A three-part documentary, The Curse of Von Dutch, peels back the curtain on the gaudy 00s label beloved by celebs and garmento gangsters
ITS CO-FOUNDERS ARE AT WAR
Mike Cassel, a former drug dealer and fashion designer started the Von Dutch label. But then so too did art collector Ed Boswell. And surfer-turned-businessman Bobby Vaughan. Apparently. The only person who had no stake in the business was Von Dutch himself – the pseudonym of Kenny Howard – an American motorcycle mechanic, artist, and gunsmith. So who, exactly, is responsible for this sorry tale? Episode one aims to unpick these convoluted claims to ownership.
Well, Ed Boswell, a fan of Howard’s art, was the first to acquire the rights to use Howard’s name, and started selling Von Dutch patches at trade shows. There, he meets Michael Cassel and his assistant Bobby Vaughn who quickly decide to grow Von Dutch into a rough and ready fashion brand. Boswell was soon bought out of the brand, however, and Cassel, desperate to keep the business afloat, brought on Tonny Sørensen, a wealthy Dane, who became CEO in 2000 and invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in it. All of these men claim to have been sole founders of the brand, though, speaking viciously about one another as they hail themselves as the inventor of the iconic trucker.
IT HAS DRUG FRONT ORIGINS
An early iteration of Von Dutch was Michael Cassel’s first brand, Bronze Age, which was beloved on the LA surf scene in the early 90s. Its punk-rock aesthetic, which included logo tanks, flame-printed trucker hats, and jeans effectively became Von Dutch. While building the business, however, Cassel was trafficking and dealing drugs, using the company as a front to launder money. He was eventually imprisoned for four years but continued to work on the Bronze Age brand, designing graphics and logos which he would send to his colleagues on the outside. When Von Dutch was established some years later Cassel continued to be nefarious in the way he operated – for a long while, the company was selling Dickies jeans with Von Dutch patches slapped on top.
THEN PAMELA ANDERSON MADE IT POP
At the beginning of the 2000s, Von Dutch was in $600,000 debt and was little more than a cult favourite. Things started to change, however, when Bobby Vaughan befriended Gerry Anderson, meeting his sister, Pamela, on the set of her action thriller TV series, VIP. She introduced the Von Dutch team to her then-boyfriend Tommy Lee, who wore the brand on his explosive episode of MTV cribs – the label’s big celebrity break. As Tonny Sørensen pumped money into the business and hired French designer Christian Audigier, who proffered low slung bell bottoms and bowling bags, the label’s popularity began to skyrocket.
IT ENDED IN MURDER
Tensions hit breaking point when Tonny Sørensen ousted Bobby Vaughan from Von Dutch – sneaking him contracts to sign away his ownership – and began to sideline Michael Cassel for Christian Audigier (who later went on to form Ed Hardy). This prompted Cassel to hire Pablo Escobar’s grandson to intimidate Sørensen into selling his stake in the company for $500,000. Sørensen, however, refused. When Mark Rivas, another felon and childhood friend of Bobby Vaughan’s, caught wind of Sørensen’s shady behaviour, he smelt blood and sought revenge.
Since Vaughan was out of the Von Dutch business, he became increasingly embroiled in the gangs that Rivas (who was severely mentally unwell) would run with. That culminated in a confrontation between the two in 2005, when Vaughan shot Rivas dead. Vaughan claims to have killed Rivas in self-defence and he was later acquitted of any murder charges, so, while Von Dutch was connected to the shooting, it’s perhaps a little tenuous to thread a whodunnit murder mystery documentary surrounding the ordeal. Still, the series continues and provides further drama.
AND THEN THE REAL VON DUTCH WAS OUTED AS A NAZI
By the end of the late 2000’s Von Dutch had flown too close to the sun and found itself plummeting back to earth. Drunk off his own success, Christian Audigier began to expand Von Dutch into a whole manner of licenses and collaborations – even energy drinks. This, teamed with a real counterfeit problem, saw Von Dutch reach saturation point. “It became too much,” Paris Hilton attests. “You saw it everywhere. It used to be cool people wearing it, then all of a sudden this cheesy, random crowd started wearing it. I remember one day I looked in my closet and I had so much Von Dutch, and I just couldn’t look at it anymore. I got rid of everything.”
Perhaps the most harrowing account of all the Von Dutch tumult, however, was when a letter from Kenny Howard (the actual Von Dutch) was uncovered in 2018. In the note, Kenny expressed his racist and antisemitic views, claiming to be an “admirer of the third reich”, purporting that he had “always been a Nazi and still believe it was the last time the world had a chance of being operated with logic”. Though the brand had dropped off for the best part of a decade, colloquially known as Von Douche, Howard’s letter was the final nail in the coffin.
Given that Howard died some seven years before Von Dutch was founded, the label is now seeing a resurgence, having been trawled back into the mainstream as part of culture’s collective nostalgia for the 2000s. Iris Law, Alton Mason, Travis Scott, and, of course, Addison Rae have all sported grease-chic pieces while DePop and eBay are currently flooded with truckers. Perhaps, then, The Curse of Von Dutch is not about closing the page on the label’s turbulent history, but turning a leaf on its legacy.