How do you revive a cool California brand that was so popular that within a few years of launching more than 20 years ago, its revenues climbed to $100 million a year and then went to nothing?
The answer is — very slowly.
French footwear company Groupe Royer acquired the Von Dutch trademarks in 2009 when Von Dutch Original, headed by Dutchman Tonny Sørensen, made a fortune selling logo trucker hats, blue jeans and gas-station attendant shirts worn by a coterie of celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Paris Hilton.
When French fashion designer Christian Audigier came on board, his over-the-top personality and marketing skills helped grow the brand rapidly until he left in 2004 to launch Ed Hardy, a graphic-intense brand whose name was licensed from American tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy.
Von Dutch sales declined after Audigier’s departure, and later the trademarks were sold to Groupe Royer. The new French owners started out fresh with no revenues at the start, growing sales outside of the United States in countries such as Brazil, the Philippines, Thailand and Italy. “It was a big challenge,” said Olivier Mercier, the chief executive of Von Dutch International, based in Luxembourg. “But I knew something could be done with this brand because it has such a strong DNA.”
Then in 2014, the revamped Von Dutch found a licensee in Los Angeles to grow U.S. sales. He was doing well and had a successful store on Melrose Avenue. When the licensee left in 2019, Von Dutch took over. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, forcing the Melrose Avenue store to close.
Ever since, Mercier and his colleagues have been searching for a permanent retail spot in Los Angeles that is not too touristy but trendy enough to match the brand’s cool vibe from an era when bling was all in.
With no permanent retail location yet, Von Dutch decided to launch a few pop-up shops and events this holiday season in prime locations that touch on its retro L.A. appeal. Currently, that includes a two-week stay at Kitson Robertson, the store known for launching trends like the trucker cap, and a pop-up inside the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
In December, there will be a giant sale with limited-edition drops at Saddle Ranch, the chop house with a mechanical bull that’s been operating in West Hollywood since the early 2000s, and a third pop-up is planned when Von Dutch takes over for a day and night at The Viper Room, the famed club founded in 1993 by Johnny Depp and Sal Jenco.
These days, Von Dutch’s sales are primarily online. “[Business-to-consumer] was for a while the only way to make things happen,” Mercier said. Now about 80 percent of the company’s $30 million in revenues comes from e-commerce, and the rest is wholesale accounts.
Through a French licensee, there are about a dozen stores in the south of France and one planned for Barcelona, Spain. “We’re just opening in South Korea, and we have some possibilities in China. And we are talking to some people in the Philippines, where the label used to be very big,” Mercier explained.
Eighty percent of sales are evenly split between Europe and the United States.
While the trucker hat is still the bestselling Von Dutch item, the company has expanded its merchandise mix with the help of Earl Pickens, the brand’s artistic director who attended the Art Institute of Chicago but has lived in Paris for decades. He briefly had his own upscale denim brand, followed by roles as artistic director for ready-to-wear at Marlboro International Sportswear, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Charles Jourdan footwear.
New to the collection are $99 wallets, $149 bowling bags and $349 overnight bags. Recently, Von Dutch launched an eyewear collection with nine styles and 30 pieces that celebrate glasses from iconic decades. They sell for $290 to $350.
“We have been developing a few limited-edition things,” Mercier said. “We did a few tests of Italian denim, and we did some silk scarves, but nobody wears silk scarves in America. It is very European.” Von Dutch also tried a few Turkish-made sweaters with leather. But these limited-edition items don’t make up the core collection.
The label is still strong in T-shirts, sweats, denim jackets, blue jeans, leather jackets and tops and those trucker hats that now come in every color under the rainbow.