The Level Collective
The Level Collective design ethical outdoor apparel and gear. We sit down with founder Mark Musgrave to discuss his journey so far.
Photography: Courtesy of The Level Collective
Can you tell us the story behind your brand and how you came up with the idea?
Looking back, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it all started . It wasn’t really one specific event, but a series of ‘dots’ – experiences, frustrations and inspirations – that eventually seemed to join up through exploration and serendipity I guess.
From a young age I have been interested in design and clothing and how it can be an expression of values and personality. So alongside my studies, I worked for a couple of successful high street fashion retailers and pursued the opportunity to spend time at head office to understand how it all worked. When enquiring about how their clothing is manufactured, and in what conditions, this was met with a series of awkward and disappointingly vague answers, saying they couldn’t guarantee that it was ethical.
It was around that time that a series of documentaries were released exposing the harrowing realities and consequences of our fast-fashion culture. So I found myself quite disillusioned with the generic, poor quality, unethical offerings from high street retailers. I wanted to know who was making the clothes I wear? In what conditions? Were they paid fairly?
Fast forward a little to 2009 when I travelled to Romania to volunteer with a charity who provide practical help and support to families living in deprived Roma communities. They run a social micro-enterprise teaching women how to hand crochet clothing which can then be sold to generate an income. This blew my mind. I began to see the opportunity to start something that would actually make a sustainable difference in people's lives through ethical employment. The team in Romania now make our custom ‘Big Bob’ beanie hats and and continue to involve more families in the project.
So my time in Romania was a significant catalyst for wanting to start a brand that is fair or ‘Level’ to everyone involved and make a positive difference. As I explored this idea, I felt it was important for the brand to reflect my love for the outdoors, travel and adventure. I realised that I could further express this through a series of graphic t-shirts and tops. As a designer, I thrive off the creative process. I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas and knowing what I like but unfortunately, I can’t draw for toffee! So after my initial rough sketches for the artwork, I really enjoy collaborating with other artists to bring the idea to life and make something beautiful.
What is the essence of your brand?
Adventure, design and change.
Adventure - We believe that travel and outdoor adventures are good for the soul. Being immersed in natural beauty and exploring unfamiliar places. New sights, sounds, and scents. The people you meet. Those campfire conversations, the shared experiences, the making of life-enriching memories. You can join our adventures at our Instagram @thelevelcollective
Design - Our collection of ethical outdoor supplies derives its original styling through working with a variety of creative designers and ethical makers from Sheffield and across the world. We take a handmade, earthy and minimalist approach to creating apparel which expresses our passion for adventure whilst capturing our stubborn principles for high quality and sustainable, authentic processes. These values go into everything we make.
Change - All of our apparel is designed and made in a way that is fair or ‘LEVEL’ to everyone in the process. It’s in our name. But we believe that this is just the basics. We want to have a much greater impact than that. We partner with some incredible ethical makers which helps to really change lives through our clothing. Our ‘Big Bob’ beanies are handmade in Romania and helps to bring sustainable change to people living in truly difficult circumstances. Our Water Bottles are made in collaboration with Miir and Splash and help to bring fresh water to children in Kathmandu, Nepal. We have some more exciting ideas of how we’d like to increase our positive impact as we grow our collection of apparel.
What type of products do you sell?
Our collection of outdoor supplies includes:
Adventure-inspired graphic t-shirts and tops which we hand screen print here in Sheffield using water-based eco inks on our ethically made uber soft apparel.
Our chunky ‘Big Bob’ beanies are hand crocheted in Romania supporting the project I mentioned above. We also have some light-weight merino wool beanies which are made just across the Pennines in Manchester.
A few months back, we launched our first Water Bottle in collaboration with Miir and Splash. Our bottles support a water project helping to provide clean water to communities in Kathmandu, Nepal.
We also have a few new additions to the collection coming soon.
Where does your love for travel and adventure come from?
From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved being outdoors and have fond memories of family holidays walking in Yorkshire or catching waves in Cornwall. So I grew up holidaying in the UK and it’s only really been in recent years that I’ve discovered the richness of experiencing different countries with their own unique natural beauty, cultures, sounds, scents, foods, and ways of doing life.
My favourite things to do outside are probably surfing and snowboarding. I find something really freeing about being completely immersed in the moment and how everyone around you is just there to have a good time. Unfortunately, living in Sheffield means I have to travel a little while to be able to do this! Sheffield is great place to live though because there are a lot of creative and outdoorsy folk. I have the Peak District right on my doorstep so I’m out hiking or going for a blast on my bike a few times a week.
Why do you think travel and adventure is so important?
However good life is at ‘home’, there’s something invigorating about being somewhere completely unfamiliar. I feel at my most creative and energised for photography; capturing a moment and finding beauty in even the most mundane things.
For want of a less wanky expression; I do believe travel and adventure is good for the soul. It’s how we’re wired. Our fresh surroundings can give us headspace to see outside of our busy lives, putting aside our daily concerns. It’s an opportunity to broaden our perspective of the world around us and make us humble and thankful.
Your products are beautifully designed. Could you tell us a little about your design philosophy?
Handmade, earthy and minimalist.
All of the designs for our t-shirts and tops are derived from pencil sketch or lino cut. There’s a richness and depth to the hand drawing and screen printing processes which create character and imperfections – carrying a piece of their author into each design. We use a minimal earthy colour palette and single colour prints to create a distinctively simple and timeless aesthetic. This makes our apparel resonate with both wild outdoor adventures and invigorating city wanderings. We don’t see the value in fast fashion, so we don’t have regular new seasons or big sales. We just let a design run it’s course, whilst designing new pieces one at a time as beautifully as possible.
We can see you take an ethical approach to creating outdoor supplies - why do you feel this is important?
At the risk of sounding like a Miss World nominee, we only work with ethical makers because we think that this is the only fair and proper way to make clothing. It’s a matter of principle and values. Our money and how we choose to spend it, is our ‘voting tokens’ for what we stand for. For a long time now, people have been saying that the mainstream fashion industry will only become ethical in if consumers start to care more. Whilst I agree with this, I think people need to be given more choice of ethical clothing. As a creative business, we have a responsibility to continue the conversation and to give people the opportunity to support ethical principles through creating well-designed quality products – providing a proverbial carrot, rather than a self-righteous stick. I think more people are increasingly conscious about their purchase decisions and want to support brands who have a story and are run in a way that mirrors their values; respect for people and consideration for our beautiful planet.
Where can we find your products?
You can view and buy our whole collection from thelevelcollective.com and we ship worldwide. We also stock a handful of small boutiques in the UK and Europe.
What’s next for The Level Collective?
I’m always working on new ideas for our collection of graphic t-shirts and tops and have a few other new products launching in the next few months. The most exciting new product I’m currently working on is designing our first rucksack which will be made here in the UK. I’ve never done anything like this before but I’ve really enjoyed being completely out of my depth, designing everything and sourcing my own components - I’ve learned so much. I created the first few prototypes on my breakfast table from some offcuts of fabric and an office stapler (Gotta love a bit of rapid prototyping!). It actually wasn’t as terrible as I expected it to be, but thankfully I’m working with a local manufacturer who creates premium quality products and so they have helped me to refine my prototypes into something special. I can’t say too much about the design at this stage but I’m looking forward to launching our crowdfunding campaign in September so watch this space.