We love independent traders, so watching Sheffield labels thrive is always exciting but one in particular caught our attention recently for capturing the intrepid spirit of Britain’s only city with borders inside a national park. The Level Collective are an ethical clothing label who capture the wanderlust of Sheffield’s unique surroundings. Even for urbanites, their designs make you want to head for the mountains.
The Level Collective draw together artists, producers and customer from across the globe through a shared ethos of design, adventure and ethics. With an Instagram following nearing 20,000, The Level Collective’s vision is shared by many. We chatted with Mark Musgrave, founder of The Level Collective, about inspirations, future plans and where to head for your next adventure.
What inspired The Level Collective?
My time in Romania. In 2009 I went over with a charity who provide practical support to very poor Roma Gypsy communities. We worked on a number of projects involving manual labour, helping people in the community to insulate their small houses and also preparing the way for a school to be built. One project the charity has is working with women in the community, training them to hand crochet hats and scarfs with the view to selling them to provide an income. They weren’t a particularly tasteful style at this point but they were good quality, and I’ve always had an interest and eye for design, so I saw the potential.
I returned to Romania the following summer to help out with other building projects and try to get more involved with the crocheting project. I got to meet some of the women who were making the hats and see their homes. In the context of severe poverty, women making the hats were some of the wealthiest and could afford food, firewood and medicine for their families. I could see the real impact and was so inspired. I figured that if I started a clothing label that achieved more orders for hats, they could employ more people. It’s as simple as that.
As I began to think about the idea of a clothing label, I realised that the brand needed an identity along with the ethical story and ethos. I love travel, adventure and just generally being outdoors, whether in the sea, on the slopes or walking in the Peak District right on my doorstep. I wanted the brand to reflect this passion for adventure that I share with many other people across the world.
I wanted to offer a wider variety of products than beanie hats and realised that an ‘adventure’ ethos could be better communicated through graphic t-shirts and sweaters. I wanted to create the adventure-inspired designs in collaboration with illustrators, typographers and designers from across the world. I also wanted to have the designs hand screen printed here in Sheffield, so that there is a local element to what we do.
After a long process, I finally arrived at the name: The Level Collective. ‘Level’ reflects fairness for everyone involved in creating the product from the maker, the artist and the end customer. ‘Collective’ shows the community essence of the brand with the variety of artists contributing and what has become an international community of customers who are choosing to spend their hard-earned money on ethical, adventure-inspired apparel.
I bought www.thelevelcollective.com on 6 June 2013, and then launched in January 2014. So it took a while to finally get launched, but I was working full time whilst trying to get it off the ground. It just meant that I had to be patient, but it meant that I was able to think things thorough and do everything properly.
How have you built such a big international audience?
Instagram has been a big help. It’s a millennial way of doing things. The traditional way of growing a brand is paying advertisers, but I just haven’t had the money to do that. I like the fact that there are people who can really identify with what The Level Collective is about and want to help to promote it. It’s word of mouth, it’s social recommendation.
This first 12 months have been about discovering our audience, which has largely been in America and Canada, who have more of a culture of being outdoors, with all their national parks. But in recent months, we have been seeing more customers from across Europe, Scandinavia and here in the UK. I think Sheffield’s a unique city for that too because it’s on the doorstep of lots of natural beauty, so you get a lot of outdoors loving people here too. We just haven’t had much local exposure.
In Sheffield, I sell through Moonko, Inherited Boutique and Millennium Gallery, which is a real honour, and I would like to sell through more independent boutiques across the world because customers can really see and feel the quality of the garment and print for themselves.
What are The Level Collective’s plans for the future?
I’m still figuring that out. We will certainly be introducing new designs for the t-shirts and sweaters and have a few ideas for some different style beanies. I’m really enjoying it and I want to keep it that way, but there is scope for it to grow and still be fun. I think it depends on the breaks I get, rather than what I necessarily want to do. I really like the fact that The Level Collective is being worn around the world and yet is still an ‘underground’ label, only available from our website and a select few independent boutiques. I’m not in any rush to scale up. I am happy to grow slowly because I do it because I enjoy it, not for the money. The aim is to grow but to always stay niche and keep the brand’s integrity and soul.
Why hand print all your designs in Sheffield?
I just wanted to support local makers. The thing I love about screen printing is that someone has honed this skill, and is actually doing it by hand, rather than popping something on this big Epson and churning it out. It feels authentic. It’s a really old process, and I like the fact that I can nip and mix the colours with my screenprinters. Some of the recent designs have unusual colours, so it’s been great to feel more part of the design. It’s about supporting local makers.
What does the collaboration process look like?
It varies. Sometimes it’s my initial idea, or a theme. For the latest design in collaboration with Nick Deakin, I knew I wanted something about camping, in a clean, simple way. A lot of the designs work because they’re bold and clean. So I had that, and Nick suggested ‘Liberté,’ which is French for freedom. So that was very collaborative and I really enjoyed working with Nick. He’s a great chap. Some of the designs have come from my pencil sketches, and then someone with talent has worked to make them happen. But then something like ‘Sound of the Wild’ is a combination of my phrase and the typographer’s complete design. I just said, “This is a great phrase, what can you do with it?” and he came up with everything.
Where are your favourite local spots to head to for a quick adventure?
I really love Ladybower. It’s so stunning, whatever the weather is doing. It’s so vast and there never seems to be too many people around, so it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, even though it’s just a 15 minute drive away.
Words: Sam Joyce.
Images courtesy of The Level Collective.