THE ‘EIGHT-BALL’ JACKET PHENOMENON
“I’m a gorilla, I beast everything in the eye/Rock an Eight-Ball jacket in the middle of July“ Ghostface
Elaine: “What is that?”
Puddy: “It’s my new coat.”
Elaine: “You ditched the fur?”
Puddy: “Yeah, I saw Jerry wearing his. He looked like a bit of a dandy. Check it out! Eight-Ball! You got a question, you ask the Eight-Ball.”
Elaine: “You’re gonna wear this all the time?”
Puddy: “All signs point to ‘Yes!”
When fibre-optic cable fitter Raoul Cooper agreed to meet police in a vacant parking lot in Mableton, Georgia on the evening of the 9th of July this year regarding issues of child neglect he got a surprise – in addition to members of the local force, a SWAT team and NYC police officers promptly surrounded and arrested him on suspicion of first-degree murder dating back eighteen years. The reason for the homicide? To obtain an Eight-Ball jacket. Now that trend’s been and gone, frequently lampooned for good measure just to put it to rest, Raoul must be more than a little salty that he threw it all away and took a life for a flash-in-the-pan piece of gaudy cowhide. I frequently suffer bouts of jacket envy; though I’d like to point out I’ve never been quite so enamoured with any outerwear that I’d take up arms, but for me, the Eight-Ball was one of my first true jacket lusts.
“In the past two months, at least 16 youths have been shot for their shearling coats or for equally popular jackets with a multicolored leather eight ball on the back. Six are dead, and several others have been gravely injured.” Michael Specter, The Washington Post, January 27th, 1991
Moises Gallego, 18 was shot in the face in 1991 during a robbery in the Bronx for his, the crime Raoul’s been accused of. Quan Horton was killed in 1991 for his, and Rashid Smith was murdered for his in 1990. What the heck was the appeal of the eight-ball jacket? It might have held appeal twinned with some Ewings, but now it looks ugly as hell. Jokes aside, in preliminary high-speed e-research for this blog post, I was startled at the sheer amount of robberies and homicides of young men with regards to outerwear.
That reports (possibly apocryphal) claim Chicago police had a crime category entitled ‘Starter Jacket Murders’ circa 1989/90 isn’t too much of a surprise – I clocked the names of at least fatalities in news archives, several more for the shearling jacket craze that seemed to run from Winter 1990 to late 1991 in New York, and a handful more for the Eight-Balls (considered passé among some as early as January 1991). It’s hugely disturbing that a life could be taken for something as trivial as a fashion item, but doubly disturbing that these young men’s lives amounted to little more than two cautionary paragraphs, or mentions in various early ’90s shock articles on fashion and gun violence and then…nothing. If they’d been white and middle-class, they would’ve had their own Crime Library entry by now.
The Eight-Ball era seems to run between mid-1990 and early 1992, when the craze exited inner cities and went to hicksville (“Gee! That there jacket done got a pool ball on the back!“), but managed to act as the totem for murderous mugging over a costly clothing piece. Schooly D reinforced this on the intro to 1991’s ‘Your Worst Nightmare’ from ‘How A Black Man Feels.’
And here’s the kicker – kids were rocking bootlegs anyway. The real thing came courtesy of leather impressario Michael Hoban and his North Beach Leather brand. Accounts of the time have kids citing prices between $150 and $300 for their take on Hoban’s Eight-Ball which retailed at around $800. The suede version my local market was shifting to older kids in my UK hometown was undoubtedly a knockoff too. Periodically I see onetime ‘faces’ in the area who’ve hit hard times since ’93, forced into a purgatory of wearing the eight-ball year-after-year out of necessity, but carrying the lucky but battered number eight with a certain pride, perhaps a souvenir of their tenure as top boy in the town.
The suede Eight-Ball
Ironically Hoban’s claimed his origins were with a Roxbury-based teen street gang he ran called the Warriors, and his nickname was ‘Hobo’, which crops up in the label of many of his leather designs (I think the Eight-Ball was part of another collection of colourful sports-inspired pieces, ‘WHEREMI’) and in the ’60s, based in San Francisco he, and business partner Frank Morgan were creating far-out leathers.
A small store moved to the North Beach District and became ‘North Beach Leather.’ Clients even included Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver as well as Sammy Davis Jr. and Elton John. Even Elvis swung through to get a leather cape. Hoban was instrumental in developing some tanning and treatments for leather that were previously implemented on apparel, and through the coked-out ’70s and excess of the ’80s, North Beach Leather got big. Very, very big.
In addition to some fitted feminine pieces, patriotic and sporty jackets in Technicolor, with pictures of basketballs, baseballs and pool balls captured the worst excess of the early ’90s too. With a substantial rollout of stores (eleven by 2000), Hoban suffered at the hands of the bootleggers taking advantage of grey areas of copyright, creating imitations of pieces like the Eight-Ball and American Flags designs. Hoban issued a few lawsuits, but in an odd twist, found he got on with the honcho of one copycat company so much after threatening him with a 1990 injunction, he allowed Excelled Sheepskin and Leather Coat Corp. to use old designs and help him with new ones.
It’s here that the eight-ball flooded the market. Why did it catch on over the baseball and basketballs? A cocaine reference? An Olde English malt liquor reference? Maybe it was just one of those moments when the must-have has no rhyme or reason, the right man rocked it, and necessity was conferred.
Hoban started a new company to capitalise on kids rocking the coats, ‘MH Sport’ in 1993, but the coats were much cheaper, because they were made of polyurethane. Not a good look. After closing several stores to focus on design in 1997, the transmission of the ‘Seinfeld’ episode ‘The Reverse Peephole’ on January 15th 1998, where the show’s punchline is David Puddy’s Eight-Ball jacket can’t have helped. Writer Spike Feresten put it in there as the embodiment of what he hated in New York at one point – his second most detested jacket after the dreaded man-fur.
9/11 was blamed for a further dent in the company profits and Michael lost the business in 2003 with it now owned by onetime general manager of the San Francisco store, Skip Pass. Michael apparently went to Hawaii. By 2004, one store remained, fittingly in SF, on Grant Avenue. Chances of an Eight-Ball resurrection, even after Ciara and her dancers made a satin knockoff look, umm…interesting in 2005, seem remote. I know that’s not an Eight-Ball in the second one, but she just edges Rhi-Rhi in the hotness for once wearing those studded Louboutin boots so I put there regardless. I assumed maybe the indiscriminate vogue for any 1992 paraphernalia might give it a second chance with hipsters too. Turns out I don’t give mankind enough credit.
Still, Michael Hoban – I salute you for creating a very ’90s icon. And apparently, North Beach Leather is on the comeback trail. Maybe WHEREMI range reissues will follow…