As part of our founder interview series, we speak with Mark from The Level Collective about creating a sustainable adventure brand rooted in balance.
How did your experience working in high street fashion influence the creation of The Level Collective?
Before starting The Level Collective I worked for a couple of popular high street brands and got to spend some time at their head offices. I took the opportunity to ask their designers and buyers about the ethics and sustainability of how their clothing is produced but just received vague answers and when pressed; confessed to not really knowing. Having seen various exposé documentaries regarding the poor treatment of factory workers and negative impact on the environment – I was baffled at the highstreet companies lack of interest in such a fundamental part of their business and how it impacted other people and our planet.
This was one of the many catalysts in inspiring me to start something different, something which placed people and planet at the centre of the brand’s philosophy and practices.
How does the philosophy of The Level Collective protest the status quo of today’s fashion industry?
In a number of ways. We try to communicate the importance of making products that will last a long time, producing them out of natural and sustainable ingredients, whilst respecting the people who make them. We try to bring humanity, creativity and art back into clothing.
Our waxed organic cotton backpacks are handmade to order in the UK from all British sourced ingredients. The outdoor inspired designs for our t-shirts and sweaters are all created from pencil sketch and lino cut before being hand screen printed in Sheffield using water based inks. All analogue processes which take time and require skill. In short, we create slow fashion. Really slow.
Our products are more expensive than most high street brands, but that is the true cost of making quality products in a way that values the people who make them and cares for our planet. Buying cheap products is a false economy and it’s wiser to save up and buy well, buy once. I seem to enjoy and care more for products which I have saved up for.
Clothing is an expression of our identity and values, and so are the brands that we buy from. I kind of see money as our ‘voting tokens’ for what we truly believe in.
What does it mean to “Live Level”?
To me it means a couple of things; To Live Level is about trying to live a balanced life – of working hard for something that is purposeful that you enjoy, but also prioritising good rest; reconnecting with yourself and others and being outside in nature.
Live Level is also about fairness – everyone involved in the process of making our products is valued and treated with respect. It’s also about caring for our planet and taking responsibility to live in a way that minimises impact to our cities as well as mountains, waves and forests.
‘Ethical Fashion’ can be a bit of a buzzword. What does ‘ethical fashion’ mean to you and how does The Level Collective embody this definition?
Sure, well to me it’s making sure that each person who is involved in any part of making our products has done so in a positive and safe environment, has been paid a fair wage for their time and skills, has the right to form a union, has maximum and minimum working hours giving them rights but also protection against over working.
Most of our products are now made in the UK and often with independent self-employed makers in their studios which live closely to us so we have a nice collaborative partnership approach to making our products in small batches.
Our t-shirts and sweaters are now the only products which are made outside of Europe but the factories do all adhere to the outlined standards and are assessed and verified by FairWear Foundation a third party independent organisation. The designs are then hand screen printed in Sheffield using water-based inks
Since starting The Level Collective how have you seen the “ethical fashion” space in the UK change?
I started The Level Collective back in 2014 so things have changed a lot in the last few years – with the help of various other documentaries ‘calling out’ larger brands on their unethical practices and customers generally becoming more aware and asking more questions about how their clothing is made. It has been great to see more high street brands starting to offer organic as part of their collections, though I’m not sure what having a ‘conscious collection’ says about the rest of their products. Needless to say there is still a long way to go. With the XR movement and climate emergency which has been excellently thrust into the mainstream, more people are properly starting to consider their impact on the environment and to other people which includes the clothing that they choose to buy.
Which item from The Level Collective collection is with you on all your adventures?
Hands down my trusty Winnats Roll Top backpack. I use it when biking to work everyday and I gave it some good hammer when me and my wife went backpacking in South East Asia last year climbing mountains and all sorts. It look so much better now that it’s worn in a little and the waxed cotton and leather vintaged.
What is your favourite part of running The Level Collective?
Probably the collaborative aspect of designing products. I love the creative process of taking a rough sketch and bouncing ideas around with other people and it becoming something better because two minds and better than one. It’s cool bringing the idea right the way through to launch and then seeing our customers really love it and want to invest in something that they’re going to use and enjoy for a long time. It takes a long time to create a new product and we don’t follow the fashion ‘seasons’ as such because it’s a broken model and requires inflated prices, then discounting to shift ‘last seasons’ stock – which is wasteful. I like to think about how I can make a product that is as beautiful and functional as possible – adding beauty to the world, celebrating craftpersonship, not just flogging stock.
If you had to choose between Mountains, Forest or Ocean, which would it be and why?
Ooh tough question because they all bring something so unique but if pushed I think I’d choose the ocean. After a decade in steel city Sheffield surrounded by the beautiful Peak District, we recently upped sticks and moved down to Cornwall for a fresh adventure and to spend more time in the sea. For me there’s something uniquely immersive and refreshing about being in the ocean – especially when it’s so cold like it is in the Atlantic. The waves make the ocean really playful too for surfing and bodyboarding, but also just watching waves is captivating – like watching fire. Personally,I find it great for de-stressing because you have to be present and focus on the next wave coming in.
How would you like to see The Level Collective grow in the future?
I’d like to continue to grow our collection of high quality, small batch sustainable products and do some more fun collaborations with other makers and brands. I’d also like to be able to do more events so we can meet more of our customers and exhibit our collection. It’s difficult for people to fully appreciate the craftspersonship and quality of our products from photos online and it’s always really great meeting interesting people. It would be fun to continue to grow a small team around.