On an under-the-radar block of Sunset Boulevard in an unassuming little shop called Schaeffer's Garment Hotel, Robert Schaeffer and his crew of three tailors meticulously handcraft blue jeans of shuttle-woven Japanese denim, using vintage bar tack, chain stitch and riveting machines.
It can take 18 to 20 hours to create one pair of fully custom jeans. Think of it as slow fashion, a welcome reprieve from disposable styles. These are pieces designed to wear forever.
Schaeffer isn't the only local purveyor of bespoke denim. The Stronghold in Venice, for instance, has offered men's custom jeans for about nine years. And Den.m Bar, which opened in downtown L.A. last year, offers custom jeans in three men's and two women's fits in a range of fabric from Japanese, Italian and American mills.
What's different is the clean-lined, 1950s-inspired style that Schaeffer custom fits off the rack, as well as his hyper-focus on craft.
Maybe only denim-heads would appreciate that his jeans are constructed of 15-ounce Japanese denim made on vintage, pre-'50s shuttle looming machines, not the automated shuttle looms that some other companies pass off as authentic. Or that the fabric is 100% indigo dyed with no synthetics. Or that his jeans are sewn with a double single-needle machine rather than a faster Caballo sewing machine, geared for higher production but unable to create adequate seam allowance for alterations, according to Schaeffer.
"We can control the quality better," Schaeffer says. "We are doing it to be done right. Not to do it faster."
He offers his off-the-rack men's style in a full spectrum of sample sizes for a custom fit; the final pair is ready for pick-up in a few days. (A women's sample set is coming by the end of the year.) Hemming, a second custom fitting, hole repair within a year and lifetime coverage of stitching and hardware are included in the $250 price. Each pair is signed and dated.
"When people come back for a second custom fitting, I am able to fine-tune what is working and not working. It's not a good profitable business plan, if you want to be rich," he says. "But I want to keep doing this for a long time."
As an aspiring-but-injured teenage motocross racer in Texas, Schaeffer distracted himself by watching vet class flat racing, which spawned his interest in vintage style. "They were the old guys racing old Triumph bikes, wearing leathers, and that led me into motorcycle leather buying," he says.
Today he sells 1920s-'60s leather boots and jackets as well as early 19th century-style felt hats crafted by on-site hatter Gunner Foxx in the store, which is decorated with well-worn Victorian furniture and a weathered piano.
Schaeffer decided to go into design when he couldn't find jeans he truly wanted to wear.
He wanted jeans that mimicked the look of '50s bikers who bought Levi's Shrink to Fit 501s three or four sizes too small and never washed them, rather than trusting the shrink factor. A key fit detail of Schaeffer's slim style is in the rear.
"Most designer jeans make the fit so comfortable and perfect off the bat that if you wear them for a month or two, you get a dumpy, diaper-butt syndrome in the back. I make [my fit] a little tighter in the yoke, so you can break in the seat the way you want it," he says.
The brand is logo-free. Clean, polished leather tags with vintage rivets are cut and hand-dyed by a friend of Schaeffer's in Montebello, who also does work for J. Crew. A signature is one white button on the button fly, and the rivets are a mix of copper and brass.
Also specializing in denim tailoring and repair, from leg tapering and waist reduction to pocket replacement and patching, the shop tweaks about 100 pairs of jeans each week that are mailed in from all over the United States. Holes are seamlessly concealed with a patching method that involves a special backing material and thread to match any wash.
"We have someone who has been doing it for 15 years. That's the difference," Schaeffer says.
While Schaeffer has star clients, he isn't into dropping names. Off the cuff, he mentions outfitting friend Walton Goggins for "Justified" and the "Sons of Anarchy" guys, plus doing 50 pairs of jeans and jackets for "some
It seems that he can rely on that old-fashioned form of advertising: word of mouth. Shane Markland, sales director for new denim brand D-ID and an alum of Goldsign, Notify and Current/Elliott, heard buzz about the line from a former Maxfield's buyer, who said, "If I were going to do a denim brand, it would be just like the Schaeffer brand." Enough said.
Schaeffer's Garment Hotel; men's custom-fit off-the-rack jeans $250; men's and women's custom-order jeans from $625; denim repair and alterations from $5; Gunner Foxx hats from $650; hat restoration and repair from $30; 7517 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 798-4310; schaeffersgarmenthotel.com