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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.