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On level ground

Words by Rebecca Hawkey

In a world infused with impatience, The Level Collective are slowing things down.

I first met Mark Musgrave on Porthminster beach, in Cornwall. It was a blue-sky day, wisps of cloud lining the horizon. The ocean, glistening in the morning light, was inviting me to explore, which I did without question before the crowds arrived. It was the day of the St. Ives Food Festival and Mark was setting up his stall for The Level Collective. Given my lack of preparation for such a sunny day, my need for a cap drew me to pick out one of his. It seemed to be a rich burnt orange and deep sunset red all at the same time, with a waxed finish. I commented on the design; it was rough to the touch and yet made with a soft cotton, and we ended up discussing the creative process behind a few of his pieces. To my delight and surprise, the majority of them are handmade on British soil by creators, makers and masters of their specialised craft.

Credit: Samuel Glazebrook

I wandered back out to the midday sun, new cap firmly in place, pondering our discussion, much too brief but intriguing and inspiring. Amongst their many other passions, they also love to write, so one evening I sat down with my laptop and jumped into the journal section on their website, reading article after article that explores and explains their story. The Level Collective was built over time, a series of life experiences stitched together to ultimately create what it is today. A business that values ‘people and planet before profit’, a business that understands the need for permanence over perishability. It was a fascinating read, and only formed more questions in my mind, so I got in touch with Mark and asked if he would have some spare time to chat to me some more.

When we finally caught up, he had just stepped off the van and back into Cornish life after five weeks adventuring across England and Europe with his wife and new born son. Fully embracing the chance to ‘live level’, the brand’s ethos, Mark tries to live a balanced life of adventure and purposeful graft. He explains: “It took me a good week and a half to come off the hamster wheel, to fully relax. It’s hard to let go, especially when it’s your own business and you care about it, you need to just not care about it for a minute, refresh, then come back to it. It took me a while to do that whilst we were away, but when else would I get the chance to spend five weeks with my little lad? It’s been great.”

Mark decided to go full-time with TLC just three years ago, but it has been growing in the background since it was established in 2014, with the idea for such a business being sparked way back in 2009, in Romania of all places. It’s been a slow journey, which is where our conversation begins. Mark’s disdain for fast-fashion is evident in his journal posts; the impact that it has on our planet, the effects of low pay labour, the need for us to get what we want as soon as we want it even if it’s of poor quality, this was all a catalyst for creating the business in the first place and why he is so conscientious about production processes. “Good things take time”, he says, “but all products are tried and tested to ensure they withstand the elements and the rigours of everyday life, in urban and wild spaces, whether on your daily commute or heading out on the coastal path.”

Credit: Samuel Glazebrook

“I’ve really enjoyed the creative process of doing a terrible sketch – I can’t draw for toffee – and sending that off to the artists for them to bring to life. It’s a back-and-forth sort of thing. I can communicate an idea, they send over a series of ideas, I then pull them apart in photoshop and rearrange in order to visualise what I had in mind. Sharing an idea and passing it between different creative minds, it’s really exciting to me.” He goes on to discuss the process behind his distinctive backpacks. “Taking it up a notch and designing the backpack and thinking what will the fabric be, what will the shape be, how do we go about sourcing all these things, like the stitching and binding? It was a lot more complex than just a t-shirt. I had to ask myself, do I go with a polyester webbing or cotton? Then I would think about where that is sourced and grown. I have such an appreciation for the process, and the fact that it takes time.” From buckle-makers to master seamstresses, Mark works with a handful of freelance creatives that are masters of their trade, in order to create something that’s worth the price tag.

It did not escape me, perusing The Level Collective site, that one rucksack could set you back a few hundred pounds. This was something I definitely had to speak to Mark about, and discover first hand whether people had an issue with this in a time of such instability and uncertainty. “I’ve had students that have saved up to buy one of these bags, which really touches me because I don’t remember having that attitude when I was at college or university.” We discuss the passion that young people have today to better themselves and the planet. Forward-thinking and proactive, they are interested in investing in something worthwhile, something that will stand the test of time and have a story to tell at the end of it. I, myself, believe the world as a whole is shifting, as is our need for clarity around working conditions and equality amongst workers. These bags may be in the higher range, but Mark breaks it down for me, and explains what customers are really paying for. Rather than parting with minimal money for something that is made far away, in poor conditions, with poor materials that harm our planet, and which will only last a few months or a year to then go back to landfill, you are paying skilled craftspeople across the UK and Europe – masters in their field who take purposeful time to create an individual product by hand, in small batches only, and who also need to earn a living – to work with materials that are responsibly sourced and with them, create a product that will last years.

Credit: Samuel Glazebrook

Mark really does believe in quality over quantity. He admits to spending perhaps a little too much time deliberating over the little things. The colour of the thread, for example: “It just wasn’t quite right. I can be a bit neurotic – it just has to be right, otherwise what’s the point? But I know I will be happy with it going forward now.” The fastidiousness that Mark applies to this process is exactly the care and attention that should be taken when creating something of value. The passion he has for sustainability, ethics, and encouraging others to get outdoors for a slower pace of life are the foundations for The Level Collective. I think we could all take a breath, step outdoors and think twice about where our products come from. Not only that, but about the impact they have on the planet and what we can do to support others in the creative process. Living a level life is an ethos that Mark has adopted, and it’s one I think we should all embrace.


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