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The Untold Story of Von Dutch

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The early 2000s have been back in style for what feels like forever now, reviving demand for the velour tracksuits, low-rise jeans, rhinestone-studded baby tees and trucker hats that defined an era of consumerism. Now, a new docuseries aims to examine the legacy of one of the aughts’ most sought-after brands.

“The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For,” out Nov. 18 on Hulu, explores a complicated corporate origin story filled with sabotage and greed as various parties vied for control of the brand.

Andrew Renzi, the director, was drawn to the notion that Von Dutch, best known for its logo-emblazoned trucker hats, was cursed from the get-go.

“Everybody who had touched it, it touched them in a pretty negative way,” he said in a phone interview.

Throughout the three-part series, Mr. Renzi excavates Von Dutch’s history, illustrating how it emerged from obscurity to become a fixture of Y2K fashion, worn by the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and Jay-Z, and a highly disputed business.

At the crux of the story is the question: What does it mean to build a brand on another person’s likeness? After all, Mr. Renzi said, Von Dutch “was basically just a re-appropriation of Kenny Howard’s artwork.”

Kenneth Robert Howard was a mechanic and car detailer turned midcentury artist who made work under the name Von Dutch. He began adorning hot rods in the 1950s with pin stripes, flames and flying eyeballs, all of which became hallmarks of a subcultural movement known as Kustom Kulture. (Recent assessments of his work have centered on his racist and antisemitic statements.)

After Mr. Howard’s death in 1992, several people sought to capitalize on his name and influence.

“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,” Mr. Renzi said.

Paris Hilton, pictured here with Jeremy Scott, was one of the brand’s most visible fans in the early 2000s.Credit…Moghadam/BEI, via Shutterstock

Ed Boswell, an art collector in Los Angeles, is often cited as the founder of Von Dutch and appears in the documentary to stake his claim to its success. (Mr. Boswell declined to be interviewed for this article.) But it wasn’t until 1996, when Mr. Howard’s daughters sold the rights to the Von Dutch name to Michael Cassel, a former drug dealer who pivoted to clothing design after serving four years in prison, that Von Dutch became the clothing company people know today.

Mr. Cassel and Robert Vaughn, his mentee, took Mr. Howard’s artistic signature and made it the logo for Von Dutch Originals, an apparel line that would turn working-class signifiers into markers of cool.

Emma McClendon, a fashion historian and the author of “Power Mode,” noted the tension between the brand’s trendiness and its roots. “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,” she said in a phone interview.

Booth Moore, the West Coast executive editor of Women’s Wear Daily, noted the irony of the hat appearing on Ms. Hilton and Ms. Richie as they performed manual labor on their reality show “The Simple Life.” But, she said, “most of the people who were wearing it at that time had absolutely no idea what the brand was about.”

Tonny Sorensen, an investor and taekwondo champion, took over as the C.E.O. of Von Dutch in 2000, at a point when the company was seeking funding. Mr. Sorensen hired the French fashion designer Christian Audigier to help commercialize Von Dutch and extend its reach with famous clientele. Under his direction, Mr. Cassel and Mr. Vaughn believed the brand was “selling out.”

Jay-Z was also often spotted in the brand’s hats.Credit…Picture Perfect/Shutterstock

“We probably created influencer culture back in the day,” Mr. Sorensen said in a phone interview. “We were the first ones who worked symbiotically with celebrities.” Mr. Audigier ended up leaving Von Dutch to join the tattoo art-inspired line Ed Hardy in 2004, by which point the trucker hats ($42-$125) were helping the company bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

Tracey Mills, a fashion entrepreneur, helped steer the company’s celebrity marketing efforts. “I was trying to bring in the biggest stars I knew and put it in the biggest videos, putting it on Ashton Kutcher when he was doing ‘Punk’d,’ which was the biggest show,” he said. “But I think over time once the culture starts to see big artists in it, then everybody wants it.”

That heyday, however, lasted only a few years; in 2009, Mr. Sorensen sold Von Dutch to Groupe Royer, a French footwear company.

“He just was looking for any opportunistic buyer,” said Ed Goldman, the acting general manager of Von Dutch North America. While production never ceased, and the company never went bankrupt, its appeal waned. “It just became this cult of cool,” Ms. Moore said. “Until it wasn’t.”

The documentary digs into the brand’s corporate origin story.Credit…via Hulu

In 2019, Mr. Goldman was enlisted to help revive the Von Dutch brand and figure out how to market it to a new generation of shoppers. “The brand had a very strong connection within the hip-hop community, which was where the light was shining still during the kind of downfall era,” Mr. Goldman said. Over the last couple years, Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie have been spotted in Von Dutch, and last month, the brand released a streetwear collection with Young Thug.

The company also brought back some of the brand’s most iconic pieces and logos. The classic trucker hat is currently Von Dutch’s top-selling item, according to the company; its bowling bags are a close second. After Travis Scott wore a pair of vintage wide-leg Von Dutch jeans while on tour in 2018, the brand rereleased the style. It’s currently sold out, Mr. Goldman said.

Some stylists in Los Angeles are banking on nostalgia for the brand, including Sankara Xasha Turé, who dressed Saweetie in a tie-dye Von Dutch sweatsuit last year. Ms. Turé recalled the rapper’s ex-boyfriend Quavo borrowing one of her sweatsuits and showcasing it on Instagram, too. “It’s one of those ‘I must have it’ type of deals,” she said.

Von Dutch, a privately-owned company, is focused on e-commerce these days. However, the line can also be found at a limited selection of street wear retailers across the U.S. While the company would not disclose its earnings, Mr. Goldman described the growth as “astronomical.”

Morgane Le Caer, the content lead at the global shopping platform Lyst, said that searches for Von Dutch have increased by 148 percent on the site in the last year. “In the same way some pop culture celebrities like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton are being reclaimed, the new generation is embracing Y2K fashion trends,” she wrote in an email.

Maybe it’s time to find your Ugg boots?

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