Ethical Outdoor Clothing : The Level Collective
Stylish and ethical outdoor brand The Level Collective are developing quite a reputation for their 'British made' backpacks and outdoor clothing. We spoke to Founder Mr. Mark Musgrave about adventure lifestyle, 'the Collective' and how sustainable or 'Level' his outdoor gear is.
PRESENTED BY THE LEVEL COLLECTIVE
Outdoorsy lifestyle brand The Level Collective take a refreshingly sophisticated approach to outdoor clothing and accessories. Their adventurous and ethical outdoor products are designed to last a lifetime ... and the British weather.
Tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to create a premium outdoor brand?
I’m Mark and me and my wife Suzie have recently relocated to Cornwall after 10 years living in the wonderful, creative city of Sheffield – we fancied a new adventure plus we love being in the sea, so Sheffield’s river Don doesn’t quite cut it.
The Level Collective is a side project that’s gotten out of hand.
In short (ish), The idea for The Level Collective came whilst volunteering with a charity in Romania back in 2009. One of their projects trains women in the disadvantaged Roma communities how to hand-knit beanie hats. Having worked in high street fashion retail, I was becoming more aware of the issues surrounding what we now call ‘fast fashion’. I was blown away with this grassroots project which created an excellent product, whilst empowering the people making it.
So I decided to start a brand that was fair or ‘Level’ to everyone involved in making the products using environmentally sustainable ingredients. The idea then bloomed beyond beanie hats to include a series of outdoor-inspired graphic t-shirts and sweaters, and now British made backpacks, tools and accessories. I still collaborate with that Romanian charity who makes our merino wool Big Bob beanies – it’s a precious part of my story.
2. What is the level collective and what does it stand for?
Well we have a very ethos-led name. ‘Level’ is all about our commitment to fairness for every person involved in making our products which we try to create to the highest quality and with the lowest impact on our planet.
Living Level is also about balance – pursuing a life of grafting hard at something meaningful, but also making space for reconnecting with ourselves and others whilst being outdoors.
‘Collective’ is about the collaborative nature of the design process – I’ve loved connecting with various artists and makers to create our collection of products. The Collective also includes our community of outdoor-loving customers who share our values and believe in the products that we create.
3. Which types of products do you design and where are they made?
Our backpacks are all handmade in the UK from waxed organic cotton from Halley Stevensons in Scotland, veg tan leather hand cut and embossed in Derbyshire (Vegan alternative available) heavyweight cotton webbing, recycled wool-rich felt for padding, and custom design stainless steel buckles laser-cut and polished in Sheffield.
We also offer a range of organic cotton and recycled blend t-shirts and sweaters which are hand screen printed in Sheffield using water-based inks. I create outdoor-inspired designs in collaboration with various artists across the world who help bring my terrible sketchbook scrawlings to life.
We also offer a range of tools and accessories including a pocket knife, hatchet, merino wool socks, and beanies all made in the UK, and I’ve just launched some waxed cotton baseball caps which are handmade in Portugal.
We also recently collaborated with Fracap in Italy to create a small batch of our Ripple Trail boots which I’m really proud to have made with such a great family run company – each pair is handmade in Italy from full-grain Italian leather and the stitching is bang on.
4. Why is adventure and travel in the brand DNA?
Personally I know that I thirst for the time in the wild, be it a forest, the sea or in the hills or mountains. It’s a place of resetting, recharging, and reconnecting with myself from the frantic realities of day-to-day life – the hopes, worries, and responsibilities. It’s a place where I feel present and gain a sense of perspective that personally, I cannot find in urban spaces.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting some incredible places across the world, experiencing some amazing cultures, and standing in awe of natural wonders. I love how travel challenges my world view and there’s something uniquely invigorating about being away from the routine, the familiar and comfortable, and experiencing somewhere new for the first time.
There are still so many incredible places near and far that I’d love to visit someday, but I think Instagram can sometimes be unhelpful for making us wish we were somewhere else than in our present situation.
I don’t want to live for my holidays, so I’m focussing on building a life that has outdoor time built into the everyday. I want The Level Collective to encourage people to seek out a regular adventure that can be found right on their doorstep as well as the far-flung trips once in a while. This makes the adventure more accessible, regular, and sustainable – in every sense.
5. Why do you feel it’s important brands have an ethical and sustainable focus today?
It’s a tragic fact that the fashion industry is the world’s most environmentally damaging industry. Expose documentaries such as True Cost, and the like, have been a huge catalyst for increasing customer awareness and helping to bring change to the industry. Customers are starting to ask more questions about who made their clothing and in what conditions. People are starting to wake up and realise that money is their voting tokens and that what they wear is an expression of values rather than simply aesthetics.
Over the last 6 years since starting The Level Collective, it’s been interesting to see people’s increasing awareness and searching for ethical and organic manufacturing and British made which is good for me of course.
It’s also been encouraging to see a growing movement for ‘Buy less, buy better’ as a more sustainable approach to consumerism – the principle of investing in a quality product that you’re going to cherish and enjoy using for a long time. It is the antithesis of fast-fashion. It’s a value at the heart of everything I design.
6. Do you have any favourite products the level collective has produced, to date?
I’ve genuinely enjoyed designing every product and I particularly love the art direction of bringing graphic tee ideas to life in collaboration with different artists.
But, to answer your question, I’d have to say our Winnats Roll Top backpacks are my favourite because I felt completely out of my depth when starting to design it. I’d had zero textile design training or qualifications and I can’t even use a needle and thread let alone a sewing machine. Who am I to design a backpack? But thanks to my sketchbook scrawlings, I did have a rough idea of the size and shape that I wanted to create so I picked up my stapler and some offcuts of fabric and started to make the first prototype and my confidence grew from there. I even ended up designing our own stainless steel buckles.
I’m really proud of the backpacks because I know I’ve made it as beautifully as possible, using the best quality organic and sustainable materials and haven’t compromised on anything.
So designing the backpacks was an incredible personal creative journey that has given me so much experience and confidence in my ability to take on new challenges. I’ve learned that I don’t have to feel or actually be qualified to make the first prototype – just dive in.
You can see more Behind the seams photos on our Live Level Journal.
7. The Outdoor style has developed a lot in recent years, who do you see as key players behind the trend and how do you see it evolving?
It has definitely been interesting to see the emergence of this Outdoor Lifestyle sector in relatively recent years. Travelling has become more affordable and being outdoorsy has become a mainstream aspirational thing. As with any ‘trend’, it’s contributors are numerous, but I think it comes as a backlash to our overstimulated, hyperconnected society and people are longing to reconnect with the purity and simplicity of being in nature.
So I think the genre’s emergence is a combination of people not wanting to wear ugly boring clothing for being outdoors, combined with people wanting to be seen as being outdoorsy when they’re down the pub wearing their jacket designed to withstand arctic conditions.
Brand-wise, Patagonia has played a huge part in this, along with pushing the importance of ethics and sustainability. Best Made co fit in this category though certainly more towards the artisan high end of the market. Topo Designs from Colorado create some really nice modern retro feel gear. Personally, Cornwall based Finisterre has been an inspiration to me in various ways and they really major on creating aesthetic driven functional outdoor clothing, again with a strong focus on the environment.
8. How do you like to spend your weekends?
Being based in Cornwall, My weekends look very different depending on the season…and the weather of course. In late autumn/winter, most weekends we’ll pop something in the slow cooker then head out for a walk on the South West Coastal path whatever the weather (usually sideways rain!). Spring, Summer, and early autumn at even the slightest glimpse of sun we’re on the beach and in the sea all day. I love being down here because the beach can be as chilled or playful as you want and there’s nothing more refreshing than a dip in the Atlantic and getting the belly board or surfboard out.
I’m currently saving up for a van so we can get away for micro weekend adventures and just pull over in random places – to get even more time off-grid. So please buy my stuff so I can get myself a van!
9. What’s next for the level collective?
Well, we’ve had a pretty exciting last few months with the launch of our Rolltop mini – a compact version of the Winnats Roll Top backpacks made in Cornwall (15 mins from my home) from the same quality ingredients and they seem to have gone down pretty well.
I’m currently exploring some ideas for waist bags – or to get back to the ’90s: bum bags or fanny packs as they like to say across the pond. Simple packs that are handy for packing lighter for shorter walks or keeping your valuables close on city breaks.
I’ve got some nice ideas for some worker shirts and outdoor overshirts too – but just gotta take my time and make them as beautifully and functionally as possible.
We’ve got a cool collaboration coming up this year but I can’t say too much just now.
10. Hate to mention the C-word, but how has Covid-19 impacted you and The Level Collective?
Erm well not surprisingly, it’s seriously hit sales which is a bit terrifying as my only source of income (eek!) but hopefully, things will really start to pick up again soon as we all adapt to this new version of normal. I’m grateful that I don’t have a physical shop right now because that would be extra tough, I have all my stock at home so I can process orders as normal which is helpful. Lifestyle wise, I guess Cornwall isn’t a bad place to self-isolate, and surfing counts as my daily exercise allowance, right?
Netflix Series: Stranger Things – love the 80’s goonies / ET vibes
Lesser-known App: Afterlight
Instagram to Follow: @itsnicethat
Work Music: Bibio
Podcast You’re Into: Adam Buxton
Favourite Book: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Bucket List: Lofoten Isles
Click the product names for a closer look, or use the link to shop all backpacks.
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