The line had a strong point of view, but it was making zero money at the start. By 2001, the brand was more than $600,000 in debt. But when Sorensen came on board as an investor, things began to turn around. He hired French designer Christian Audigier to design the womenswear, and that’s when Von Dutch’s popularity started to climb. Audigier began experimenting with the low-rise, flared jeans that were trending at the time, and those started to sell. Sorensen found sneaky ways to have both Cassel and Vaughn forgo their stakes in the brand. Cassel and Vaughn saw this as a form of betrayal and began to turn on each other. Vaughn made threats against Cassel; Cassel made threats against Sorensen, even at one point hiring an accomplice of Pablo Escobar to visit the Von Dutch offices and threaten him. Sorensen became sole owner in 2002.
The Trucker Hat Was an Instant Success
Sorensen claims he’s the one who came up with the iconic trucker hat. He says he came across vintage pinstripe and herringbone fabrics in the offices, and thought to make trucker hats out of them with the Von Dutch logo. (Boswell, Vaughn, and Cassel all claim they introduced Von Dutch trucker hats well before him.) Sorensen saw potential to sell the trucker hats at a luxury price point, even selling leather styles for as high as $85, and he was clearly onto something. The first drop they launched in-store instantly sold out. “People didn’t know what [Von Dutch] meant,” says Dennis Rodman, a noted Von Dutch fan in the 2000s. “They just wanted to wear it.” Hilton also remembers being instantly drawn to the brand through the hats. “It was playful, cute, and iconic,” she says. “[It was all about] standing out and a lot of bling. It was so much fun.” The brand not only recovered from its debts but began doubling its profits every month during the mid-2000s.
The Hollywood Seal of Approval Was Key
Celebrities played a huge role in the label’s rapid rise to global fame. Two of the first celebrities to wear the label were (then couple) Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee (Lee famously wore a Von Dutch tee on his episode of MTV Cribs). As the trucker hats picked up steam, Von Dutch also began working with Tracey Mills, who was friends with many celebrities and acted as a brand ambassador by introducing them to the label. “Back then, a celebrity was unattainable,” says Mills. “There was no social media. When you did get to see them in something, it was a craze to get it.” Mills got Jay-Z, Halle Berry, and Britney Spears to wear the brand. But the true peak was when Hilton and Nicole Richie began wearing it on The Simple Life. Hilton remembers going to the Von Dutch store before filming and meeting Audigier. “He gave us whatever we wanted,” says Hilton. “We came out with 50 shopping bags, and that was our uniform for the show.” (The docuseries then cuts to a scene of Hilton and Richie milking cows in pink camouflage Von Dutch hats.)
But It Didn’t Last: Cue the “Von-Douche” Era
Van Dutch began to experience a rapid decline by the late 2000s. Counterfeit products became a huge issue—the brand claims it was the second-most counterfeited label at the time, aside from Louis Vuitton—and the oversaturation of Von Dutch essentially killed its cool factor, especially as Audigier began collaborating with seemingly random labels. (Remember Von Dutch energy drinks? Me neither.) “It became too much,” says Hilton. “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.”
Boswell, feeling betrayed by the other three founders, leaked the Von Dutch letter exposing Howard as a racist. Howard’s racist and antisemitic views were the final nail in the coffin, even though he had nothing to do with the fashion line. What the series fails to examine near the end, however, is how Von Dutch is staging a comeback right now. The label continues to sell its hats, and it even has a luxury line called Von Dutch Paris, offering up $600 puffer jackets and $800 cowhide bags. Can we expect another Von Dutch explosion in the 2020s? The doc proves that, with the right timing, anything is possible.