cologne-based company 'Feuerwear,' which gets its name from a play on the German word for fire brigade (Feuerwehr), takes fire hoses and turns them into fashion.

32-year-old Martin Kluesener came up with the idea of making lifestyle objects out of used fire hoses a few years ago while studying.

Local products

At the time, the fashion designer was experimenting with coffee bags and surfing canvas, but eventually he opted for used fire hoses. They're robust, and that's what makes them perfect bags.

But it's not just the material's structural stability that counts, it's also where the material is from.

"That's an important point. When you make those products you should use material that you can get from somewhere nearby. For us it makes more sense to reuse fire hoses from Germany rather than using surfing sails which you'd have to collect from places like California or Australia," Martin Kluesener said.

"It just wouldn't make sense - neither economically nor environmentally."

Trendy design

Eco-friendliness is important for the company, whose success is growing rapidly.

"But it doesn't feature a lot in our marketing," said Robert Kluesener, Martin's brother, whose responsible for marketing and distribution.

Eco friendliness and sustainability are important factors for the company - but the Feuerwear staff want clients to buy the products because of their design and quality, not because they're good for the environment.

Robert Kluesener hopes that in ten to 15 years, the whole idea of "upcycling" will be the status quo and not something special like today.

Kluesener says that, even though the company focuses first on the quality of their product, Feuerwear also strive to make their production process as sustainable as possible.

They get their electricity from Greenpeace and wash their material with environmentally friendly washing powder, but there are some footprints they can't overcome, like the distances involved in their production chain.

First, used fire hoses are brought to Cologne as a raw material. They're washed and cut into pieces at the Feuerwear workshop, before being taken to Poland for production and finally to Munich for storage.

Used fire hoses being washed in Cologne by the company Feuerwear

The fire hoses embark on a long journey to become cool

Recycling globally

Although the company offsets its CO2 emissions with a voluntary scheme called Atmosfair, which uses the money to finance carbon reduction projects across the world, the process isn't exactly eco-friendly.

Yet it is also typical and hard to avoid nowadays, says Thomas Pretz, head of the department of Processing and Recycling at the Technical University in Aachen.

He says recycling plays a key role in modern industrial production today.

"We transport plastic bottles from Europe to Asia, and in Asia these bottles serve as the raw material for textiles. Then we buy these textiles at a fairly small price and use them in Europe. But then they have to be thrown away," says Pretz.

The idea of being able to recycle a product 100 percent remains a distant vision, Pretz says. It makes more sense, he says, to consume less and opt for sustainable products when consuming.

Cult bags with a long life

And a product's' sustainability comes at a cost: Scott, a fifteen-inch-laptop bag, costs 160 euros.

The biggest price factor in production, says Robert Kluesener, is sewing. It's done manually in Poland. Despite the price tags, Feurewear's used fire hoses are selling well. In 2010 alone, the company sold some 20,000 products, and they're also successful online in social networks where they have thousands of fans.

Of course, Feuerwear is not the first nor is it the only producer of lifestyle objects made from used material.

In Dortmund, a young company called 'Zechenkind' makes bags and accessories from old miners' clothes. A Swiss company has had quite some success for a while worldwide with its bags made from used truck canvas cover, and there have been a number of labels in the US and in Great Britain over the years which make designer-ware out of recycled clothing.

Strong signal

A product carton of Feuerwear

Feuerwear products are expensive, but they're sought after because they're unique

Upcycling, or upgrading of old material to high quality products, is not a recycling trend in itself, says Professor Pretz from Aachen Technical University. But upcycling conveys a message.

"It enhances people's willingness to use old products. I think it's a nice idea, and it strengthens the idea of a society where everybody recycles."

Consumers' willingness to buy new products made from used material largely depends on the product, says Thomas Pretz.

In Germany, nobody finds it odd to drink their beer out of a recycled glass bottle or to read a paper printed on recycled paper, yet when it comes to a new car or a tailor-made suit, things are different, Pretz says.

In contrast, Feuerwear customers don't care that their products used to be fire hoses. In fact one of the big draw cards is the evidence of the products' former life on display.

Author: Nader Alsarras (nh)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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