A young Kenny Howard (Von Dutch) perfecting his pinstriping craft at Bud Ekins' shop, 1965.
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
An incredible example of vintage Von Dutch handiwork-- his XAVW, 1965.
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.
Kenny Howard, AKA Von Dutch in a great vintage shot.
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.”
Incredible photos courtesy of Irishrichhomage