Von Dutch Doc isn’t a murder mystery – it’s about identity and clothing

One Friday evening in February 2005, Robert “Bobby” Vaughn grabbed his phone from a nightstand in his Los Angeles apartment and dialed 911 to report a shooting. He told the operator that several shots were fired inside his house, killing one. Vaughn was also able to identify the person who killed Marc Rivas, his best friend and roommate: he did it himself.

The fatal blow came at the end of a violent confrontation between the two men and, Vaughn said, immediately after Rivas attacked him with a broken beer bottle. Vaughn was charged with first degree murder, raised in self-defense and acquitted by a jury who found it to be a justifiable homicide.

Of all the cases that ended up in the California court system, this one – though tragic – was not a news item when it happened, though it only took place six years after Vaughn helped launch Von Dutch, a clothing company best known for its then ubiquitous trucker hats, preferred by celebrities like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z.

And yet this true but solved crime is inexplicably positioned as Hulu’s main event. The curse of Von Dutch: a brand to die for, a Three-part docuseries on the rise and fall of the beloved and then hated clothing company.

It’s clear in the show’s first two minutes that director Andrew Rezni wants this to be everyone’s next real obsession with crime. And although this is a true story – at least a version of it – and several crimes have taken place, The curse of Von Dutch isn’t necessarily what audiences expect from the genre. There is a murder, but no mystery. There are charismatic leaders and people who dress alike, but no sect.

Instead, the three-part docuseries, which were posted today on Hulu, is at its best when exploring the complex reasons why some people feel so strongly connected with a particular clothing brand that it ends up being part of their identity, and how, in turn, the identity of he clothing brand can depend on its customers.

The first question about identity concerns the clothing brand Von Dutch itself, founded in 1999. Three men – Ed Boswell, Michael Cassel and Vaughn – all claim to have created it. As everyone pleads their case, the public discovers Kenneth howard, an American hot rod artist from the 1940s and 1950s named Von Dutch.

At first, the Von Dutch clothing business was based on Howard’s art, designs and overall aesthetic, but gradually moved away from it as it became more mainstream. Throughout the series, the three men try to take credit for a brand they describe as “original” that would not exist without the work of another person.

This is not unexpected from Vaughn in particular, who has linked his identity to a clothing company since he was a teenager. As a person of Japanese and Mexican descent who grew up in a predominantly white community, Vaughn says from a young age he hated his appearance and struggled to develop his own identity.

That is, until he got into surfing and stumbled upon the surf-skate clothing company Bronze Age. “I just went all-in. I’m all from the Bronze Age, ”says Vaughn. “It’s become my brand new, kind, everything. I started rocking him everywhere.

Part of what made him so passionate about Von Dutch was Vaughn’s instant and intense connection to Bronze Age clothing – he knew how powerful it could be to find a brand that you identify with. This glimpse into Vaughn’s past raises many questions that crop up throughout docuseries about the relationship between what we wear and who wants to be: when does a person go from preferring a particular brand to who they are. identity? And what’s more important: the garment itself, or who else is wearing it?

Around 2003, when Tracey Mills started working as a liaison between A-listers and Von Dutch, his future fashion collaborator, Kanye West told the clothing company’s chief designer he was lucky to have Mills because he had the rare ability to truly connect and communicate with celebrities. And Mills came along, introducing Halle Berry, Usher, Lindsey Lohan and Brandy (among many others) to the brand.

But his skills went beyond fitting in with cool kids; he also understood why it was so important for the company to have famous faces to don trucker caps and logo t-shirts. “Back then, a celebrity’s mystique was at an all time high, compared to now,” Mills said in a docuseries interview. “I think the difference between yesterday and today is that a celebrity back then was unreachable. There was no social media. When you could see them in [an article of clothing], it was like a craze. You had to hurry to get it.

In this case, it was a $ 42 trucker cap. Although they sold for a much higher price than similar caps, they were meant to be ambitious rather than functional (not to mention relatively affordable compared to other garments that the rich and famous were photographed). For those who idolized or built their identity around a celebrity, $ 42 was a small price to pay to feel that connection.

By the time Von Dutch infiltrated the crowd, the brand was seen as avant-garde – something different that helped people stand out. When Britney Spears wanted to go from princess of pop to goddess of rock, she turned to Von Dutch clothes to signal her transformation, according to a former company employee interviewed in the documentary.

But while Von Dutch’s strategy of using celebrity Pied Pipers to attract the masses was initially successful, it also came with significant risk. Specifically, what would happen when desirable celebrities inevitably lose interest in the brand? Or when trucker hats become so common that they are no longer unique? Or your uncle shows up to a family dinner in Von Dutch jeans?

After a period of explosive growth between 2002 and 2003, that is exactly what happened. As soon as they picked up the Von Dutch merchandise, celebrities like Paris Hilton say they were anxious to get rid of it. “This has never really happened to me with a brand,” she explains in the documentary. “Where I would love something so much one day, and then the next day, like, not get caught to death in it.”

The company’s prominent clients who left the ship were absolutely a setback, but the second generation of celebrities seen rocking Von Dutch clothing and accessories (like Dennis Rodman, Verne Troyer and adult actors, according to former employees). company interviewed in the documentary) weren’t they weren’t the ones people necessarily identified with or aspired to be.

It wasn’t long before other people decided it was time to let go of their Von Dutch duds as well. When a clothing brand builds on its reputation and appeal to be the hottest celebrity label of choice, but can no longer deliver on its promises, it ceases to be part of its identity. And without the association with Britney, Paris, or Jay-Z, you’re just looking at an overpriced pair of low-rise jeans and a gaudy plastic bowling bag.

If viewers enter The curse of Von Dutch expecting a gripping murder mystery that will change the course of the brand’s history, they may be disappointed. But if so, then this is not a reflection on the documentary itself, which offers a fascinating look at the various, sometimes surprisingly deep, ways of identifying with a particular brand of clothing made in France. series. Rather, it would be because of a misguided attempt to capitalize on the enduring appeal of the kind of murder show with a documentary where the murder is a relatively minor part of the story. Again, it’s a question of identity.

Elizabeth J. Harless