We talk to Eric Simsolo about the arrival of Next Level Apparel in the UK

Operating from south-central Los Angeles, Next Level Apparel has been steadily growing its business supplying high quality blank garments for decorators over the past 16 years. In the past, some of its clothing has found its way across the Atlantic for specialist orders but now, for the first time, the brand is available in the UK directly, through a distribution partnership with PenCarrie. “There was a level of demand coming in, there were people wanting our product,” explains Eric Simsolo, director of business development, who works alongside his father Joe, the founder of the business. “We had been talking to PenCarrie for four or five years. From the start, we wanted to have the right partner for the brand as they are an extension of you in that territory. We were ready to get out there.”

Next Level is one of the biggest brandable apparel suppliers in the US market and is known for its specialist fabrics and broad range of styles. Joe Simsolo launched the brand in 2003 after working with his own father running a successful sublimation printing business in Los Angeles. Identifying a need for a good fashionable fabric, he started sourcing a soft material, then supplying it to customers for cutting and sewing before taking it back for printing. It soon became clear that it would make more sense for Joe to provide the printed garments as a total package. Next Level then emerged as a brand after Joe spotted a further opportunity to supply blank garments ready for printing. As Eric explains, “From there, Next Level just kept expanding its product offering, asking what was needed, and always running as an owner-operated entrepreneurial business”.

PenCarrie partnership

After becoming a leading brand in the US market, Next Level has expanded to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Puerto Rico. The UK and the rest of Europe was the obvious next step. As well as partnering PenCarrie in the UK, it has this year also formed a partnership for the rest of Europe with L-Shop-Team. This has been possible on the back of the opening of a warehouse in Belgium through a third party, Eric points out. “We are using that to support our partners in PenCarrie to make sure they get their product quickly enough and can replicate it and make sure their customers can feel comfortable in their investments in Next Level product. Before, we never had any warehouse space. Without that, it’s hard to serve the product on a large scale.”

Before partnering PenCarrie, one of the original footholds for Next Level in the UK and the rest of Europe was the tour merchandise market. “They were asking for us to come [to the UK and Europe] as their big complaint was that they started a programme in one style in the US and then went to the UK and Europe and it was more expensive and you had to import,” Eric says. “If you don’t import, you end up going down the route of switching over to other products in different places, and they don’t like to do that. It can damage their brand. In that respect, there have been people welcoming Next Level with open arms.” He believes there is an opportunity for the brand to firmly establish itself in the UK market. “Our goal is to be the standard upper-level blank apparel. Others are doing very well in the lower-price category. From the standpoint of the industry and the end customer, people like Next Level as we are fashion-forward and have good-fitting shirts and unique fabrics.”

Next Level has partnered with multibrand distributor PenCarrie to bring its products to the UK market

Signature styles

Innovation in fabric has been a key part of Next Level’s development. Its signature items include a super-soft sueded fabric and the soft textured ‘Mock Twist’, both of which are made using 60% combed ringspun cotton/40% polyester fabric. The initial range available through PenCarrie includes the Fleece Pullover Hoodie (NX9303) and the Fleece Zip Hoodie (NX6092), which have hood linings made from fabric scraps from Next Level’s T-shirt manufacturing operations. According to the brand, the use of these scraps creates “a lovely connection between T-shirt and sweatshirt”. Both styles sport a locker patch, also made from T-shirt scraps, which provides the perfect location for a printable label. The Crew Neck Fleece with Pocket (NX9001) has also been added to the UK range as “a fantastic alternative to the traditional hoodie, offering all the comfort of a sweatshirt but with a handy front pocket”. All of these styles are made from 80% cotton/20% polyester.

From Next Level’s CVC collection, UK customers can choose from the Women’s PCH Raglan Zip Hoodie (NX9603), PCH Pullover Hoodie (NX9300) and PCH Bomber Jacket (NX9700) – all made from 60% cotton/40% polyester, and also featuring hoods and locker patches made with T-shirt scraps. The styling of the PCH Pullover Hoodie (NX9300) is especially noteworthy: tapping into Next Level’s background in the skate and surf clothing market, it was inspired by California beachwear and features a heathered fleece in heather colours and a soft and fluffy feel. For the UK and the rest of Europe, the initial range comprised 20 items for this year’s launch, which represents about a fifth of Next Level’s full product line-up. “We started with what we knew a lot of customers told us they will buy,” 

Eric says. “We knew we could not bring everything at the start. We wanted to make sure we could service it. The next thing for us is to find out what else customers want. We don’t want to be those Americans who assume that they know it all.”

Popular styles from Next Level include an American retro look, using a natural colour base that gives an aged or 1970s washed-out look. “It is very classic,” Eric says. “You can almost hear the old records playing in the background. It evokes an emotional attachment.” The sueded fabric is a great differentiator for the brand, he adds. “When I show it to customers, they say the sueded T-shirt is phenomenal.” Next Level’s classic 100% cotton T-shirts have proven to be a “big staple” in the UK market as in the US. “They have a large range of sizes and colours. At face value, there is nothing spectacularly different [about them] but, once you’ve got to know them, they become your favourite.”

Next Level is known for its innovation in fabric

Relationships and service

Eric and Next Level’s head of sales, Mark Seymour, have been back and forth to the UK several times this year with other members of staff to support PenCarrie’s team in getting to know the brand. With its own 28-year heritage, the Devon-based distributor, which stocks over 90 of the industry’s top brands for the promotional decoration and resale markets, has plenty of expertise in helping to launch new brands and product ranges. Yet Eric recognises that, for many prospective customers in the UK, Next Level is still little known. “Much of the market has had a lot to learn about us. They may have heard of us before or seen the brand but not known about the range. Once we came out, the reception was great. It’s still early on, we are still proving to people what we can do. It’s just a matter of time.”

New products are due to be added to the UK line-up later this year, including jackets, hoodies, sweats and fleeces from across Next Level’s collections. “Eventually the UK and European market will have a lot more [choice] – close to everything we have in the States,” Eric says. He adds that, following recapitalisation with private equity firm Blue Point Capital Partners a year ago, Next Level Apparel will continue to expand and invest, with Joe at the helm as CEO. Innovation will remain key: “We are always looking at our fabric resources and what people have developed.”

Working with PenCarrie, Next Level hopes to build the same kinds of strong relationships that it has in its home market. “We like the business-to-business model,” Eric says. “It’s not just ‘make one and run’. It’s personal. It’s based on relationships and service. It’s about consistency and excitement, bringing the right product and servicing it well and supporting customers and distributors so they have the knowledge to sell that product themselves.” With stock now available in the UK, the brand is inviting PenCarrie’s customers to join it in taking the imprint market to the next level.