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Tracey Mills, The Man Responsible For Taking Von Dutch And Ed Hardy Mainstream, Shares His Story
Let’s take a trip down memory lane: It’s the early ‘00s and low rise jeans, Juicy Couture sweatsuits, cargo pants, flares and denim skirts are everywhere. Oh, and we can’t forget spray painted graphics. The origins of Y2K are forming and we’re excited about new episodes of MTV Cribs, Punk’d, Pimp My Ride, and BET’s 106 & Park countdown with AJ and Free. The ultimate accessories of the times are Blackberrys, Motorola Razrs and T-Mobile Sidekicks. However, there’s one accessory, not made for texting, fyi, that’s taking over the world by storm — ornate trucker hats crafted by the brand Von Dutch.
Von Dutch was infamous and instantly recognizable, but unlike today, people weren’t heavily concerned about the overall origins of the brand. To most, Von Dutch was just a collection of edgy looking items that stormed the street and instantaneously became the designated attire for the cool kids. Decades later, Hulu’s recent release, The Curse Of Von Dutch: A Brand To Die For, a documentary series on the brand’s exhilarating path, is giving viewers an in-depth look on the rise (and fall), showing exactly how Von Dutch became one of the most popular fashion brands in history. The initial inception of the brand took place before the ‘90s with Kenny Howard, also known as Von Dutch. Howard was a talented artist and was also a fixture throughout the motorcycle community. His graphics were eye-catching and often incorporated a gore-like element similar to the eyeball with wings, which perfectly aligned with the style selections of his core audience of motorcyclists. After Howard’s death, the brand was sold to Michael Cassel and Robert Vaughn, with French designer Christian Audigier joining in to help popularize the brand.
Together, they cooked up a new formula which ultimately resulted in the beloved trucker hats. However, although the designs and quality were certainly flying off the shelves, it wasn’t until a man by the name of Tracey Mills came along to take the brand to the next level and familiarized everyone with the name,”Von Dutch.”
Mills was first introduced to the brand as a customer with no prior aspirations of pursuing a career in fashion. “I grew up playing basketball, and as I expressed in the documentary, my older brother played in the NBA for 12 years, so basketball was my dream,” Mills tells ESSENCE. However, after discovering Von Dutch in 2002 through his friend Breyon Prescott, who is now a manager to Jamie Foxx, Mills’s desire to find unique clothing soon turned into a life-changing trajectory. “I went down to the store and fell in love with the brand, but no one in our culture or really anyone at the time really knew about the brand. I started going down there often because I wanted to have what no one else had, so I was heavy on Von Dutch because no one else had it,” Mills explains. “Eventually, a lot of my friends, who happened to be celebrities, started asking me where I was getting the clothes from, so I started taking them there — like Hillary Duff, Lindsey Lohan, Usher, Brandy, Bow Wow and Puff (Diddy),” he reveals.
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His frequency in the store didn’t go unnoticed. “The head designer Christian Audigier told his guys ‘Next time he comes into the store, bring him to me.’ So when I did, he offered me a job on the spot and I took it. That was the beginning of my fashion career,” he says. Mills naturally proved himself each time he came into the store and the team knew for certain he was bringing something valuable to the table. “When I took on the role, I was probably like 23, and it didn’t really register what I was really doing for the culture and for Black people. I was just being a young Black dude from the inner-city in LA,” Mills shares. “For me it was survival. I was broke and I wanted to be a part of something. It was good income, I could survive, pay my own bills, have my own place and I was doing something that came effortlessly to me: product placing a brand that I thought was dope and working on my personal relationships.”
His close proximity to celebrities served as a gateway to a formal title. “I took pride in my relationships,” he says. I didn’t have to go through managers. I had direct contact with the stars.”
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