Ex-Hippie Has Handcrafted Leather Business In The Bag

Twenty-five years ago, Michael Green was a hippie leather maker supporting himself on the streets of San Francisco by selling handmade leather sandals and clothes.

If it weren't for a fishing boat job that never materialized, he might have ended up in Anchorage. Instead, he runs a factory on Queen Anne that produces some of this area's best-selling women's handbags.

Sold at Nordstrom stores and some specialty shops, the Michael Green line of purses, bags and briefcases is inevitably compared with Coach leatherwear. Like Coach, Green's bags have clean, tailored lines and come in mostly traditional colors. Leatherwear connoisseurs, however, notice differences.

Green's leather is a bit firmer, his styles slightly less blocky. He says he has lots of repeat customers and is popular with Asian tourists. Susan McDonald, Nordstrom spokeswoman, says: "People around here like to buy Northwest. It's one of our most popular lines."

Retailing from $26 for a small passport pouch to $264 for a briefcase, Green's bags cost somewhat less than Coach bags. He makes 35 styles in 13 colors, though some 60 percent of everything he sells is black. Each year Green adds four or five styles - his newest designs are more gently rounded, he says, like the newest car silhouettes. He has annual sales of about $500,000 and guesses that he could sell more if he tried marketing outside of Washington and Oregon. But his '60s philosophical roots show through when he says he isn't interested in getting much bigger.

"Look, I have six good employees and I'm getting a secretary one day a week," says Green. "I answer the phone if I'm here and after I leave, someone else answers the phone. I have a nice lifestyle and I go home every day to my family on Bainbridge. I really don't have an interest in going national."

A Long Island native whose speech still retains an unmistakable East Coast speediness, Green said he "sewed as a kid, and messed around on my mother's sewing machine repairing upholstery." After high school he attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York with ambitions of going into apparel design. But it was the mid-'60s, and he gravitated to San Francisco instead, where he learned how to work with leather.

Tired of San Francisco's crowds and flower-power trendiness, he headed to Seattle in the late '60s, expecting to get a job on an Alaska-bound fishing boat. But the number he called was out of order. "So I went over to U of W, like any good hippie would, and met a guy handing out radical leaflets who invited me to stay at his place." He started plying his trade at local crafts fairs and by the early '70s had caught the attention of Nordstrom, which has carried his line ever since.

These days the only crafts fair he works is the annual University Street Fair, upcoming this weekend, where he sells seconds and discontinued lines.