What happens when a competitive surfer-turned-small time gangster, a convicted drug dealer and a world martial arts champion launch a fashion line?
It becomes the biggest brand in the world.
No label capturedquite like Von Dutch — a casual line of denim, T-shirts, jackets and trucker hats favored by the era’s brightest stars, such as Paris Hilton, Dennis Rodman, Britney Spears and Jay-Z. At a moment when the pinnacle of style was a midriff-baring tank top paired with scandalously low-slung jeans, the scrawled Von Dutch logo was ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from rowdy college campuses to the red carpet.
But as a new docuseries shows, overexposure and a feud over the future of the brand would ultimately kneecap Von Dutch’s growth and condemn the brand to early 2000s infamy.
“At its most aspirational, it was Levi’s,” Andrew Renzi, director ofout Thursday, told The Post. He said Von Dutch’s original ethos was all about “James Dean [and] hot rod culture,” with the originators setting out to create “a real, true American heritage brand, something that really represented Americana.”
To do this, California-based duo Michael Cassel (a self-described “outlaw” who served 4 years in San Quentin after a cocaine bust) and Bobby Vaughn (a surfer and model, who narrowly evaded arrest after his involvement in a 1993 shooting) looked to the legacy of the deceased artist and mechanic Kenny Howard, a k a “Von Dutch.” Howard pioneered the contemporary art of pinstriping — customizing cars and motorcycles with thin, decorative lines — and created a number of memorable drawings, including a flying eyeball with wings that Cassel and Vaughn featured in their nascent clothing line’s iconography.
Howard’s daughters approved the license, and by the late 1990s, Von Dutch had a small but loyal following among rebels and outcasts. “Kids go through a stage where they like punk rock, they like rebellious things, and ‘f–k that’ anarchy, right? He 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 almost impossible for the line to grow, because no one would lend him money. By the year 2000, he was on the hunt for a private investor.
He found one in Tonny Sorensen, a 6-foot-6 Danish former Olympian and Taekwondo champion who had originally come to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an action star. At first, Sorensen — who took 51% control 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 hard denim,” said Renzi). But as time passed and Sorensen found himself losing money, he got desperate. He brought in a French designerto boost sales.
Audigier — who would eventually launch a line of notorious tattoo-inspired T-shirts called Ed Hardy — had an entirely different vision for Von Dutch. “It was so much more flamboyant,” Renzi said. “It was louder, because Christian’s idea of America was Michael Jackson. Christian was obsessed with Michael Jackson, obsessed with the really loud flair of America.”
Soon, Audigier’s flashy designs — from sequin baseball caps to rhinestone tees to patent-leather bowling bags — took off.
Tommy Lee wore Von Dutch on his 2000 episode of “MTV Cribs” (a prime placement that Vaughn arranged, adding in the film that Sorensen rewarded him by tricking him into signing over his rights to the company). Audigier hired Tracey Mills, brother of NBA star Chris Mills, to get pieces on his celebrity friends, such as Brandy and Usher.
Von Dutch had a policy of never charging celebrities for anything they picked out at the stores.
Once, Whitney Houston and her entourage came in and collected one of every single item. In the series, Sorenson says a sales clerk came to check with him that it wasn’t too much.
As he recalls it, “I said to them, ‘Have you ever heard her voice? Have you ever heard her 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 nobody championed the brand like Paris Hilton, who at the time was promoting her tongue-in-cheek 2003 reality show “The Simple Life” with her best friend Nicole Richie.
“It was free, it was playful, it was cute, it was iconic,” Hilton said of Von Dutch in the series. Audigier, she says, gave her and Richie “whatever we wanted … That was like, our uniform for the show.”
By 2003, Von Dutch was raking in millions of dollars each month, with the doc suggesting it was the most counterfeited logo after Louis Vuitton. Celebrities were “the ‘X’ factor for them,” Renzi said. “They were getting influencers before that was a thing … The difference then is that magazines would come out once a week or once a month, and so it really did create a craziness around this brand, because every month, Us Weekly or whatever would come out and everyone would be in a Von Dutch hat in the magazine.”
For Vaughn and Cassel, the success was not so sweet.
In 2002, Cassel lost the struggle for creative control and he was forced out, unable to raise the money to buy out Sorensen. He watched, helpless and broke, as the brand he loved faded away.
“They took this thing that I created, my baby, and they prostituted it,” Cassel says at the end of Episode 2.
Ultimately, even Sorensen came to question Audigier’s judgment as he churned out more and more Von Dutch products — with items for kids and pets appearing in stores — to the point that by 2004, the once-hot label came to be known, disparagingly, as “Von Douche.”
“When you see dogs wearing Von Dutch, it’s just not cool anymore,” said Renzi.
Sorensen eventually sold his stake, and Audigier jumped ship in 2007. (He.) “They kind of exhausted themselves,” Renzi said. “They made a bunch of money and it was a successful company, but it was at the expense of longevity.”