By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Others saw dollar signs when they looked back at Von Dutch's storied, troubled life, and his one-of-a-kind artworks, and that's where the trouble started.
A decade after Dutch's death, the duplicators are now in arbitration in Los Angeles Superior Court, where they hope to figure out once and for all who has the rights to reproduce certain of Von Dutch's works. Like many things that get out of hand, it all began with one man. He thought Dutch's signature and maybe a flying eyeball or two would look good on the back of a work shirt.
"When I was about 16 or so I saw an article about Von Dutch in the paper, and I was fascinated," said Long Beach concert promoter and clothing designer Ed Boswell. "It was actually just because, because he smoked pot … drank beer in lieu of food and never had a Social Security number, and did whatever he wanted and was a legendary guy. That sounded cool to me."
With licensing from Dutch's two daughters in hand, Boswell says, he formed a company to produce clothing—T-shirts, jeans, even underwear—with Dutch's most famous doodles on them. But, classically underfunded, he wound up bringing in surf clothing entrepreneur Michael Cassel. Boswell claims Cassel forced him out and took over the clothing line with his brother Donald. Boswell has retained the services of an attorney to help sort out his end of the matter.
"Not true. Not true. That's how I got to the estate. That's Ed [Boswell]'s only connection," said Michael Cassel, who claims he had the idea to produce sportswear with an industrial look, officially formed Von Dutch Originals in 1999 and opened its main store on Melrose Avenue in 1999. Low on dough, Cassel says, he brought in current Von Dutch CEO Tonny Sorensen, reportedly also a champion kick-boxer, as one of several other minority investors. Cassel said Sorensen wound up buying out other minority investors to become a 51 percent shareholder in the company—and forcing Mike Cassel out.
"When it got to the point where he had enough money, that's where he leveraged me out," Cassel said. Now funded by a battery of investors he said includes Guess, Cassel wants the judge to agree that he still owns 49 percent of the company—and that either he or Sorensen should buy the other out. Representatives of Von Dutch Originals in Los Angeles declined repeated requests for an interview.
What comes next is hard to say.
"The company already has a retail store on Melrose [Avenue] and a franchise in Beverly Hills, so they're definitely rolling in the Benjamins," said Figueroa, the ApparelNews writer, adding that lawsuits could hurt the label.
Popular fashion is littered with spectacular flameouts, and while no one's saying it yet, the minute something new comes along, Von Dutch could become just yesterday's trend—this millennium's version of Tommy Bahama, Sisely, Benetton, Ocean Pacific or Lightning Bolt. The label has long been blacklisted by traditional hot rodders.
"I feel like the guy that rubbed the lamp, that got the genie out," Boswell said. "And then the genie got turned into a whore."
Already there are like-minded folk selling copycat shirts reading "Von Bitch" and "Von Suck." The people behind Von Suck, and its website, www.vonsuck.com, hope their shirts show the world how lame they think Von Dutch Originals is.
"Von Dutch is pretty much finished as an artist," said Von Suck webmaster Slutty Stan, who declined to give his last name. "It's like Picasso being known for furniture.''
Mike Cassel said Von Dutch is lucky he came along when he did.
"Everything cool gets packaged and sold to somebody," Cassel said. "If I make some money out of it, and his daughters make some money out of it, I think that's the American way. If somebody does that to me after I die, I'd be honored."
Honored? Well, if he were, those closest to him say he'd have a interesting way of showing it.
"If he was alive," Williams said, "he'd walk in there with a pistol and shoot those people."