Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: From Dutchman to Dustbin in Five Easy Years

Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: From Dutchman to Dustbin in Five Easy Years

Article excerpt

When 15-year-old Kenny Howard finished pinstriping his first bike in 1944, he knew he had found his calling. Pinstriping, the painting of decorative patterns onto automobiles, was a dying art, but by 1958 Kenny had single-handedly reinvented it. He moved on to pinstriping cars, and soon his striking designs had garnered a dedicated following across the US.

Howard was an unpleasant and obstinate man, renowned for being 'as stubborn as a Dutchman'. He hated both the fame and the money that had started to follow him, and in an attempt to dodge both (and a rumoured manslaughter rap) he went underground in 1958. By the time he resurfaced 10 years later in Arizona, with a drinking problem and two kids, his designs had made him a cult figure. A xenophobe to the last, his dying words in 1992 were allegedly 'Heil Hitler'.

Howard died a 20th-century footnote, but his most famous design, the 'Flying Eyeball', and his artistic signature, 'Von Dutch', were about to become a big part of the early 21st-century brandscape. Four years after his death, his daughters sold the Von Dutch name and by 2000, Danish entrepreneur Tonny Sorensen was chief executive of Von Dutch Originals. The perilous descent down the fashion cycle had begun. It started with those who hate fashion the most: a handful of LA bikers and motor-heads looking for something uncommercial and unaffected.

Nothing stays secret in LA for long, however, and the magical iconography that Howard created half a century earlier was about to weave its magic all over again.

First, the genuinely cool alpha-consumers co-opted the authentic look of the biker brand into their outfits. Then came the celebrities. In 2002, Justin Timberlake made headlines at the Grammys after-party while sporting a Von Dutch cap. Paris Hilton adopted the brand. Britney even got married, first time round, in Von Dutch. In 2003, sales rocketed. From nowhere, the brand turned over dollars 33m (pounds 17.6m).

Chief executive Sorensen announced ambitious plans to extend the brand to cosmetics, shoes, sunglasses and haute couture. Production increased.

Distribution expanded. Sales continued to grow. The brand began to die.

Just when it needed to be focused and protected, the brand was stretched and diluted. …

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