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Von Dutch Revs Up With Celeb Set

LOS ANGELES — Lowbrow icon Von Dutch might be turning over in his grave now that the rock-inspired fashion line bearing his name tops the trendy list among mainstream Hollywood.<br><br>A decade after his death, the maverick hot-rod pinstriper...

LOS ANGELES — Lowbrow icon Von Dutch might be turning over in his grave now that the rock-inspired fashion line bearing his name tops the trendy list among mainstream Hollywood.

A decade after his death, the maverick hot-rod pinstriper born Kenny Howard and considered the godfather of Southern California’s custom car culture has been immortalized in the 15-month-old Von Dutch Originals brand of clothing. And it’s been a zero-to-60 ride for the Los Angeles-based line.

Since Tonny Sorensen purchased the name and iconic flying-eyeball trademarks from the artist’s daughters following their father’s death in 1992, Von Dutch’s weathered denim jeans, trucker hats and T-shirts bearing the legendary logos and artistic pinstripes have found unlikely fans from Britney Spears to the streaker at the recent U.S. Open golf tournament in Olympia Fields, Ill., who wore little more than a jacket around her waist emblazoned with Von Dutch across her posterior.

Overall sales should hit $20 million this year (including the debut of a new line, Hot Kouture), with a 25 percent increase planned for 2004, Sorensen projected. And he has received licensing requests for Von Dutch lingerie, automotive paint and sunglasses. Hot Kouture should do about $1 million.

“Eyewear is next. We have to do our ventures right,” Sorensen said. “We don’t want to saturate the market.”

That said, it’s nearly impossible to open a celebrity magazine or turn on the TV without catching the Von Dutch logo.

The trucker-style hats, first seen on Tommy Lee and other rockers, have wound their way to the crowns of Eve, Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton, Nicholas Cage and Lisa Marie Presley. The company even insisted pop princess Spears expressed interest in collaborating on a fashion line — but a spokeswoman for her camp denies it.

Still, retailers say it’s hard to keep the merchandise in stock. During the recent annual sale at Kitson, a key Robertson Boulevard door here, everything was on sale except for Von Dutch.

“It’s hot, hot, hot,” said Kitson owner Fraser Ross. “Even ladies with Birkin bags are buying it. I think those who have money and are artistic are gravitating to Von Dutch because it stands for something,” he said.

The cool alliances have helped. For the past five months, Von Dutch has hosted parties and outfitted staff at the celeb hang, Ivar, in Hollywood. And its promotional merchandising machine is in high gear, providing swag to the likes of Orlando Jones on his new nightly talk show, as well as MTV VJs.

At the Von Dutch Garage store on Melrose Avenue, P. Diddy stopped by in May and spent $5,000 on customized greaser jeans, garment-dyed T-shirts and dozens of hats, according to Von Dutch marketing director Caroline Rothwell.

Boldface fans soon will have more to collect: In March, the company signed licensing deals with King Baby for two jewelry lines and with Fender Guitar for a pinstriped model.

Cash cows, such as the 17 styles of jeans and shorts for men and women, plus miniskirts for women, retailing from $125 to $250, change less frequently.

Von Dutch’s designer is Christian Audigier, whose resume includes stints at Diesel Men’s, XOXO and Bisou Bisou.

The designer also wants to court urban celebs with his new collection of baggier pants and shirts, and has relied on a friend, Tracey Mills, whose nephew is the rapper, Bow Wow. “I bring the urban world to Christian,” said Mills, noting he’s also tight with Eve and Tyrese. “We want to touch every aspect of the fashion world with the right people who represent themselves in great fashion…. The credible. No knuckleheads. That would kill it for us.”

In April, Von Dutch opened a Hot Kouture store next to the Garage. It carries only high-end denim and leather. Key items include $650 candy-colored miniskirts with seam-side stacked buckles, $1,000 jeans handpainted with guns and skulls, and $2,000 laser-cut leather jackets with pink lining. There’s also the allover studded black leather jacket, designed for Spears in red, retailing at $1,995.

A departure from the Garage’s blue-collar interior, Hot Kouture’s decor is shocking pink and electric yellow and features leather display cases.

Hot Kouture will bow for wholesale distribution at MAGIC International in August.

“It’s absolutely a good extension for them,” said Anna Garner, fashion director for Henri Bendel. “Customers are always craving one-of-a-kind pieces, and they’re willing to make the investment.”

The line could also end up in other Von Dutch signature stores now in the works. Sorensen plans to open up to 20 doors in the next two years, with locations in New York, Miami and Chicago. But, he won’t do it alone. Instead, he wants to convert his top accounts into 50-50 joint ventures.

In April, Rebecca Marciano, daughter of Guess co-founder Armand Marciano, changed her Beverly Hills Star 55 boutique into a 1,600-square-foot Von Dutch store, also stocking Hot Kouture.

“We believe in the product and it makes life easier dealing with one vendor,” Marciano said. “I’ve already sold out of the Hot Kouture line and I swung by the warehouse today to pick up more.”

With a wholesale domestic distribution of about 350 accounts that includes Harley-Davidson stores and Scoop in New York, Von Dutch is thundering into international waters, with distributors in Italy, France and Canada.