Von Dutch is dead; long live Von Dutch. In the years after World War II, a visionary auto customizer named Kenneth "Von Dutch" Howard unleashed pinstriping, airbrushed hot rod flames and winged eyeballs on L.A. out of various Southland auto shops, and the collective unconscious hasn't been the same since. Von Dutch's art was lowbrow, rude and deliriously gorgeous, and a half-century later the hot rod surrealist is also a fashion icon.
"I believe I am inside of Von Dutch and continuing his spirit," says Christian Audigier, head designer and vice president at the L.A.-based Von Dutch clothing label. Given the Gallic penchant for spotting greatness in declasse pop Americana such as Jerry Lewis movies, there's something inevitable about a French native creating trucker-style caps, muscle T-shirts and sleeveless denim vests for a fashion line that revels in America's hot rodder-grease monkey look.
That look reached its apogee in postwar Southern California, where disposable income, good weather and open deserts forged a hot rod culture notable for the graphic style pioneered by Von Dutch and co-conspirators such as Rat Fink creator Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and painter Robert Williams. Von Dutch could be exquisitely meticulous when it came to his minimalist freehand auto pinstripe lines, which often ended in scrolls or wings, or crudely stylized when rendering cartoonish monsters and obscene characters. The artist "Dutched" cars, bikes and even lawn mowers in the late 1940s through the 1950s, but later focused mainly on motorcycle restoration.
Von Dutch died in 1992, but his vision is still winning hearts and minds. Along with surf art and tattoo flash, hot rod graphics are a prime inspiration for today's "lowbrow" art movement, celebrated in the Southern California-based magazine Juxtapoz and at galleries such as La Luz de Jesus in Los Feliz. Local hot rod car clubs such as the Choppers in Burbank are flourishing, and the auto-customizing scene is bigger than ever with nostalgic baby boomers and their kids, who revere its outlaw ethos of individual self-expression.
Among them is Audigier's boss, Von Dutch CEO Tonny Sorensen. A film investor and avid hot rodder, Sorensen, 39, once hoped to commission a documentary on Von Dutch's life but decided there was more demand for a hot rod-inspired fashion line. In 2000, he secured a three-year licensing agreement and started producing garage chic T-shirts and denim wear out of a Melrose shop named after the patron saint of "kustom kulture." In 2002, the Hollywood resident won full rights to Von Dutch's famed flying eyeball logo, trademark signature and likeness, and he hired denim designer Audigier, a veteran of Fiorucci, Diesel and American Eagle. "I was born in 1958, so I was really into American music and James Dean growing up," says Audigier, who has owned vintage cars and currently rides a pinstriped Harley-Davidson motorcycle. "I want the clothes to have that vintage feel of the '50s and '60s."
Projected sales for the label this year are $20 million. Von Dutch caps start at $42 and a custom jacket will set you back $1,500. Due this fall: dirty denim-wash jeans, leather caps and jacket patches in the shape of the United States. A Beverly Hills outpost is flourishing, and Von Dutch shops are due in Chicago, New York and Miami over the next few months. The line sells alongside designer brands at shops including Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, Kitson and Madison. The Von Dutch look is a breakout hit with the artist's spiritual godchildren--surfers, skaters, car buffs, rockers, Xtreme sports aficionados and even hip-hoppers, Sorensen says. "People want to wear something authentic that has a meaning behind the clothing."
Von Dutch, 7521 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 655-2213. Von Dutch Beverly Hills, 263 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 273-9064.