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Custom-car painter Dutch gained unwanted fame

June 20, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

It sounds like a dream when living a simple life makes you a rollicking success story.

But when your name is Kenny Howard, a man who viewed fame, glory and money as more of a curse than a blessing, the American dream becomes a nightmare.

Who is Howard? Maybe you know him better as Von Dutch. Or maybe you only know the Von Dutch name because it has appeared on the baseball caps, blue jeans, T-shirts and motorcycle jackets of Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

Today, 13 years after his death, the Von Dutch name is a multi-million dollar brand with shops like the one on the Third Street Promenade in chic Santa Monica, Calif. It is the coolest thing this side of the Hollywood hills. It has become a license to print money.

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And who would have thought it?

Probably not the real Von Dutch, or, Kenny Howard, who was a pioneer of the 1960s custom-car craze. Born in 1929, he was the man who transformed mere pin-striping into an art form, from motorcycles to car bodies.

Howard earned his nickname for his stubbornness at an early age. Family members called him "Dutch" because they believed "he was as stubborn as a Dutchman," according to a book published by a Laguna Beach, Calif., art museum.

The son of a sign painter in Los Angeles, Calif., Howard began his technique of pin-striping after watching his father do much of the same work on flower carts in outdoor markets in L.A.

As a child, Howard hung out in his father's shop, learning the craft of sign painting. In the 1940s, after finishing high school, he began working at a motorcycle shop and discovered that pinstripes could conceal scratches and imperfections. Howard was on to something.

Pin-striping on cars and motorcycles was a dead art when he began his craft. Howard helped customizers bring it back in a radical form.

Soon he was painting everything with his unique touch, including cars, motorcycles and even T-shirts. Each paint job was customized to fit the owner's personality. The designs were unique. They were wild. And they became wildly popular, which triggered a whole other problem: Howard was building a reputation he never wanted.

"I'm a mechanic first," he once said. "When you paint something, how long does it last? A few years and then it's gone."

Much to his chagrin, Howard's legend only grew.

For a long time, he pinstriped nothing but motorcycles, moving from shop to shop. By the 1950s he had painted thousands of bikes. When he switched to pin-striping cars, his status really began to snowball.

He couldn't have wanted that popularity any less.

At an early age, Howard was considered the quintessential romantic artist. He was reclusive. He was self-absorbed. And, for the most part, he lived an odd life.

Success with pin-striping only cemented his eccentricities.

Many thought Howard created much of the weird persona as a cover-up or a distraction from his talent.

People came from all over the country to have their cars and motorcycles "Dutched." Customers didn't tell Howard what to do, they told him how much time they could afford to buy. The designs were up to Howard.

He earned cult status by traveling in a 1954 bus equipped with a machine shop. He made money by restoring motorcycles and building strange vehicles, not by pin-striping. Money he also detested.

"I make a point of staying right at the edge of poverty," he once said.

He stayed on the edge of society as well, disappearing for part of the 1960s because his fame was so unsettling.

But he still managed to build a car for the 1969 Steve McQueen movie The Reivers.

From 1970-'79, Howard parked his bus behind a museum in Buena Park, Calif., and continued to work on his own projects.

After the museum closed, he moved to a Santa Paula, Calif., warehouse where he stayed until he died in 1992 from liver disease.

Less than four years later, the rights to the Von Dutch name were sold to an entrepreneur who wanted to open a business that would appeal to hotrod enthusiasts. In 2000, the company opened its first Von Dutch store in Los Angeles. It has since opened four more.

Is Von Dutch a success? A million times over.

The company made $1 million in 2001. Two years later, that figure rose to $33 million.

From $149 bowling-bag totes to $1,000 silver belt buckles to $995 leather jackets, the Von Dutch name is synonymous with American success, even if it's the kind of success that Kenny Howard, the real Von Dutch, could have just as easily done without.

Designer eyewear is coming. So are watches and even a high-end boutique.

"If Von Dutch were alive," longtime friend Bob Burns recently told the Los Angeles Times, "he would hate all of this."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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