9th April 2020

Craft / The Level Collective

The Level Collective: An Original Interview with Some Good Ideas

24 14 mins 0

TThe Level Collective was once just a Good Idea, thought up by Mark Musgrave as he worked as a designer for a creative agency. With no formal textile training or qualifications, Mark decided to follow his passion and create a brand of ethically made clothing, backpacks, tools and accessories “for the commute and wilderness pursuit”.


We speak to Mark about designing for the conscious consumer. How Good Things come from collaboration, speaking to others and sharing Ideas. Mark supports the British textile industry, small businesses and independent artists. He gives his advice for others wanting to start a business.

Some Good Ideas: Hello Mark, apparently you started The Level Collective during your lunch break, is that true? Where did the idea come from?

Mark Musgrave: It is true, I was working full-time as a designer for a creative agency but managed to carve out a little time during my lunch breaks and evenings to explore my side-hustle.

The idea 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 make our merino wool Big Bob beanies – it’s a precious part of my story.

SGI: How did you turn the idea into reality?

MM: Very slowly.

I knew I wanted the brand to be for people who shared my love for being outdoors – whether in the forest, mountains or sea – so I began sketching out some ideas for graphic t-shirts and sweaters. I then researched some illustrators and typographers who could help me to bring my terrible sketches to life.

Next, I then had to work out how to share my products with the world. Back in 2014 when I launched, a friend suggested having a look at a little phone application called Instagram, not sure if you’ve heard of it?!  Back then in the good old days, when Instagram adverts didn’t exist, I collaborated with different photographers who liked what I was doing and seemed to grow a decent following. Instagram’s saturation and decline over the last few years have made it tough, but it’s made me go to trade at different events to meet my customers, a favourite being The Good Life Experience of course.

'Collective’ is about the collaborative nature of the design process.

Mark Musgrave

SGI: What are the values of The Level Collective?

MM: 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 in nature.

‘Collective’ is about the collaborative nature of the design process – I’ve loved collaborating with a variety of skilled 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.

SGI: Where do you get your inspiration from?

MM: I’m not one for scrolling endlessly through social media or design websites ‘hunting’ for inspiration and nor am I an avid magazine reader either. Ideas for new products usually arise either from customers suggestions or from wanting something for myself and not being able to find the styling or the quality I’m looking for. Then I reach for my sketchbook and pencil and the fun/challenge begins.

SGI:  What does Slow Fashion mean to you?

MM: To me, Slow Fashion is about process, durability and timelessness.

Process – it’s often the good ye olde slow and painful process of making products that is the best. Celebrating craftspersonship is a big part of who we are – from our t-shirts and sweaters which are hand screen printed in Sheffield using water-based inks which is a very analogue process but produces a sharper print, bolder colours and is a nicer finish than contemporary digital printing processes. Our leather card holders are hand saddle-stitched in Sheffield which is much more durable than regular machine stitching.

Durability – Creating products that are designed to withstand the rigour of everyday use and can be easily repaired. Our Roll Top Backpacks are made from the finest Halley Stevensons waxed organic cotton, veg tan leather (vegan options available!) and stainless steel buckles – all of which are known for their longevity and looking all the better with age and use.

SGI: How do you convince your customers of the importance of buying British?

MM: It can be tricky to champion British manufacturing without sounding like you’re part of some kind of nationalist “Let’s make Britain great again” brigade (which I certainly am not).

It would be arrogant to assume that a skilled person in the UK can make our backpacks to a better standard than an equally skilled person in Vietnam, for instance. For me, it’s more about the scale of operations and batch quantities that can affect quality.

The UK does have a vibrant textile manufacturing heritage and it’s good to want to support that and help it to thrive – to keep those skills being passed on.

I’m proud to know the people who make our products locally in small batches and I’ve worked with them for many years; Rowan who screenprints our T-shirts and sweaters, James who makes our wallets, and Sarah and Ali who make our backpacks. Most of the people I collaborate with are fellow self-employed artists and makers, so when people buy our products they’re not only supporting my small business, but also the independent artists and makers I work with. It feels more personal.

Each year I do a handful of pop-up shops at different maker markets and events and they’re a really fun way to meet customers and for people to see what we do. At a Christmas market, a lady who was with a couple of friends sincerely asked: can you tell me why your backpacks are so expensive? Which is a fair question. So I talked her through the different ingredients and why I’d chosen them, their sustainability and durability and we inevitably got talking about them being handmade in the U.K. and she totally understood that wages and rent and rates are higher than in the Far East for example. She took a leaflet and her friend placed an order for a backpack.

We’re in financially uncertain times but in the events that I’ve traded at and the people I’ve met, most are looking at how they can invest in products that will last a long time and how they can support businesses who have sustainable credentials and share their ethos. People are asking more questions than ever about how their clothing is made and that can only be a good thing. The more locally products are made, the clearer answers I can give those questions.

Anyone who runs their own business knows the double-edged-sword of feeling so inspired to be making your own ideas happen, tempered by the weight, challenge and self-doubt of feeling out of your depth.

Mark Musgrave

SGI: Why is it important to do something for the love of it?

MM: ‘Love pays well’ so they say, and money or security makes for empty motivators.

The Level Collective has been a side-project simmering away for over 6 years now and it was only in August 2019 that I decided to take the plunge and do it full time. Looking back on that time, the level of personal and creative growth has been immense and I’m proud to have stayed true to my founding principles yet am now creating the best products I’ve ever designed.

Anyone who runs their own business knows the double-edged-sword of feeling so inspired to be making your own ideas happen, tempered by the weight, challenge and self-doubt of feeling out of your depth.

As a small business (just me, and my brother packs and posts out orders from Sheffield). I’m senior designing, marketeer, accounts, financial officer, cleaner and CEO all in one. I’ve had to learn to embrace the mundane administrative task that facilitates the exciting design process.

I still really love collaborating with others to bring ideas to life – creating beautifully functional products that people resonate with and enjoy using for many years.

I’m still inspired to be changing the way people think and feel about clothing and products – the way they’re made and the people that make them.

I’m enjoying pushing myself as I look to create a sustainable and growing business.

SGI: What lessons would you give to someone wanting to start a business?

MM: Only start something if you really love it. Love and love alone will enable you to pick yourself time and time again following inevitable setbacks and disappointments.

Crunch your numbers. Nail your pricing so that you’re not a busy fool.

Invest time properly working out who your customers or ‘tribe’ are and what they want.

Don’t outsource your opportunity to learn*; I felt completely out of my depth when starting to design our backpacks. I have 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. In short, you 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.

*if it’s something you’re interested in learning.

Collaborate with awesome people to learn the stuff you need to know. Although I knew what shape I wanted our backpacks to be, I spoke to different experts to learn the pros and cons of the different fabric options I was exploring. This was so useful in helping me to make important design decisions.

Find good people to cheer you on. People who don’t tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Charlie Gladstone has been an incredible mentor to me over the last few years. His brutal honesty, perspective and encouragement have been instrumental in my growth and self-belief.

 

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The Level Collective creates outdoor supplies for balanced living, for the commute and wilderness pursuit. Their beautiful waxed organic cotton backpacks are handmade in the UK along with their tools and accessories from hats to hatchets. They also have a collection of unisex organic t-shirts and sweaters featuring designs inspired by their love for mountains, waves and forests. All ethically made and hand screen printed in Sheffield using environmentally-friendly water-based inks.

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