Sometimes people discover their true passion while working toward what they already believe to be their calling. Designer Robert Schaeffer is one of them. Growing up in Houston, Texas, Schaeffer was intent on pursuing a career in motocross and supercross, but, after multiple injuries, he shifted his focus while taking time to recover. He started collecting vintage clothing in his spare time, mostly jackets and boots from people in racing groups or vintage shops. By his late teens, his racing days were over, but his collections were growing rapidly. In 2009, his passions came together when he launched Schaeffer’s Garment Hotel, a moto-inspired clothing brand, denim repair shop, and vintage store on Sunset Boulevard.
Since then, Schaeffer’s business has attracted loyal customers from the Hollywood, music, and fashion worlds—actor Jason Momoa is a regular, as was Hedi Slimane during his Saint Laurent days. We got the chance to visit his studio and shop and experience how his offbeat collection of artifacts, musical instruments, and vintage clothes speak to his creative journey.
The Window: Let’s go back to the start—did motocross racing lead to a vintage obsession?
Robert Schaeffer: I started riding when I was 4, and I tried to make a career out of it. I had some good moments but never fully made it. I didn’t want to go to the track and watch all the people in my class getting faster while I had a broken arm and broken leg. Simultaneously, I became drawn to vintage collecting and started buying items from people in those groups. The best way to learn to be a buyer is to buy a bunch of stuff that’s not worth anything. You think it is, and then you get mad you spent your money on it! I went through that and figured out what was good and what was not. I don’t really like vintage that isn’t wearable. I only like it if it can be a fashionable thing. I carried them in my business and mixed it with the new stuff.
Why did you move from Houston to L.A.? What did you do when you first arrived?
I was selling to a guy who had one of the largest vintage showrooms in L.A, and I moved to help him with his business. The shop also specialized in denim repair, so that’s where I learned that aspect. The only jeans they had no repair issues with were Japanese jeans, but the fits were very oversized. The American brands that came in always had constructional issues. So when I started my own company in October of 2009, I just took a simple idea that I’m going to get the denim that everyone’s getting in Japan, and I’m going to make a jean for people here that want it fashionable and don’t want to have to go online and look at every detail.
Where does the name come from?
I went through a million names, and the one that stuck out was ‘Garment Hotel’ because at a hotel there are so many different facets that can get done when you’re there, and that’s kind of what we were hosting at the time.
Why is Japanese denim considered the holy grail?
After World War II, Japan bought shuttle loom machines from the United States. That really tight, woven fabric that gives you the kind of indestructibility that everyone talks about is because they use shuttle loom machines. In the U.S., everyone cut them after the ’60s; there was one mill left in North Carolina that just closed this year. There are four main mills in Japan. It takes a special person to run them. They have to know a lot about them, and the process is very expensive to run. Japan continues to grow their technology while keeping the old technology alive, and that’s why their fabric is better.
What do you do differently that makes your fit so good?
Stretch jeans are very easy to do, which is why a lot of people do them. You can just undersize them and make them fit. Most men have jeans for going out or for working, and I wanted to combine both into one—a fit that looks good but also has enough movement to work in. It’s important that the fabric holds up as you break them in and that they fit exactly as you want. At the shop, we tailor the jeans to people—it’s kind of like our secret menu there. If someone comes into the store and buys, they can always get them tailored as well.
Tell us about the space itself—how did it come together?
It’s a little crowded right now because we have a lot going on, but I built it as a home, and that gives me inspiration to create what I want. All of the cabinets and everything in here is either custom made or has been repurposed by us. I have a full production facility above our store, where we make everything from start to finish. Most of my time is either working with our in-house pattern makers or working on anything we have for our samples going out. I try to balance a little time at the shop, too.
What’s the most rewarding part about running your own brand?
The best part of the job is creating pieces. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but the combination of fabric and fit is something that isn’t being offered elsewhere. Either basics are too basic and boring, or they’re cheaply made. There’s a customer who wants quality and wants it to have all of those subtle details where the longer you own it, the more you learn about it. I also love growing our team and doing the day-to-day at the shop. I love our customers. I love doing business with people—whether it’s in the production facility or in the shop. They’re all a part of the company. Everybody’s happy, and we all grind it out together.
Will you ever launch a line for women?
I want to develop a fabric with one of the mills I work with in Japan that’s going to be the right stretch fabric. I need to be prepared to keep up with all of the silhouettes that change all the time. Once we’re where I want to be, that will be the next step. I wanted to do a black, classic skinny jean—but not too skinny—for women. That would be the one that I want to start with, just a classic jean.