When Hulu announced the release of “The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For,” I immediately marked my calendar for the release date. While I am too young to have personally experienced the Von Dutch era of Paris Hilton, Ashton Kutcher and LiLo, I grew up knowing the name and wishing that one day, I could own a bowling bag as cool as the one my babysitter carried around. The docu-series was advertised as a true murder mystery, with all the secrets and money laundering a legendary fashion brand is made of. Ed Boswell, Mike Cassel and Bobby Vaughn are introduced separately as the founders and original designers of the Von Dutch brand, and each tells his story of how the iconic brand came to be.
After watching the three hour-long episodes, my mind was spinning, and two major thoughts kept going through my head. One: This was not a murder mystery.
Two: I will never, ever wear Von Dutch.
Ed, Mike, Bobby and Tonny Sorensen, former CEO of Von Dutch, all spoke about the rise and fall of a fashion brand that impacted celebrity society so hard and so fast that it completely burned itself out. The murder in the series, though devastating and cruel, was more a part of the personal journey of Bobby Vaughn — it was a bit of a stretch to relate it to the Von Dutch brand. But the real twist was that the downfall of the brand came not only from overexposure in the pop culture universe, but also from the release of a letter written by Von Dutch, or Kenneth Robert Howard, on his deathbed in 1992 declaring himself as racist and a Nazi.
Kenny Howard made a name for himself in the 1930s for his pinstriping, painting, and prejudice. The origins of the nickname “Von Dutch” are up for debate: it was either a self-proclaimed translation to “By German” or a family nickname deeming Howard “as stubborn as a Dutchman.” His pinstriping can be found on hundreds of motorcycles and cars, though he was very selective about who he would paint for. His work popularized flame jobs on cars, and his signature flying eyeball and name can be found on almost everything he created. The flying eyeball, which was later carried on to the Von Dutch trucker hats and bowling bags, is a doodle clearly derived from the Nazi Wehrmacht Adler, with the eyeball replacing the eagle and swastika.
Though Howard was a known alcoholic who wasn’t afraid to admit his admiration for the Third Reich, he mostly managed to avoid the public eye — until he penned a letter as he lay dying of liver complications in 1992. It stated:
“I am not willing to go through it anymore only to emerge in a place full of [N-word], Mexicans and Jews. … I have always been a Nazi and still believe it was the last time the world had a chance of being operated with logic. What a shame so many Americans died and suffered to make the rich richer and save England & France again, or was that still. I hope you lying wimps get swallowed up with your stupidity.”
The prevalence of antisemitism in fashion is, unfortunately, nothing new. Between Coco Chanel, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton and other European designers, there are numerous fashion brands with clear ties to the Nazi party. Chanel was a Nazi spy, Boss literally created his brand by designing SS youth uniforms and using concentration camp labor, and Vuitton was somehow the only store to stay in business throughout the 1940s, when France was occupied and run by a puppet Nazi government.
As a Jewish woman and a student of fashion design, I have always struggled to balance acknowledging both what these designers have done for fashion and their support for the Nazi party. I cannot bring myself to say that I respect these fashion icons, no matter how legendary a little black dress or a piece of luggage is. It took until 2011 for Hugo Boss to publicly apologize for their ties to the Nazi party, and the store records for Louis Vuitton from 1930-1945 were burned in a fire. Chanel is actually owned by the Wertheimers, a French Jewish family that originally bought the brand in the 1920s and was able to keep ownership during the Nazi regime despite Aryan laws and Coco Chanel’s lawsuits. The irony in Chanel, a company named for a blatant antisemite, relying on a Jewish family to run the company for the past 97 years is not lost on me. Since Coco’s passing in 1971, the Chanel brand has publicly stated that they reject her personal beliefs and that their designs are for everybody. Despite these recent developments, I struggle to move past the origins of these brands that I have studied and used as inspiration for my own creative endeavors.
In the Von Dutch documentary, Ed Boswell admits to knowing about Howard’s appreciation of the Third Reich and to leaking it to the public in 2004. Kenny Howard’s antisemitism and racism was completely unknown by Cassel or Vaughn (both men of color), which makes Ed’s leaking of the information seem pointed and cruel. Boswell made Howard’s beliefs public out of spite for not getting his 1% for his master license on the company and, though he apologizes for letting the cat out of the bag, he seems insincere. Tonny Sorenson made this point about Boswell: “If Ed Boswell thinks [Von Dutch is] a Nazi and he sells his t-shirts, who’s the Nazi now? If you deliberately thought that somebody was a Nazi and you’re selling his t-shirts at swap meets, you must be the Nazi because you’re representing that idea.”
When asked about their thoughts on the real man behind the Von Dutch name, each of the creators and original brand representatives reacts differently. Both Mike Cassel and Bobby Vaughn seem almost unconcerned about the racism and antisemitism of the namesake of their company because what they created together was so powerful that it took on meaning beyond Kenny Howard’s original work and words. Tracey Mills, known as the genius behind attracting celebrities to Von Dutch, took Howard’s words and essentially told him to suck it. Mills was everything Von Dutch hated in a person, but without him, the brand would have never had the impact it did. After finding out how Von Dutch felt about people of other races and religions, Mills stated, “See, he [Von Dutch] put it out there in the universe and the universe is like ‘Oh that’s what you don’t want? Here you go.’” As a Black man, he was able to create a name for himself despite the cruelty of the man behind the eyeball.
“The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For” underlined what I already knew: Fashion and pop culture brands are always about more than just clothes. What you wear makes a statement, and who you wear can reflect who you are or want to be. I love the resurgence of Y2K fashion and I love that fashion continues to teach me new things about the world every day. But, as a Jewish woman, I’ve added Von Dutch to the list of brands that will never enter my closet.