When Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie tried working as Arkansas milkmaids in an episode of their reality show "The Simple Life," things ended badly, with the pair soaked in spilt milk. But their orange camouflage Von Dutch truckers' caps made an impression. Within hours, the hats were selling on EBay for three times their retail value.
The Von Dutch brand, named for a seminal L.A. car customizer, has hit critical mass.
The craze started 10 months ago, after Justin Timberlake wore a Von Dutch hat to Grammy night parties. Fred Durst, Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears and other Hollywood types followed suit, and pretty soon the truckers' hat had become a kind of anti-status status symbol. Or, at prices that go from $42 to $125, maybe a faux anti-status symbol.
Von Dutch Originals, founded in 1999, is a purveyor of greaser-chic jeans, T-shirts and motorcycle jackets. But it's the wide-billed, foam-front truckers' hat -- borrowed not from the urban street but from the auto and tractor parts dealerships of rural America -- that has made Von Dutch a lust-worthy name.
While coastal-dwelling trendsetters have been wearing the loopy script logo for months, it seems to be infiltrating states where truckers' hats are actually worn by truckers.
"We're watching the brand hit mainstream," said Marshal Cohen, a fashion and retail analyst for the market research firm NPD Group. Celebrity paparazzi shots are published so many times that "until the next trend," he said, "Von Dutch will stay in consumers' minds."
The hats are made in a variety of fabrics, including terrycloth, velvet, leather, denim and faux Dalmatian fur. Each design is limited to a run of 1,000, which helps fuel demand (the Beanie Baby factor). On EBay last year, more than 20 Von Dutch hats sold for $900-plus.
But just because people are wearing the stuff doesn't mean they know a Von Dutch from a Von Trapp. "I bought a sweatshirt for my niece in Boston, so when she watches 'The Simple Life' and sees Paris Hilton wearing Von Dutch, she can feel cool," said Thomas Kostigen, 37, a writer-producer who was shopping recently at the new Von Dutch store on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. He confessed he had no inkling of who or what Von Dutch was.
He's not alone.
Von Dutch, whose real name was Kenny Howard, was a father of the 1960s "kustom car" craze. Howard, who was raised in Maywood and died at 63 in 1992, virtually invented the freestyle pin-striping and painted flames that became the signature of the uniquely Southern California car subculture. His family nickname was "Dutch" -- given to him early on by relatives who found him "as stubborn as a Dutchman," according to a book published by the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach in connection with its 1993 exhibit "Kustom Kulture."
As a teenager, he developed the logo that he used all his life -- a bloodshot winged eyeball, which now adorns most Von Dutch merchandise.
In the 1950s, he became well known for his custom paint jobs; people came from all over the country to have their cars and motorcycles "Dutched," according to Bob Burns, a longtime friend and collaborator who now owns a sign-painting shop in Prescott, Ariz.
According to the Laguna Art Museum book, Von Dutch earned rebel mystique by traveling in a 1954 bus equipped with a complete machine shop, supporting himself in by restoring motorcycles and building strange vehicles from scratch.
Burns said that Von Dutch disappeared for part of the 1960s because his fame was so unsettling. "He never liked being the object of attention. He was into his work.... He shied away from people and money."
Still, he did some memorable work: For the 1969 Steve McQueen movie "The Reivers," he built the memorable yellow Winton Flyer.
From 1970 to 1979, Burns said, Von Dutch parked his bus behind a Buena Park museum called Movie World, Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame. The museum featured customized cars and hot rods, many of them used in movies or TV, embellished by such car customizers as George Barris.
After the museum closed, Von Dutch moved his bus to a Santa Paula warehouse, where he stayed until he died from liver disease.
In 1996, his daughters Lisa and Lorna Howard of Phoenix sold the rights to his name to Michael Cassel, an entrepreneur who wanted to open a business that would appeal to hot rod enthusiasts. A few years later, Cassel entered a partnership with Tonny Sorensen, the company's current CEO, who was initially hoping to produce a film about Von Dutch. (The partners are wrangling over control of the company.)
In 2000, the company opened its first store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. It has since opened four more -- in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Miami and Santa Monica. In May 2002, Sorensen hired designer Christian Audigier, who has worked for the youth-minded apparel companies Diesel, Bisou Bisou and American Eagle Outfitters. Audigier focused more on fashion, adding hoodies and jeans. Although the truckers' hats are the most visible of Von Dutch's products, Sorensen said the company does more sales volume in jeans, which cost $145 to $320. The company's sales have risen from $1 million in 2001 to roughly $33 million in 2003.
Von Dutch also has licensed its name for $149 bowling bag totes, $1,000 silver belt buckles and $995 leather jackets.
Next year, the company will launch eyewear and watches. Audigier is also working on a high-end line for a new La Brea boutique called the Sample Shop, which will be open by appointment only and will cater to celebrities.
"If Von Dutch were alive," said Burns, who runs a website about his friend at www.vondutch.freeservers.com, "he would hate all this."
For some, the very popularity of the brand means it has lost its edge.
"It's gotten too popular," said Kasey Rzepecki, 16, a student at Santa Monica High School who was shopping on the Third Street Promenade before Christmas. "It's so overexposed."
Lyssa Cripe, a Nordstrom buyer, said it's difficult to predict the lifespan of a label like Von Dutch. It could flame out or become a staple, a la Juicy Couture tracksuits.
For Cohen, the apparel industry analyst, the Von Dutch phenomenon is reminiscent of the smiley face, the peace sign and the current monogram craze, all trends that caught the fashion world by surprise but didn't have much of a shelf life.
"The next thing is already out there, it just hasn't been photographed yet," he said.