Sam Roberts LA
MAKING OLD THINGS NEW AGAIN IS JOHN DENNIS'S SPECIALTY, AS HE TRANSFORMS WORN-OUT VINTAGE WARES INTO MODERN DAY TREASURES IN THE OJAI MOUNTAINS.
Spend some time with John Dennis, the man behind Sam Roberts LA, and you’re bound to hear a few common phrases. “Far out, man,” “Heck, yes,” and “It’s jamming,” crop up in his conversation so often, and with such enthusiasm, you might find yourself starting to say them too. At least that’s what happened to me when I spent the day with Dennis in Ojai, a small, sleepy enclave tucked into the Topatopa Mountains about an hour and a half’s drive from Los Angeles. That’s where he lives in a tiny house with his wife Bobbie, the other brain behind the apparel brand, their nine-year-old son Sam (who inspired its name), and three dogs—Scout, an Australian cattle dog, Willard, a ragamuffin stray rescued from a donut shop, and a sweet old black lab named Mr. Chips. The house sits on 20 acres of land and it’s here that every single piece under the Sam Roberts LA label is made. Or perhaps reworked, reconstructed, and revived are more accurate descriptions. “Our big thing is, there’s so much stuff, man,” Dennis says, momentarily taking the ever-present toothpick out of his mouth as we chat in his kitchen, which doubles as a workspace. “If we can harvest old materials, and reintroduce them, it’s just a way better jam.”
Those old materials range from wide-brimmed hats to antique textiles to hundred-year-old beads made from thousand-year-old pottery shards that Dennis scours the nooks and crannies of estate sales, flea markets, and the Internet to find. “This was all something else,” he says, gesturing to a nearby bookshelf stacked with stuff. “Like some decimated wampum belt or this purse from the turn of the century. It’s just destroyed but we’ll take all this apart and then put it all back together.”
It’s in the putting it back together that Dennis really shines. Wraparound patchwork skirts pieced from vintage denim are some of his latest creations (Dennis embroiders personalized details into each one, depending on the wearer), and he says the centuries-old spindle whorl he’s gingerly showing me on his callused palm will probably be the centerpiece for a new necklace. The maker is most recognized for his hats though, which he sells online and at shows, or as he prefers, “happenings,” around the country, like Mercado Sagrado and El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas. But it’s the trip the hats make before reaching their final destination that makes them so special.
Traipsing behind Dennis through the wooded area surrounding his house, past the remnants of a small concrete amphitheater that served as a boxing ring in the 1920s, and a boat ensconced in foliage that looks like it hasn’t seen the ocean in decades, I realize it’s a veritable treasure trove of headgear—there are hats lining a low stone wall, a few more on a grassy knoll, all soaking up the dappled sunshine. He tells me to look up as well, ’cause there are probably a few hanging out in the nearby trees. It’s how his hats get their well-worn patina, hues created by the elements and details wrought by nature. This organic distressing is only part of Dennis’s process. He also spends quality time with each hat, making it malleable in the cool waters of the “zen” pools a couple of miles from his house, and then shaping it to his liking before it gets the outdoor treatment. Many of them will also be adorned with found feathers, braided horse hair bands, or beadwork inspired by the Native American iconography Dennis is drawn too, that can take anywhere from several hours to several days to hand sew.
When we reach the zen pools, Dennis takes off his shoes and socks and steps right in standing knee deep in the icy water. “So this thing,” Dennis says, referring to the hat he’s dipping and spinning in the stream, “nobody gave a fuck about it because it was some wack color or a goofy shape or whatever. When I’m all done with it, I’ll take it to a show and really good friends will get salty at one another over who gets to buy it.” As we talk, the rushing creek and subtle forest symphony is a constant, soothing soundtrack. “I’m just taking stuff that’s already around and making it a little bit more desirable, a bit more individual, so it doesn’t end up in a landfill. And in my dream of all dreams, 30 or 40 years later some other dude will take it and be like, That’s lame! And do his own thing to it.”
With a grizzled beard, deep laugh lines around his eyes, and a rough and tumbleweed demeanor that matches his tousled look, Dennis seems so suited to this easygoing life in the mountains, it’s hard to believe he was a real estate broker until his son was born. That’s when he realized life is too short to do anything you don’t love and he began selling vintage clothes instead, an obsession that stoked his own curiosity and creativity, guiding him to the life of reinvention he leads now. He’s telling me this over a dinner of “hippie food” at local restaurant The Farmer and the Cook, when he recognizes a girl at the table next to ours. She used to shop his wares at the Melrose flea market in Los Angeles back when Dennis first started selling vintage clothes. “You sold me my all-time favorite jeans!” she gasps. “I still love them.” He tips his own well-weathered Trilby at her as we leave.
It’s clear Dennis has been pairing people with incredibly special pieces since he embarked on the path that led him to creating Sam Roberts LA. And his wares have only gotten more extraordinary in the years since. Dennis though, hopes he’s only a stop on the journey. “People realize that a lot of care and thought and hands were on one of their pieces. I don’t know if they know that consciously or subconsciously but I know that’s all I want,” he says. “I want them to think, Whoa man, this has a little bit of a story to it. But there are a whole bunch of blank pages, you can write your own little fuckin’ thing from here on out. Take it, make it yours, do your trip.”