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Inside The Messy, Chaotic Downfall Of Von Dutch

Everything to know about the rise and fall of the Y2K fashion brand ahead of Hulu’s new docuseries The Curse of Von Dutch.

A model wearing a Von Dutch trucker hat
Hulu

Hulu’s new docuseries The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For dives deep into the wild story behind the brand Von Dutch, beginning with its inception in the ‘90s and following through its chaotic and messy downward spiral. Popularized in the mid-2000s, the company was and is best known for its trucker hats, though celebrities including Paris Hilton, Jay-Z, and Britney Spears were spotted in everything from Von Dutch bags to T-shirts during its heyday. Von Dutch’s success was short-lived, though: infighting over the creative vision for the brand caused internal tension at the company, and public interest dropped off by the 2010s. Here’s what you need to know about the Y2K apparel line and its demise ahead of the Hulu show.

Who Is Von Dutch?

Unbeknownst to most of the celebrities and athletes who wore the brand, the Von Dutch name and concept came from the work of Kenneth “Kenny” Robert Howard — a mechanic and car detailer who, in the 1950s, started making art under the name “Von Dutch.” Howard’s work involved painting hot rods with pinstripes, flames, and eyeballs, helping to set the stage for the subcultural movement know as Kustom Kulture. (More recent discussions of Howard have highlighted his racist and Nazi-sympathizing beliefs.)

However, Howard died in 1992, meaning he wasn’t even alive when the Von Dutch brand took off.

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Who Founded Von Dutch?

After Howard’s death, several people sought to capitalize on his name and legacy. “It was basically this grab by a lot of people that claim that they came up with the idea or went through the proper steps to own something that you never really should be able to own in the first place,” Andrew Renzi, the director of The Curse of Von Dutch, told the New York Times.

One of those people was Los Angeles art collector Ed Boswell, who’s often cited as the founder of Von Dutch and appears in the docuseries to assert his stake in its success. However, the company did not begin in earnest until 1996, when Howard’s daughter sold the rights to the Von Dutch name to Michael Cassel, a former drug dealer who’d just finished a four-year prison sentence, and his mentee Robert “Bobby” Vaughn. It’s generally Cassel and Vaughn who receive credit for taking Howard’s signature and making it the logo for the Von Dutch clothing line people know today.

Many of the clothing items that Von Dutch was known for were historically associated with a working class lifestyle. But the simple addition of the Von Dutch logo transformed the trucker hat from something worn by actual truck drivers into a trendy accessory sported by the rich and famous — a tension that the stars known for popularizing the brand were likely unaware of.

“There’s implicit power dynamics in the appropriation of garments like this because you can pick and choose what garments you’re wearing, but leave behind the labor and legacy of people who originally wore these garments in the context that they wore them in,” fashion historian Emma McClendon told the New York Times.

Why Is Von Dutch Bad?

Beyond Howard’s racist and anti-semitic roots, the Hulu series attributes Von Dutch’s decline to a number of factors, suggesting that the company may have been a money-laundering scheme and also hinting that the brand did business with someone connected to drug cartels.

But it’s certain that things really began to spin out of control in 2005, when Von Dutch co-founder Bobby Vaughn shot and killed a friend who he alleged attacked him with a broken bottle. He was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, and though he was acquitted after a jury ruled Rivas’ death was justifiable homicide, the controversy marked the beginning of the end for the brand.

Who Owns Von Dutch Now?

In 2000, Cassel and Vaughn were in need of funding and decided to bring in Danish entrepreneur Tonny Sorenson, who invested in the company and took over as CEO. Sorenson hired French fashion designer Christian Audigier to help expand the brand’s reach, but Cassel and Vaughn didn’t like Audigier’s direction and worried that they were “selling out.” By the time Audigier left Von Dutch in 2004, their signature trucker hats were reportedly generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue. However, the success of Von Dutch started to wane in the later aughts, and Sorenson sold the brand to French footwear company Groupe Royer in 2009.

What Happened To Von Dutch?

Though Von Dutch never officially stopped production, public interest in the brand dropped off for nearly a decade. In 2019, the company hired Ed Goldman as the acting general manager of Von Dutch North America in order to help revive the brand and reach a new generation. With ‘90s and 2000s nostalgia at an all-time high, it certainly seems like the ideal moment for Von Dutch to attempt a comeback — and it could be working. Celebrities including Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie have been spotted wearing Von Dutch apparel, and the brand recently collaborated with Young Thug on a streetwear collection.