Creating a Balanced LifeGear
Stories Behind the Gear: In Conversation with Mark Musgrave, The Level Collective
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by The Level Collective & Samuel Glazebrook
Standing against the tide of mass-produced consumer goods with a short lifespan, Mark Musgrave of The Level Collective imagined something better: a brand that puts ethics, sustainability, and beauty above all else.
The Level Collective has balance as its founding principle. ‘Live Level’ is a balanced life where hard work meets relaxation, where work meets play. It’s an ethos that manifests itself in the craft of making backpack, clothing, boots and accessories – in small batches, collaborating with artists and makers, not mass-produced in an unseen factory.
Their British made Winnats Roll Top Backpack was a favourite item in our recent Sidetracked Equipped gear review, so we sat down with the founder, Mark Musgrave, to learn more about how he designs differently.
‘I’m always looking for a fresh design challenge, so a few years ago, I decided to design an adventure backpack from scratch. Like you do.’ – Mark Musgrave
For Mark, it started in 2009 when he worked at a high street retailer, and began asking questions in the head office about the origin of the clothing they were selling. Ethics and sustainability were not part of the conversation, and Mark sensed the elephant in the room. During that summer, he travelled to Romania to volunteer in a Roma community, where he discovered a charity project that was training local women to crochet and sell clothes, keeping their profits to support their families. The penny dropped for Mark – there was a better way to make things. A way that gives people dignity, and benefits everyone in the process – not just the few at the top. He was inspired to do something at home.
Coming into the adventure apparel industry, Mark had no experience, but noticed that almost every brand seemed to be mass-producing their products with foreign manufacturers. While that model makes sense for large brands, it inevitably means a lack of love and craft in individual items, and gear designed with profit margins at the forefront. The Level Collective approaches production from the opposite side.
Take a backpack. What if you designed every detail of it to be the best it could possibly be, sourcing local materials and craftsmanship, and put it together in a way that is intended to last your lifetime? That was the ethos behind the Winnats Roll Top Backpack, a favourite piece of kit on our recent Sidetracked Equipped gear review on the Isle of Skye. The buckles are laser cut and hand polished in Sheffield. The fabric is a custom heavy-weight waxed organic cotton canvas, waxed by the famous Halley Stevensons up in Scotland. The leather is natural, untanned so gathers colour and patina with age and use – looking all the better for it, and the padding is recycled wool. The construction is incredibly durable, and the style is simple and timeless – the opposite of fast fashion. The result is an item that is completely ethical, sustainable, and beautiful.
That design process wasn’t exactly as you might expect. As a small business working from home, Mark couldn’t afford to pay for prototype designs – typically how apparel items are born. But he knew what he wanted, so without any bag-designing experience, or even the right tools, Mark sat at his table with a pencil and a stapler to create his first prototype. When he finally had the template for the Winnats Roll Top, he found local manufacturers – seamstresses working in small studios in the UK – to begin making the bags. Not only does that lead to quality products, it also means that he knows his company is fair to every person involved. He goes as far as to term his manufacturers as collaborators, not suppliers.
The Level Collective have built a strong brand presence through social media and promoting their responsible values – and, by working with local makers throughout the UK, have a catalogue of beautiful products that customers adore. The only real problem they face as a business is turning the tide on consumer mindset from fast fashion to investing in long-lasting, quality goods. Mark is keenly aware that his items are considered purchases for most, and that the concept of buying one bag to last for years and years requires an entire shift in our culture towards apparel.
But the tide is turning. The clothes we wear have always been an expression of our values and identity, and The Level Collective’s startup success is proof that there is a growing market of consumers who choose to put their money into brands that share their values. Beyond just making beautiful, crafted items, The Level Collective aims to inspire people to support ethical, sustainable, and independent brands – buy less, buy well.