Inner City Sanctums
What in the Sam Hill? Treasure hunting with Austin's newest vintage menswear shop
Before opening vintage menswear shop, Sam Hill, Kyle Muller had always wanted to be Indiana Jones. Just without the boring day job.
He actually gave archeology the old college try, but it wasn’t for him. Muller just wanted to hunt for treasure — to roam the globe and risk hell or high water to rescue precious relics from the brink of extinction. Throughout his childhood, he spent countless days exploring the creek beds behind his family's home, searching for interesting rocks and fossils. He dug up his backyard with his trusty metal detector and shovel and fell asleep fantasizing about ancient treasure maps waiting to be discovered.
But Muller’s favorite brand of hunting began during childhood visits to his grandfather’s home in San Diego, where he would spend entire afternoons sifting through his grandfather's spare rooms and attic — a trove of delicately preserved collections, antiques and relics. After every visit, he would request to take one precious item home with him. He recently wore one of those acquisitions, a 1920s top hat, to a friend’s wedding.
In seventh grade, Muller says he “started thrifting and never went back,” beginning to amass large collections, like his grandfather’s, of vintage clothing, furniture and various tchotchkes, filling up guest rooms and any other spare space with his latest obsession.
“Not many kids wanted to go to a flea market in the mornings before school with their mom." - Kyle Muller
“Not many kids wanted to go to a flea market in the mornings before school with their mom,” Muller says about the early stages of his vintage collections, and soon, his mother, and increasingly all of his friends and family, began to encourage him to open his own store.
But it wasn’t until September 2012 when Muller, who was working as a freelance graphic designer, finally made the decision to begin realistically stocking inventory for Sam Hill, which opened soon after as a pop-up and just launched its official online store this March, complete with a Spring 2013 lookbook.
The name Sam Hill refers to a familiar euphemism, dating back to a pioneering mercantile store in Prescott, Arizona founded in the late 1870s. The diverse store was stocked with every kind of dry food, hardware and appliance local townspeople at the time could imagine — and some they couldn’t. The phrase,
“What in the Sam Hill?,” reportedly evolved from customers who would frequently exclaim the mild curse of a rhetorical at any unusual or curious new items for sale. Muller loved the story behind the phrase, not to mention the homage to a classic tidbit of American history.
Because that’s really the treasure that Muller is fixed upon finding — a needle in a haystack. Something truly authentic that represents a distinct time or era in American history that has somehow been concealed by the chaotic careenings of time.
“I get a big thrill from the journey of uncovering something that's been lost,” Muller says about the feeling when he unearths truly spectacular vintage items. “When I find things, it’s truly amazing. My heart starts racing and my adrenaline goes up and the journey was instantly worth it.”
He continually attests to an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that comes from “bringing something back to life, something hidden or lost, and preserving what it once was.”
And there is certainly a journey involved in Muller’s methods. He keeps the sources of his refined vintage selections under tight wraps. (He says the most common question he’s asked at the shop is “Where did you get this?” and his response is always the same, “If I told you, then you’d go and get it.”) But he does attest to traveling hours at a time to “mysterious warehouses in the middle of nowhere,” and sorting through of thousands and thousands of vintage materials — most of which don’t stand up to Muller’s high standards. But there are diamonds in the rough.
“They are literally buried under heaps and heaps of other clothes,” he says. “It’s definitely still treasure hunting.”
Muller’s store stays away from overplayed or cliché items, like the Western wear or graphic Ts found in most college vintage shops. Instead, Sam Hill focuses on sophisticated and rare menswear and accessories. He has a discerning eye for detail and quality, whether it be 1920s mining pants, bone handled picnic knives, WWII bomber jackets, Pendleton blankets or, one of his favorite recent finds, an authentic 1940s Brooklyn Dodgers dugout jacket.
The success of Sam Hill’s chic refinement is mainly due to Muller’s equal respect for fashion and history. He continually attests to an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that comes from “bringing something back to life, something hidden or lost, and preserving what it once was.”
And his job is rarely finished when he finds a nice item. Muller meticulously researches, studies and restores every one of his discovered pieces, with the help of his wife, Erin, a teacher at The University of Texas and The Art Institute of Austin, who was formerly the Archive Manager of Ralph Lauren’s complete database of vintage clothing collections, in order to find out as much as he can about the clothes' individual history. His mission is as much to provide quality vintage goods as it is to preserve and redistribute these authentic pieces of American heritage that would otherwise be forgotten, forever buried in someone's grandfather's attic, for example.
“My goal is to be able to tell customers a story for each piece they buy,” he says.
Muller lived in Paris for a year after college, working as a tour guide and learning about the city’s most interesting history, architecture, design and people. He relished his time there, continually inspired by the sophisticated fashions and staid history dating back to the 1400s. He loved telling and retelling his favorite historical facts and anecdotes about the City of Lights, but after studying more and more of American history, Muller found that his own nation was just as intriguing.
“It made me proud to be an American,” Muller says. “We forged our history, our own path. We weren’t copying anyone else. We were creating something completely unique."
Muller, who hopes to assemble a complete Sam Hill collection in the near future, recognizes an ongoing trend of American-made obsession in the fashion world ("American history is badass and everyone wants a piece of it now," he says.), but he knows the inherent value of these precious national relics will always remain.
He tells stories of Japanese fashion buyers and entrepreneurs arriving at the same vintage storehouses he frequents and buying entire warehouses of 20th century American denim. And about ten years ago, he says, the oldest pair of Levi’s was discovered in an abandoned Nevada mine and sold for more than $46,000.
“There really is treasure out there,” Muller says.
Sam Hill launched its official online store this March, complete with a Spring 2013 lookbook. The shop has been popping up at the East Side’s Helm Showroom (Thurs-Fri), but there are plans to open a shop nearby in the future. There are also select Sam Hill items on sale at STAG.