Hulu’s Von Dutch Documentary: “The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For” and the Death of Cool

Von Dutch, the clothing line known for its trucker hats — worn by celebrities like Tommy Lee, Dennis Rodman, Britney Spears and perhaps most famously Paris Hilton — is the subject of a new documentary on Hulu, called The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For.

It’s an apt title for the doc, because over the course of three episodes, you learn about the various characters involved with creating (or claiming to create) the eponymous clothing line, most notably Michael Cassel, Bobby Vaughn and Ed Boswell.

Cassel was a drug dealer who, in the early 90s, launched a surf-inspired clothing line called Bronze Age. The legitimacy of Bronze Age is up for debate — the doc alleges Cassel merely used it to launder money — but nevertheless, in 1996 he met Ed Boswell at a trade show, where he was selling patches with just a name on them: Von Dutch.

Cassel knew who Von Dutch was; an an outlaw artist, born Kenneth Robert Howard in Compton, CA, famous for a certain style of pinstriping painting made popular in the 50s and 60s, arguably the golden age of street racing and American hot rod culture. He was also a bit of a beatnik, an anti-establishment type, Bukowski with a paint brush.

“I make a point of staying right at the edge of poverty,” Howard said in an interview (via KUSTOMRAMA). “I don’t have a pair of pants without a hole in them, and the only pair of boots I have are on my feet. I don’t mess around with unnecessary stuff, so I don’t need much money. I believe it’s meant to be that way. There’s a ‘struggle’ you have to go through, and if you make a lot of money it doesn’t make the ‘struggle’ go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple.”

Living the punk rock lifestyle before that lifestyle was even a thing, Howard was the counterculture personified — an actual Nazi, by his own confession — and in 1992, after years of hard drinking, he died of liver disease at age 62; afterward, his two daughters Lisa and Lorna got the rights to the name Von Dutch, and in 1996 sold them Cassel, who by then had partnered — along with Bobby Vaughn, a surfer and model turned guerilla marketer — on a real clothing line, officially launched in 1999, called Von Dutch Originals.

The doc pivots around the possession of the company, for it isn’t long after Cassel and Boswell come together that Boswell is forced out. But Cassel doesn’t really know how to make Von Dutch into a business — so he brings on Tonny Sorensen, a wealthy Danish martial artist, as an investor. Sorensen battles with Cassel over the company’s ambitions; Cassel wants to keep it a cool brand for surfers and skaters, while Sorensen — who has invested a ton of money — hires French designer Christian Audigier to spruce up the brand’s look, and hopefully move some product. Vaughn, meanwhile, is caught in the middle; his influencer marketing, getting all his Hollywood pals to wear the clothing, entitles him to something, he just doesn’t know what.

Owing to the doc’s title, there is literal death that occurs, that of Mark Rivas, a childhood friend of Vaughn’s who, in 2005, Vaughn shoots in self-defense after allegedly being attacked by Rivas with a broken bottle. It is a sad turn for the story, which at many points threatens to become ultraviolent as the men wage war with one another over what, in the early 2000s, is fast-becoming one of the hottest clothing brands on earth. And there is the theoretical death that occurs — that of Von Dutch, the brand, which becomes a victim of its own success, betraying its roots, Americana and street culture, to become embraced by the Hollywood crowd before ultimately being adopted by, arguably, the least cool, douchiest people on planet earth.

The untold death in the doc, however, is the death of counterculture, and ultimately, the death of “cool.” Perhaps the cool died with Von Dutch. Perhaps it died later, with Supreme being bought for $2 billion. In the end, Cassel talks about what the brand could have been had it grown slowly, as opposed to meteorically. It was an interesting thought, although perhaps misguided, for this slow and controlled method struck me as completely oppositional to the way things work nowadays. To even have a brand rooted not in being popular, but rather decidedly unpopular — only embraced by a certain crowd of cool kids — is at odds with contemporary society, where fitting in and being “liked” is at the root of what we now, tragically, perceive to be social currency.

In fact, these days, even a brand that strives to be unpopular will, inevitably, be at the mercy of the crowd. To be unpopular now, a misfit, a punk, is now nothing more, to most people, than a pose; one engages with the counterculture today only to show, via social media and the like, that they are engaging with it, not because they need to, but because they want to, hoping it will give them what the original street culture purposely tried to avoid — attention.

Nobody wants to be uncool anymore. And that’s why nothing is actually cool.

If you liked this article, consider checking out my first book — “Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller.”

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.