Von Dutch: Daddy of Custom Culture


What is this thing called ‘Kustom Kulture’?

Ask a hundred people the question – you’ll get a hundred different answers. Like other stock phrases used to describe complex phenomenon – from ‘Jazz’ to ‘Surfing’ and ‘Rock ‘n Roll’ – the term has been commodified, fought-over and railed against for decades. Everyone on the inside thinks they understand it. Everyone who has an opinion believes they own it.

And the story of Kenny ‘Von Dutch’ Howard is a case in point. Kenny turned eighteen and graduated high school in 1947 – an auspicious moment in Southern Californian cultural history when all things wrought in chrome, saturated in salty air and waxed in sand and candy apple sunshine – must have kind of made sense.

Von-Dutch-300Imagine you’re one of a half a million US servicemen coming home from fighting in the far east. You land in San Diego or Long Beach, your pockets full of pay and the right to study on the GI bill burning a hole in your pocket. You are souped up on self-reliance, mechanical know-how and a knowledge that life is a fleeting thing.

What do you end up doing? You start building hot rods, tweaking out and tricking up motorbikes. You might even go surfing on the downtime from the grease, too.

Kenny Howard, part of this blessed demographic (though he never served overseas) became known as a pinstriper. Along with others, he became one of the media stars of the new creed, motored by an exploding economy and an ethos of fun fun fun that permeated everything in that halcyon moment.

He might have been a madcap creator of trivial things, and he may have been a riotous drunk – but the brand he created has been traded and fought over and has come to be associated with a certain sort of left field creativity that continues to influence today.

The fact that we can’t see the real man through the mythic gauze that his brand created is hardly surprising.

But what does it mean for today’s creative builders?

Is the new wave of Kustom Kulture waiting for its Von Dutch or Ed Roth?