What happens when a competitive surfer turned gangster, convicted drug dealer and world martial arts champion launch a fashion line?
It becomes the biggest brand in the world.
No brand has captured the style of the early 2000s like Von Dutch – a relaxed line of denim, t-shirts, jackets and trucker caps favored by the brightest stars of the era, such as Paris. Hilton, Dennis Rodman, Britney Spears and Jay-Z. At a time when the pinnacle of style was a low-rise tank top paired with shockingly low jeans, the scribbled Von Dutch logo was ubiquitous, appearing everywhere from rowdy college campuses to the red carpet.
But as a new docu-series shows, overexposure and feud over the brand’s future would ultimately hold back Von Dutch’s growth and doom the brand to the infamy of the early 2000s.
“At the most ambitious, it was Levi’s,” Andrew Renzi, director of Hulu’s “The Curse of Von Dutch,” told The Post. He said the original Von Dutch philosophy was all about “James Dean [and] hot rod culture ”, with the creators who set out to create“ a true brand of American heritage, something that truly represents Americana ”.
To do this, the Californian duo Michael Cassel (a self-proclaimed “outlaw” who served 4 years in San Quentin after a cocaine seizure) and Bobby Vaughn (a surfer and model, who narrowly escaped the arrest after involvement in a 1993 shooting) looked at the legacy of late artist and mechanic Kenny Howard, aka “Von Dutch”. Howard pioneered the contemporary art of pinstriping – the personalization of cars and motorcycles with fine, decorative lines – and created a number of memorable designs, including a flying eyeball with wings that Cassel and Vaughn did featured in the iconography of their nascent clothing line.
Howard’s daughters approved the license, and by the late 1990s Von Dutch had a small but steadfast number of followers among the rebels and outcasts. “Kids go through a stage where they like punk rock, they like rebellious things, and ‘f – k that’ anarchy, don’t they? It was that in his art he was that in his actions he was completely against the grain, ”Cassel says of Howard’s appeal.
Unfortunately, Cassel’s criminal record made it nearly impossible for the line to grow, as no one would lend him any money. In 2000, he was looking for a private investor.
He found one in Tonny Sorensen, a former Danish 6-foot-6 Olympian and taekwondo champion who had originally come to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an action star. At first Sorensen – who took control of 51% of the brand with a million dollar investment – and Cassel shared a similar vision for Von Dutch (“hot rods and rolled up t-shirts and really tough denim”, Renzi said). But as time passed and Sorensen found himself losing money, he was in despair. He brought in a French designer named Christian Audigier to boost sales.
Audigier – who would eventually launch a line of notorious tattoo-inspired t-shirts called Ed Hardy – had an entirely different take on Von Dutch. “It was so much more flamboyant,” Renzi said. “It was stronger, because Christian’s idea of America was Michael Jackson. Christian was obsessed with Michael Jackson, obsessed with America’s really loud flair.
Soon Audigier’s flashy designs – from sequined baseball caps and rhinestone tees to patent leather bowling bags – took off.
Tommy Lee wore Von Dutch in his 2000 episode of “MTV Cribs” (a prime placement Vaughn arranged, adding in the film that Sorensen rewarded him by pushing him to surrender his rights to the company). Audigier hired Tracey Mills, brother of NBA star Chris Mills, to get information about his famous friends, such as Brandy and Usher.
Von Dutch had a policy of never charging celebrities for anything they chose in stores.
Once, Whitney Houston and her entourage entered and retrieved one of each item. In the series, Sorenson says that a salesperson came to check with him that it was not too much.
As he remembers, “I said to them, ‘Have you ever heard his voice? Have you ever heard him sing? Do you remember “The Bodyguard?” “Like, give her 30 bags because she’s the best singer I’ve ever heard in my life and I still get goosebumps.”
But no one has championed the brand like Paris Hilton, who at the time was promoting her ironic 2003 reality show “La Vie Simple” with her best friend Nicole Richie.
“It was free, it was fun, it was cute, it was iconic,” Hilton said of Von Dutch on the show. Audigier, she says, gave him and Richie “whatever we wanted … it was like our uniform for the show.”
By 2003, Von Dutch was making millions of dollars every month, with the doc suggesting it was the most counterfeit logo after Louis Vuitton. Celebrities were “the ‘X’ factor for them,” Renzi said. “They were getting influencers before it was a thing… The difference is that the magazines came out once a week or once a month, and so it was really creating some madness around that brand, because every month, Us Weekly or whatever. whatever would come and everyone would wear a Von Dutch hat in the magazine.
For Vaughn and Cassel, the success has not been so sweet.
In 2002, Cassel lost the struggle for creative control and he was kicked out, unable to raise the funds necessary to buy out Sorensen. He watched, helpless and broken, as the mark he loved faded.
“They took this thing that I created, my baby, and they prostituted it,” Cassel says at the end of Episode 2.
In the end, even Sorensen came to question Audigier’s judgment as he produced more and more Von Dutch products – with children’s and pet items appearing in stores – to the point that ‘in 2004, the once hugely popular label became known, disparagingly, as “Von Douche.”
“When you see dogs wearing Von Dutch it’s not cool anymore,” Renzi said.
Sorensen eventually sold his stake and Audigier left the ship in 2007. (He died in 2015.) “They kind of ran out,” Renzi said. “They made a lot of money and it was a successful business, but it was at the expense of longevity.”