Before the cheesy namesake clothing and accessories line that threatens to destroy his cred forever, there was the self-invented and slightly mad genius Kenny Howard– better known as Von Dutch. He was a real Renaissance man– legendary custom painter, artist, motorcycle mechanic, and a skilled metal worker who hand-crafted his own knives and guns. He had a strong aversion to money and felt it was detrimental to his art– which makes the clothing line even more of an ironic abomination.
“I make a point of staying right at the edge of poverty. I don’t have a pair of pants without a hole in them, and the only pair of boots I have are on my feet. I don’t mess around with unnecessary stuff, so I don’t need much money. I believe it’s meant to be that way. There’s a ‘struggle’ you have to go through, and if you make a lot of money it doesn’t make the ‘struggle’ go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple.“ –Von Dutch
Some photos courtesy of Irishrichhomage.
From The Ad Nauseum of marketing 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.
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.”
Kenny Howard (AKA Von Dutch) sporting his famous Flying eyeball (leftt), and striping like only he could (right).
Kenny Howard (AKA Von Dutch) at work in his shop– check out the sign hanging above.
Kenny Howard (AKA Von Dutch) tinkering in the shop.
Examples of custom paint artistry by the master Kenny Howard (AKA Von Dutch)
Your blog rocks. Thanks for laying bare the ugly entrails of trend. I particularly enjoyed your chronicle of the death of A&F….as the granddaughter of a man who wore Brooks Bros entirely due to its physical ability to withstand the test of time and wear, I have watched the knockoffs and trailers with a gimlet eye.
– an admirer
Thanks Maia. Sounds like your grandfather was my kinda guy.
Oh, to be content with only the boots on your feet.
Sounds nice, but with so many nice boots out in the world, a bit impossible…
While my mother worked at Joe’s Jeans she knew a few of the designers at Von Dutch. They were as sleazy as the name of Von Dutch was abominated. I am glad to see that someone still respects the name of Von Dutch for his greatness and not for what has become of his name.
Hopefully in time the name Von Dutch will cease to be associated with the jeans/hats/fashion. This is a must for anyone interested in the real thing:
Dude what an insightful post… Yeah Von D has been stained with a stigma of cheese… They even attempted a revamp. Funny Audugier took the cheese to destroy another artist’s name Ed Hardy the tattoo man and then his own name Christian Audigier… Such great designs with burn outs, over done tees with gold foiling and stitching… Really classy. Thanks for the posts… Love this shit!
Sailor Jerry, Ed hardy, Von Dutch– all names that have been bastardized by those who only care about making a buck.
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Seriously great article, and amazing research, as usual. I’ve only started blogging but TheSelvedgeYard and others like ATG, have been a constant source of inspiration and linkage. Keep ’em comin’.
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“Kenny Howard (AKA Von Dutch) at work in his shop– check out the sign hanging above.”
what’s written there???
i can’t read it!!
My uncle restored vintage motorcycles for a living and had some work done by Von Dutch back in the day. Through his work with Von Dutch he was actually given a knife similar to the one shown on the right. With his passing, my brothers and I have now acquired the knife. It’s nice to have such a beautiful piece of art to represent the craftsmanship of my uncle and of Von Dutch.
Cheers to this post.
Finally. The internet has given me something worth looking at. This site is the best thing I have come across in a long time. Keep up the great work.
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Von Dutch actually pinstriped my 1968 Plymouth Belvedere i bought at an LAPD police auction. He did it for free because he owed my friend Bill Sturgis a favor. Bill was a talented upohlstery guy in Woodland Hills, CA). He looked at the car for a minute, got some black paint and a brush and 10 minutes later the car was done. All freehand, walking along side the car and taking a minute or two on the hood and trunk. He didn’t say two words to me, just did his thing and i thanked him. Wish I had that trunk lid hanging in my living room right now.
I’m HIS granddaughter, and I want to correct a few things since I just found this….
1) The clothing line was started by his daughters (my mom & aunt) in 1996 w/ Michael Cassel (I was 12) with the rights being sold in 2000 and if I recall Tony bumped him out around 2001.
2) the “family” (my mom and aunt) honestly,made NO money compared to what that company made and is still making. (they weren’t even paid 100% of what was promised.)
unfortunately…the worst is done!
and your grandpa’s name is irreversibly spoilled!!!
and since they still owe u the money…
take them to the court of law!
THEY HAVE TO STOP THIS SHIT THEY’RE DOING!!!
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I know this will be taken the wrong way but I’ve always wondered what the fascination with Howard was. From all accounts I read he treated most people horribly, he was a melodramatic fool about his work sometimes, he rambled jibberish about ancient cultures, and died essentially homeless and penniless. There were plenty of other pinstripers in the SoCal area who showed more talent than he did.
Sir, the majority of your comment may well be correct,, however, I might politely suggest, your final sentence, based on how the greater, longterm, objective view of history has it scored, is a load of bollocks !
Name a few aside from Dean Jeffries.
Tommy The Greek, Shakey Jake, Bobbo, Slimbo, Litle Donnie
They may not have all come before Dutch but they each took the craft places he never did. Personally I think he’s remembered more for being a character than a creator.
I’m not trying to take anything away from Dutch, he was perfectly pleasant to me the few times we talked, I’ve just never understood why he was the one “chosen” to be given legendary status.