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The Von Dutch caps have made it to convenience stores in New Jersey and
the “Von Sucks” variant is as common as the original. Surely, it must
be almost over, thank God: the $42 shirts and $145 jeans and $25 thongs
at the Von Dutch Original boutiques in Hollywood or Las Vegas, and the
sweat bands at Urban Outfitters across the land and the Converse All
Stars stamped with the logo and the rest of the strip mining of the
imagery created by an eccentric automobile painter, Von Dutch.
Born in 1929 as Kenneth Howard, Von Dutch was the man who brought
pin-striping as a high art from motorcycles to automobile bodies. He
took his nickname from his stubbornness. “Stubborn as a Dutchman” is a
by now quaint ethnic slur. But beyond stubborn, Von Dutch became
insufferable. He was the quintessential cliché romantic artist, selfish
inside his own vision, alienating family, friends and customers alike.
Part romantic, part beatnik, part general pain in the ass, he was a
racist and prima donna, he managed to irritate almost everyone who
admired him—and in the best esthetic mode, somehow made them admire him
more in the process.
He died in 1992, leaving two daughters. At the end, he was drinking
heavily, holed up in an old Long Beach city bus. For years he lived at
the museum called Movie World, Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame in
Buena Park, California. He had become paranoid and he spent time
elaborately engraving and painting knives and guns as well as cars.
No wonder the daughters, Lisa and Lorna were happy to sell the rights to
reproduce their father's imagery in 1996 to Michael Cassel, a maker of
surf clothing, who established a company called Von Dutch Originals in
1999 and opened the store on Melrose Avenue a year later. He brought in
a man named Tonny Sorensen who in turn hired designer Christian
Audigier. Audigier worked for Diesel and Fiorucci. Casel’s notion was
to tap the hot rod set; but Sorensen and Audigier aimed at wider,
The art world found its way to car culture through artists like Robert
Williams, who worked with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth before turning his talents
to oil and canvas. In 1993 a show called “Kustom Kulture” at the
Laguna Museum of Art helped start off the process of Von Dutch's
discovery by the wider public. Still, it took insight, luck or both to
see that Von Dutch could be, well, exploitable. Celebrities such as
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher showed up
wearing the logo caps. The whole appeal of course was explaining who Von
Dutch was. By 2003, the company was doing some $33 million in sales and
for 2004 may go as high as $100 million. The logo items are cleverly
limited in number, so they can be reproduced in dozens of variants. But
for us true fans, the eyeball, not the logo was the appeal—the all
seeing eyeball with wings Von Dutch claimed to have adopted from the
Egyptians and other ancients. It was a powerful image, recalling Odilon
Redon or Man Ray or Dali's giant eyes in the dream scene of Hitchcock’s
film Spellbound, but also Dean Moon's "Moon equipped" double eyes logo
and other iconography of Southern California hot rod culture.
Von Dutch's posthumous fame has amazed veterans of the car culture. “I
knew Von Dutch,” one hot rod buff said not long ago, shaking his head.
“I saw him drunk every day.”
Is graphic design still a hothouse for experimentation? McCoy suggests there is more going on today, but the venues and media have changed—for the better.
Section: Inspiration -
history, interview, Voice
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