Film Review: The Curse of Von Dutch – A Brand To Die For

The Hulu docuseries looks at the rise and fall of notorious Noughties fashion brand, Von Dutch.

You would be hard-pressed to find a better example of the fleetingness and ephemerality of modern mainstream culture than the story of the Von Dutch fashion brand. The Curse of Von Dutch docuseries chronicles the inspiration behind the once-ubiquitous Y2K Von Dutch clothes label, its odd-ball path to untold success and riches, and its rapid decline and fall from grace. It’s a tale of greed, hubris, human frailty and murder in the fickle, post-millennial world of fashion and cultish celebrity obsession.

The Curse of Von Dutch is less a documentary and more a mystery thriller, much in the same vein as its Making a Murderer or Tiger King forebears. Series creator, Andrew Renzi (Stockholm Syndrome, Ready for War, They Fight) is a leading proponent of this approach – indeed, it is widely reported that a founding aim of his production company, North of Now, was to not only bridge the gap between journalism and cinema but also to use documentary IP as the foundation for compelling stories in the fiction world. Renzi slowly lifts the curtain on proceedings with a deft sleight of hand in this well-paced, incisive and thought-provoking piece of storytelling.

One theme the film explores is how genius is blind to success – and that it can both make you and destroy you. We see this with Mike Cassel, a prodigious talent whose fleet and inimitable brushstrokes created a clothing line which exuded quality, authenticity and verve, and embodied the car culture pin-striping aesthetic that was the essence of Von Dutch’s heavy denim, American workwear look. His commitment to preserving the brand’s Long Beach skate and surf roots and general integrity, and his flair for great design is even recognised by those he fell out with, but it is tainted by a chequered personal history that he is still coming to terms with today. One of the highlights of this documentary is the heart-rending poignancy of his predicament as a flawed, creative powerhouse, and of what could have been for the man who lost everything.

The story begins with Ed Boswell, a laconic, jaded-looking man in his fifties who is one of a number of people laying claim to being the creator of “Von Dutch Originals”. He gives much of his interview lying on a bed in a small second floor apartment; clearly, the brand is not what it was. He laments the story of the label, pointing out the irony that Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard, the mechanic, artist and vehicle pinstriper after whom the company was named, would have hated what the brand became. We will return to Boswell later.

Next, we meet Bobby Vaughn, a fast-talking and likeable guy a few years Boswell’s junior, with a flair for a snappy anecdote. He takes us through the rest of the principal cast and the rise of the brand from its embryonic stages through to its breakthrough period. His is the story of a teenage tearaway who had a major brush with the law when he was young – his friend, Mark Rivas, shot someone in a gang-related incident, and Vaughn had been with him when it happened. The experience led him to make a decision to get clean and go straight. It was then that he took on the marketing for the business while Boswell and Cassel took care of the creative side. He was evidently very good at the job, getting celebrities like Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson to endorse the name, most memorably in an MTV Cribs episode, filmed in 2000 at what looked more like a stag-party themed fun house than a domicile. These early days were happy ones, where he was welcomed into the bosom of Cassel’s family. But the ominous presence of Rivas lurking in the sidelines following his release from jail after serving time for murder appears to have caused the rot to set in, and lead the owner to eventually turn his back on Vaughn.

We hear how Cassel had been bought out by the new owner for a song. His flawed genius is pithily summed up by one former friend: “whatever Cassel touched might have turned to gold, but two seconds later, it would turn to shit.” Cassel’s effortless evocation of the industrial and worker denim counterculture look was exactly why the brand acquired cult status, but this was a double-edged sword. Cassel’s implacably high standards were not matched by his business acumen, and this came at the price of poor sales and heavily mounting losses.

The new owner was investor, Tonny Sørensen, a greying Danish martial artist with matinee idol good looks – he seems to have done rather better than the others out of Von Dutch – behind him, we see a collection of vintage bikes and souped-up cars – the awkwardly conspicuous display of wealth in this story of ruin quickly arouses our suspicions. But as he tells his story, these reservations start to melt away. He recounts how as a child he used to marvel at the exotica of America – his passion for Americana points to a love of the brand and sincere motives for coming on board when he did. Having invested heavily in the business, he describes how he had to act quickly to stem its heavy losses and start to turn the business around. This involved effectively cutting loose all the original creative team – the fallout would be huge.

Just as the brand is becoming a well-known name in the world of celebrities and showbiz cognoscenti, so Vaughn is seemingly cast adrift. It happens at a time that Rivas has started hanging out with him after his prison release. There is a strong suggestion that Vaughn’s increasingly troubled domestic and personal life played a role in his insultingly cheap buyout. This leads to a rapid escalation in hostilities and a terrifying confrontation with Sørenson. Cassel is the next to get booted out – this provokes an even more frightening showdown for the new boss.

This change of guard marks a sea-change in the fortunes of the stubbornly but admirably resilient Sørensen and his company – he’s still in the game despite all the curveballs thrown at him. He relates how a new designer was found – someone who could knock out samples quicker than you can say “Paris Hilton in a pink trucker hat. A darling of the celebrity circuit, Christian Audigier was just the right fit for this brand which was now going into orbit. But later alleged discoveries about him provide a lesson on the dangers of runaway success and its uncontrolled excesses. Sørensen says he was alive to the risk of the rapidly rising Von Dutch bubble bursting. He knew it was out of control and that the brand would crash and burn in a couple of years because of the over-exposure. The backlash that followed and the brand’s newly acquired nickname, “Von Douche,” showed these fears to be well-founded. Just as the wildly popular Von Dutch trucker caps sold out, so people began to think the once revered heritage brand, now in terminal decline, had sold out too.

We are now at the beginning of the end of this Icarian tale. The brand seemed to mirror uncannily the burn-bright-die-young lifestyle of the rockstars it courted – Audigier had been diversifying the product range mercilessly, to the point where he was now sticking the label on energy drinks, dog coats and condoms. The writing was now on the wall for Von Dutch. It is while reflecting on this that Sørensen says that had he stayed with Cassel, things might well have turned out differently. We begin to wonder whether the gaudy, Hollywood-obsessed style that the label came to embody, and which Cassel so reviled, precipitated a curse from the brand’s namesake – Boswell had suggested the brand was the anathema of Kenny Howard and everything he stood for.

But any posthumous claim Kenny Howard has to the moral high ground is short-lived.

Our adventure ends with a devastating revelation about Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard – he was a florid, self-professed racist. We now know exactly why the brand flatlined, why the talking heads in the series have been referring to the brand in the past tense and why they toss the notorious caps they once proudly sported onto the studio floor (though I couldn’t help wondering whether it was the Howard association or just the label’s passé status that was the primary driver behind their rejection of the brand). There’s also a strange symmetry between the brand’s faded glory and its former poster-kids for whom fame is now a distant memory. There can be no escape from obscurity, it would seem.

The deeply affecting B-story of Vaughn’s life with Rivas, the allegedly abusive best friend he loved like a brother, is engrossing, and its ending, bitter-sweet. This story faced the full and forensic rigour of court scrutiny but despite this, we’re left with the nagging feeling that what we’ve heard is a one-sided story without the colouration of Rivas’s testimony.

The film shows that wherever there’s exorbitance and excess, despair is never far away. This is a tale of many extraordinary events so it is no surprise that there is talk of the supernatural, angels and curses. Interestingly, the curse has a character-arc all of its own – we see it first as a benign force railing against greed and consumerism, then, by contrast, as something sinister, not concerned with ideals but instead laced with feelings of hatred and revenge harboured by the dead and the living alike. Furthermore, Boswell’s apparent protectiveness towards Kenny Howard, despite what is known about him, is, on the face of things, troubling.

This documentary is an up-close and personal study of the power of money to both lift up and lay waste. The role serendipity plays in our lives is another key message – up-cycling left-over materials into baseball caps was when Von Dutch struck gold – everything else the team did ultimately counted for nothing.

Whilst there is some sense of resolution to this story, we are by no means given all the answers. There is undeniable candour in the testimony of the contributors – the revelation about how the garments were sourced in the early days speaks to how frank our participants are, and provides one of many enjoyable, light-hearted moments. But whilst we should not expect to be presented with all the answers, some aspects in the accounts would have benefited from more exploration – for instance, why Vaughn’s family didn’t show for his own murder trial, the justification behind the harsh buyout terms of those leaving the business, and why Cassel was apparently so quick to part ways with Vaughn before he was roughed up by the late Rivas. There are also some hauntingly indelible vignettes, like the account of Vaughn pulling up alongside Sørensen brandishing a handgun and Cassel’s associations, which encourage a healthy dose of circumspection to be applied. What we are left in no doubt about though is that everyone has their own truth and a story to tell, and that, despite what we tell ourselves, we are never truly free from our pasts.

The three-part series, The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For is available to watch now on Hulu

Review by John Molyneux

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