NEW YORK — To collectors of Fifties and Sixties hot rods, the Von Dutch name brings to mind one of the California artist-mechanics who started the car-customization trend.
Known for his pinstripes and flaming eyeball logo, the cantankerous painter’s creations are avidly collected by members of Hollywood’s monied celebrity set. For those who can’t justify or afford the collection of cars and car-related art, Tonny Sorensen hopes the name can also sell jeans.
In April, he bought the late designer’s name and trademarks and started banging the drum for a line of jeans, logo T-shirts and related sportswear under the Von Dutch Originals brand.
"It’s a name that people in California recognize," Sorensen said. "Everything we see that has to do with customizing cars, he was at the heart of it."
Sorensen said Von Dutch’s rebellious image has lived on in the 10 years since the artist born as Kenny Howard died.
"He was anticommercial, antiestablishment," Sorensen said.
A Web site at Letterhead.com about the designer by Bob Burns, a Prescott, Ariz., resident who identifies himself as a friend of Dutch’s, quotes the painter as having said: "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."
Sorensen admitted the irony in a business plan intended to capitalize on an artist who claimed to care little about money himself. But that doesn’t worry him.
"I don’t think we’re about to hurt anyone’s feelings," he said. "He’s gone, like Salvador Dali is gone."
Sorensen isn’t the first to try to trade on the painter’s fame. After he retired from a previous career as a martial-arts competitor — the 6-foot-6 athlete competed on Denmark’s national tae kwon do team and was classed as world champion — the 38-year-old Sorensen decided he wanted to make a movie about the late painter.Sorensen headed to California, where he looked into buying the rights to make the movie and discovered 30 Von Dutch-related trademarks had been registered since the painter died in 1992, leaving no will. One company had even opened a store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, selling vintage jeans under the Von Dutch name.
"Everyone thought they could have a piece of him," he said.
Still, hoping to raise the money he’d need to produce a feature film about the painter, Sorensen opened a company last year that began designing and selling jeans under the Von Dutch name.
"I had no clue what I was getting into," he acknowledged.
Realizing that "there’s no way you can put a serious amount of effort into a brand if you don’t have the rights," Sorensen began meeting with the painter’s daughters, Lisa and Lorna Howard, about acquiring the rights to the name. Drawing on a family trust fund, in April he bought the rights to the Von Dutch name, as well as the flying eyeball graphic.
After securing the rights, Sorensen, who serves as president of Los Angeles-based Von Dutch Originals, began seeking broader retail distribution. He worked with designer Christian Audegeier to produce a sleek-looking women’s collection.
Current Von Dutch women’s jeans styles are slim-fitting, vintage-inspired jeans, with details such as flame appliques reminiscent of hot rods. The jeans wholesale for $55 to $95, and the company also produces men’s jeans. All the production is done at Los Angeles factories.
The brand sells its line at a 3,500-square-foot branded boutique on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. It’s also starting to catch the attention of specialty retailers.
"We just started carrying it recently," said Sharon Segal, owner of Sharon Segal at Fred Segal in Los Angeles. "They’d been trying for a long time to get into the store. One of the reasons we decided to pick it up is there has been such an improvement in the style of the women’s portion of the line. Whenever they came in before, they were much stronger in men’s. Now there’s a lot more variety."Sorensen said Von Dutch Originals is on track to record $8 million in sales this year, half men’s and half women’s.