In the bustle of Portland’s Chinatown, Martin Martinez places the finishing touches on a rich leather shoulder bag. Beneath its refined, polished appearance lies a story that spans oceans, continents and four generations. It is the story of a family bound by a single craft; the story of Orox Leather.
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The tale begins in Oaxaca, Mexico with Don Felipe Martinez Audelo who was, among other things, a ballplayer. To keep his team equipped, Don Felipe developed custom-made baseball gloves and belts for his baseball team, Los Audelos. Over time, his sons grew up alongside Don Felipe, playing baseball and learning the craft of traditional leatherworking.
Don Felipe’s middle son, Pepe, grew the craft into a family business with the help of his brothers, and in so doing ingrained a love of leatherworking in his son José. By early adulthood, José’s prowess as a maker earned him an invitation to teach traditional Mexican leather crafting in Japan. José ended up spending six years in Japan, teaching his trade and learn traditional Japanese techniques. When José returned to Oaxaca, still fascinated with Japanese culture and its craft, he found his son Martin’s interest in craftsmanship was burgeoning.
Orox founder, creative leader, and master leather maker José Martinez
A New Generation
Having grown up surrounded by his family’s history of craftsmanship, Martin’s interest lay in entrepreneurship and he soon moved to the United States to study business at Portland State University. There, he decided to re-ignite the family trade, and over the course of a decade, he gathered his family together in Portland. There, Orox Leather was born. Combining Oregon (Or) with Oaxaca (ox), the Martinez family business was fully realized in America when they opened shop in Portland in 2012.
Martin Martinez, left, with his father and Orox founder José Martinez at their Portland store
Today, Orox Leather’s blend of heritage and craftsmanship produces a unique blend of techniques that feels at once classic, worldly and wholly new. Underpinned by tradition and a deep love for craftsmanship, Orox Leather is a promising fresh face in the world of American-made leather goods. We sat down with Martin Martinez to get his take on craftsmanship, leatherworking and to learn more about the brand.
Q: It seems now that those who love leather goods have more options than ever. How do you differentiate your products from similar brands?
A:We share the same core value — Made in America —with a focus on craftsmanship and durability. What we try to do is connect at a deeper level because each piece is unique and there’s a story behind it, a depth that comes with a multi-generational family business. My father would stop people wearing his sandals and bags and adjust them, tweak them to be more comfortable or look better. That’s how he operated: he still had a connection to that piece or pair of sandals and he was committed to ensuring the customer was getting the most out of it, no matter how long ago it was purchased from him. This attitude rolls down to all our employees and is the soul of our business.
The Ryoko Duffel, inspired by Japanese aesthetics
Q: Where do you draw inspiration for your products?
A:It starts with my father and grandfather. They were able to conceptualize patterns and silhouettes in their minds. He’s very much a trailblazer, my father. He’ll often meet with a client to get a rough idea and some details of what they’re looking for, and then he sketches it out in his mind. After a few iterations, he’ll have created a finished product. We also draw inspiration from Japanese, European and American brands. Onitsuka Tiger, Hardgraft and Filson come to mind, and being in Oregon, we’ve always been inspired by Nike in terms of the drive to innovate and focus on aesthetics. We’re also surrounded by a lot of shoe enthusiasts in Portland’s Chinatown. It’s a neighborhood that’s attracted a lot of makers and crafters because of cheaper rents, and really fostered a lot of creativity and created a sense of community.
Q: What makes a good bag?
A:Leather needs to age gracefully, transform over time and become unique to you. I like to experiment with different leathers; for example, testing hides with different levels of waxes and oils that act as natural protection. In a bag, space and functionality are key. For example, the Viator Tote is great for travel — I put my camera in there and it has a strap to serves both as a home for our logo and also to seamlessly attach to my suitcase- those are the kind of features that make me love using it. I also want a bag to be as light as a leather bag can be, and spacious.
The Viator Tote
Q: What is often overlooked by manufacturers?
A:Sometimes there are too many materials without stories, with not a lot of thought about how is it going to age, but rather how it looks on the shelf. There isn’t enough thought put to timelessness.
Q: What do you say to people who say your bags are too expensive?
A:I first speak to the materials — we source only the highest quality hardware and hides because that quality is passed on to the end-user. I also emphasize the people behind the products. We pay fair wages and take care of our team. That cost of doing business well translates to higher price tags, but we know that it’s worth it. As a self-funded company, we appreciate each and every customer because, through their purchases, they are caring for and supporting our family, community, and craft. Maybe our goods are an expensive luxury, but then again, we see that patrons come away with so much more than just a bag.
Q: What are your favorite pieces?
A:The Nuntius X briefcase is one. When I first started building the business, I wanted something that looked professional to bring to meetings, but that would hold up to daily bike rides– my primary mode of transportation. It’s a product that has undergone countless design modifications and updates to evolve it into a perfect briefcase. I still use it today, along with the Viator Tote.
The Nantius X Messenger Bag
Q: What does the future hold for you?
A:We have big aspirations to become a leader in the leather accessories market by creating durable products that are timeless, iconic, and functional. We want to become a more socially responsible company by creating job opportunities in places and demographics in need like the ones in Oaxaca, Mexico. Our home town is full of talented individuals without opportunities to succeed. By creating jobs in those areas it prevents migration into the USA and the loss of culture. Preserving that craft at a good living wage is very important to us. Sourcing the best leather is another ambition of ours. We want to be using the latest and most innovative leathers in the world, on the cutting edge of the material as it develops. We want to work hard on being at the vanguard of style and sustainability in our sourcing. Model companies like Patagonia are very influential in the direction we want to take with our small family business and we are excited to make it a reality.
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