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One of a Kind : Fashion: Michael Hoban has dressed everyone from Elvis to Jackie in leather. So when cheap knockoffs flooded the market, the feisty designer fought back.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is probably the only rag biz designer whose clientele is diverse enough to encompass Elvis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sinatra and Heavy D., Dolly Parton and Mike Tyson.

And though it seems that half the celebrities in the pop world have sought the artful biker chic he pioneered for North Beach Leather, that’s not the news on Michael Hoban these days.

His magical, color-blocked jackets--regularly paraded on late-night TV by Arsenio Hall--now rank among the most knocked-off designs on the planet. The jackets sell for about $800 at Hoban’s 11 North Beach Leather shops around the country, and at boutiques throughout the world.

But a counterfeit jacket--typically cranked out in Asia--can be had for $300. Sometimes even less.

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“Michael Hoban has created a huge mountain of trends . . . the whole free world has copied,” says Richard Harrow, publisher of Leather Today magazine.

When that sort of thievery hits some designers, they sit back and accept it as just another fact of leading-edge fashion life. A few proudly maintain that theft is the highest form of flattery.

But feisty 50-year-old Hoban, who grew up as the leader of Boston’s Warriors gang and counts Hells Angels among his most prized customers, was furious. He fought back in the courts. Even more remarkably, he won.

In out-of-court settlements, eight leather-goods manufacturers have agreed to stop copying his North Beach jacket graphics and to pay what Hoban’s lawyer Jeffrey Gersh calls “substantial” damages. Under the agreements, neither the settlement amounts nor the firm names can be disclosed. Gersh says threatening letters also persuaded about 10 other companies to stop ripping off North Beach in order to avoid lawsuits.

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Says Gersh: “The courts believed that this (theft) is something that cannot go on. . . . When people knock them off and sell them for $200 or less, it lowers the value of the originals.”

He adds that such suits, while still rare, are on the increase. The last of Hoban’s cases was settled about a month ago.

How did Hoban manage to score where most other designers have failed?

“We came up with what was considered a novel theory in the garment industry,” says Gersh. “Normally, in garment lines, clothes are very seasonal. Styles change in as many as five seasons a year--spring, summer, winter, fall and holiday. But with leather jackets, they can remain popular for a year or two, as Michael’s do.”

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Gersh cites the contrasting example of a Calvin Klein dress. “By the time people have copied them, they’re into the next season. They’ve sold their garments and they don’t really care.”

So the attorney and his partners advanced a theory of trade duress, based on the notion that other firms were unfairly competing by reproducing North Beach graphics, sometimes identically.

To come up with evidence, Hoban faxed designs to and from various North Beach offices for several years. That way the firm maintained a precise record of when the graphics were developed, complete with fax-stamped dates. Hoban also had them protected by copyrights.

During the court action, Hoban reaped a bonanza he never expected. He liked the honcho at one of the copycat companies so much that they became partners. Hoban and his staff of five designers now provide Excelled Sheepskin and Leather Coat Corp. with specifications so it can legitimately use 6-month-old North Beach designs. The designers are also working on new graphics that will be exclusive to this “Wear Me by Michael Hoban” line.

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As a result, consumers can stroll into shops such as The Sharper Image and get a bona fide North Beach-style, color-blocked jacket with Michael Hoban’s name on it for $299.

Of course, the jacket is made of slightly bumpy pigskin, not the silkiest calfskin the world has to offer. (Hoban says he bids for and buys 5% of the best every year.) But the official “Wear Me " knockoffs definitely carry on the North Beach tradition.

The North Beach tradition was born completely by accident, says Hoban, sitting behind his desk at his elegant, Santa Fe-style work studio in West Los Angeles.

But first he wants to talk about his guru, the late Paramahansa Yogananda, whose teachings are continued at Self Realization Fellowship shrines.

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“It gives me balance and tells me it’s all a dream anyway and I’m a great actor in it, " he explains by way of self-introduction.

“I go to church a lot. I’m not fanatical. I’ll go to any one, anywhere. I don’t care. I thank a lot, because I’m very lucky. To be in this world is one thing. To appreciate it is another.”

Back in the mid-'60s, after he’d finished his Marine Corps service and done a couple of years at Long Beach colleges, Hoban was busy appreciating life as a jobless hippie in Aspen, Colo.

He remembers making “the crudest pair of leather pants you’ve ever seen in your life” and a funky, equally amateurish patchwork leather vest. Each was stitched together completely by hand.

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“I liked the idea that I did it, and everybody was asking where I got the outfit. My (future) partner looked at me and said, ‘Michael, we could market something like that.’ ”

Hoban, nicknamed “Hobo” because he prefers to dress like a bum, fought the idea at first. Creating clothing didn’t fit his self-image. Even today, he confesses that he dressed up for an interview--in a simple, slate-blue silk shirt with neutral slacks.

“My girlfriend dressed me,” he admits, referring to Isabelle Gabai, a French interior designer with whom he fell in love last year. “This shirt, I haven’t worn in about five years, and I don’t own a suit jacket.”

Despite his long-standing preferences for ripped jeans and ratty sneakers, Hoban went into the clothing business with partner Frank Morgan in San Francisco’s North Beach area during the counterculture’s headiest days. Before there were North Beach stores, such as the Los Angeles shop on Sunset Boulevard, the styles were sold from a friend’s boutique. There were three items: leather jeans, a Levi’s-style jacket and a double-breasted, knee-length Edwardian coat “that it seemed like everybody in the world wanted.”

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Customers soon included Hells Angels leader Ralph (Sonny) Barger and Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton. After the late rock entrepreneur Bill Graham asked Hoban to start making clothes for his acts at the Fillmore Theatre, the North Beach clientele became truly impressive: Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, The Who, Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles.

Hoban recalls creating custom-painted white leather suits and capes for Elvis from 1969 until “he got big. It was very hard for me to make clothes for him in white, which he loved. He went up to almost a 40(-inch) waist. That’s really big for making show clothes with no jacket.”

Slim Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became a customer about 10 years ago and still “comes to our New York store once every year or so. I work a lot in chamois and suede (for her), just simple little things,” Hoban says.

Though North Beach once provided many entertainers with original designs, only rap stars favored by Hoban’s sons, 14-year-old Cassidy and 17-year-old Cody, get exclusive styles these days. Arsenio Hall, who regularly exposes millions of TV viewers to North Beach ingenuity, is the only star who gets freebies.

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Entertainers and athletes who pay constitute a virtual Who’s Who. No wonder. The common denominator in North Beach designs--even the mildly elegant ones--is that they virtually shout: “Look at me. I’m hot stuff.”

Though North Beach offers garments in white, black and a few neutral shades, it is best known for its bright, commanding colors. “Tight is right” is a key design principle for almost everything but the varsity-style jackets.

But wait, there’s more. Customers who complain that $300 is a bit much even for a legitimate Hoban copy will be able to purchase lower-priced goods in the near future. He and his staff are busy putting together a line called Hobo--new, non-leather sportswear generally priced less than $100 and intended to compete with Giorgio Armani’s AX division. Leather belts and accessories are also in the works.

“What everybody else calls fashion, I’ve been in forever,” reasons Hoban. “There hasn’t been a time in my business when I haven’t had a motorcycle jacket. There hasn’t been a time in my business when I haven’t had a leather jean.”

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He also insists there’s never been a time when North Beach was hurting for business.

As he puts it, “Ever since I made my partner the samples, he’s come back with more orders than I could ever handle. I never actually caught up with myself.”

To date, neither have those irrepressible knockoff artists.


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