Thursday, February 10, 2005

Trucker caps: the work of the devil

They're perhaps the most hated and supposedly unfashionable fashion item around, but as a trend, trucker caps refuse to die. They were supposedly 'over' by the start of last year, but I don't think they'll go away for ages now. I posted on this on January 3 at my other blog. So here's some food for thought about the rather nasty man behind Von Dutch, the outrageously expensive trucker cap of choice for so many kids on Melbourne's city streets.

Tempting as it is, let's move away from the obvious superiority (ha ha ha, how appropriate that such an obnoxious man created such an obnoxious brand, and ho ho ho, if only these teen hipsters knew that, they'd never wear 'em!) for a minute. For me, the most interesting part of the article is how Von Dutch the man was originally a car detailer.
He made a living spray painting intricate designs on custom cars. He became a legend in his field. ... Kustom Kulture is a corporate term for the anti-establishment, deeply patriotic lifestyle [my italics] of the underground car enthusiasts of the '60s onwards. To them, Von Dutch was a national treasure. His designs were seen as revolutionary in both the motor and art worlds, and his stubborn refusal to censor himself turned him into the quintessential anti-hero for auto lovers and dejected college kids.
The funny thing is that the article couches this as the 'good old days' for the brand, with the 'bad new sell-out days' epitomised by the bland and woefully inaccurate comments of the current CEO: "We have created a clothing line and lifestyle brand with an edgy, rebellious spirit - a brand that many people, from all walks of life, can relate to." But Von Dutch was an ambivalent brand from the beginning: simultaneously lumpen and bohemian; simultaneously anti-establishment and patriotic (hence, pro-establishment).

As a cultural object, the Von Dutch trucker cap raises an interesting question about that well-worn (at least to me!) cultural-studies paradigm of incorporation (that an everyday product is decontextualised through bricolage by a small group of underground insiders, and then loses this subversive meaning when large commercial interests catch on and mass-market it). Sure, you could argue that trucker caps were once worn as practical headgear by working-class truck drivers, and are now overpriced decorations for the likes of Paris Hilton and Pharrell Williams.

Usually, when incorporation reaches some kind of saturation point, the company tries to reorient its marketing around its lost authenticity. Remember how in the mid-90s, Doc Martens returned to its punkish roots by piggybacking on the grunge movement? Quite extraordinary, considering how those boots were linked to punk's alleged violent racism - because the steel-toes were great for head-kicking. But by the 90s, Docs had become shoes for middle-class wannabe teens. The rebelliousness of grunge was a shot of authenticity in the arm.

Von Dutch is interesting because it has gone the other way. The early adopters (the hip college kids) were prepared to overlook the nasty redneck prejudices, epitomised by Howard's racism, etc, that so often lurk behind terms like "patriotism" and "anti-establishment". For them, Von Dutch was the mark of the anti-hero. Now, as the "Australian designer and fashion commentator Mandy Mills" says (I have no idea who she is - the only Google results I found for her are to do with the SMH article), Von Dutch has been overbranded to the point that "wearing it represents a lack of personality."

But I think that's entirely the point. Von Dutch has absolutely no rebelliousness to it at all now - it might as well just be a generic term for trucker cap, like Kleenex or Biro. And that's interesting in itself, isn't it? Rather than attempt to maintain a gritty edge by highlighting its founder's back-story, the brand has completely discarded it like a pair of skidmarked undies. And as a result, it's free to piggyback on all sorts of other styles and celebrities rather than being forced to choose those that match its brand personality.

And, dare I say, that lack of personality might be exactly why so many kids like Von Dutch. It's just as amorphous as wearing a hat that says "Cool". They can project their own styles and personalities onto it, or even play on it - I've seen t-shirts saying "Von Butch" and "Von Bitch". It might be completely unintentional, but like many such branding choices, it's certainly serendipitous.


Glen Fuller said...

yeah, fucking spastics wearing von dutch gear! makes me shake in RAGE... [snap]

then i remember that not everyone is not stupid.

phew... lucky for that.

Anonymous said...

The Von Dutch label actually withdrew from australia due to the high levels of counterfeiting which was occuring at the time. This was a choice made by the company in order to retain the brands integrity.

an interesting way of tackling a counterfeiting problem.