With warmer weather on the horizon, water sports enthusiasts are already stocking up for the coming season – and an Ottawa company is making a splash, both in the sportswear market and the world of sustainable business.
Sportswear retailer Level Six is filling shelves of local stores ahead of what it anticipates will be a busy summer season. With products ranging from specialized apparel to paddling equipment, the brand is focused on developing a culture specific to water sports.
Owner and CEO Stig Larsson, a former professional paddler himself, moved to Ottawa from Cobourg in the early 1990s to study marine biology at the University of Ottawa and train in whitewater kayaking.
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Larsson eventually switched to studying economics and business while training for the national kayaking team. He was also an avid surfer, chasing waves from Vancouver to as far away as Costa Rica, where he trained in the winter.
It was then that Larsson said he realized there was a need for gear that was both technical and fashionable to fit with the paddling culture. At age 24, just after he graduated from university, Larsson and some friends teamed up to start manufacturing and selling their clothing designs with recycled fabric from a mill in Montreal.
“When I first started, I was a hardcore whitewater paddler,” Larsson explained. “Everyone identifies with a certain sport, but I think when Level Six started, it wasn’t just about being a paddler – you become part of that water lifestyle.”
The business started with board shorts that Larsson sold out of the back of his car along Whitewater Slalom World Cup circuit stops in 1997.
But Level Six really started making waves a few years later, when its products landed on the shelves of well-known Ottawa outdoor clothing and equipment retailer Trailhead Paddle Shack.
“As the brand has grown, we’ve encompassed outdoor water sports and outdoor water activities,” explained Larsson. “It’s not just life-jackets and not just drysuits. It’s board shorts, apparel and technical casual wear that appeals to that same customer, both on and off the water.”
Today, Level Six runs an online store that ships to customers worldwide, with products that include kayak spray skirts, swimwear, personal floatation devices and inflatable paddle boards. Its gear can be found at stores such as Mountain Equipment Company (MEC), Sail, Sport Chek and Trailhead, to name a few.
Brodie Wallace, senior director of merchandising at MEC, said the chain’s outlets have already seen rising demand for Level Six products as paddlers gear up for the summer season.
“Weather is just starting to co-operate with paddlers across the country, and we’re already seeing our Level Six assortments start to resonate with our members. We’re excited to continue telling paddling stories with the brand,” he said.
Level Six has been a “key brand” and “cornerstone” for “all MEC stores,” said Wallace, adding that “as a homegrown Canadian brand, we love the story we can tell with Level Six.”
The brand has also evolved its offering over the decades as it adapted to Larsson’s changing lifestyle. His children, now ages 10 and 16, inspired one of the brand’s most popular apparel collections.
“When I had kids, it dawned on me to develop a high-end, well-priced line for sun protection,” said Larsson. “When my first daughter was born, I was looking for sun protection and I quickly realized that the market wasn’t great, the fabrics weren’t nice, and it got me interested in designing a kids’ line using our adult fabrics, with better fits, colours and patterns, all treated for sun protection.”
But perhaps the most innovative aspect of the company is its commitment to sustainability.
It can be difficult to find adequate recycled materials for sportswear, Larsson explained, but he says Level Six has risen to the challenge.
“Technical apparel is tricky because of the rigour that the customer puts our apparel through; you can’t just switch to recycled fabrics. We have to test it a lot, and to get it consistent, it took a while for us to get there,” he said. “But now, 95 per cent of our products are made from recycled fabric.”
Level Six is also committed to making watershed preservation part of its mandate, supporting and donating money to organizations like Ottawa Riverkeeper and helping with river cleanup efforts. Last year, Level Six won the sustainability award at a major international industry trade show.
But Larsson stresses that sustainability goes beyond donating money. The company tries to pay special attention to where it sources its materials to ensure they’re as environmentally friendly as possible.
“Being sustainable environmentally is not that hard to do,” he explained. “It’s about selecting better fabrics and better ways to do things. But it costs more, so the customer has to be on board.
“But sustainability, I believe, is also how you give back to your community and give back to your user base,” Larsson added. “Just because someone buys shorts off you, that’s not where the transaction ends – that’s where it starts.”
By cultivating a loyal customer base, Larsson said his company makes customers feel like they’re a “co-owner” of the brand, because “you’re supporting their brand and their values.”
The Canadian market has been good to Level Six, Larsson said. Watershed preservation is high on the priority list for a lot of Canadians, he explained, and the Ottawa Valley in particular has a rich culture for paddling and water sports.
While Larsson said Canadians are particularly “loyal” to homegrown brands, the company is also looking to grow its international footprint.
“Europe is a fast-growing market for us,” he said. “They look towards Canada as kind of a cool, wilderness, clean type of country, so they tend to support garments made in Canada.”
Technical fashion – that is, gear that can stand up to the rigours of more intense activity – is another area where Larsson sees plenty of upside.
“When we made the effort to move towards recycled materials, we were very technical in our design, but it’s also fashion-forward,” he said.
For example, Level Six has a popular women’s swimwear collection, which Larsson describes as “not made for laying on a beach but not for competitive swimming – it’s just for people who enjoy the water.”
“People go for that instant sale and then move on to the next person, but if you do that, you’re losing that longevity and that potential for growth,” he added. “We don’t go after the latest and greatest fad. If we do something, we’re going to invest in sustainability to grow that product line.
“That’s something that people forget. They think it’s just environmental, and I don’t think that’s the right way to look at a business model.”