Leather clothing designer Michael Hoban battles copycats in court

BEATING THE COMPETITION

April 09, 1992|By Beth Ann Krier | Beth Ann Krier,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles--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 less.

"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 Mr. Hoban, 50, 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 Mr. Hoban's lawyer Jeffrey Gersh calls "substantial" damages. Under the agreements, neither the settlement amounts nor the firm names can be disclosed. Mr. Gersh says threatening letters also persuaded about 10 other companies to stop copying North Beach to avoid lawsuits.

"The courts believed that this [theft] is something that cannot go on . . .," Says Mr. Gersh. "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 Mr. Hoban's cases was settled about a month ago.

How did Mr. 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 Mr. 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."

Mr. 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 companies were unfairly competing by reproducing North Beach graphics, sometimes identically.

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

Back in the mid-1960s, after he had finished his Marine Corps service and done a couple of years at Long Beach colleges, Mr. 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.

"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.' "

Despite his long-standing preferences for ripped jeans and ratty sneakers, Mr. 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, 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."

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

Though North Beach once provided many entertainers with original designs, only rap stars favored by Mr. 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.

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.

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