The Ad Nauseum Marketing of Von Dutch

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, fashion audience.

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.”

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”