PORTLAND'S FOREVER-ACTIVE artisanal entrepreneurs have increasing numbers of leatherworkers among them. Many are making bags, wallets, belts, and other small accessories, and most are doing it quite well. Fewer are attempting the notoriously difficult task of shoe making, and fewer still can boast the lineage of Martin Martinez and his father Jose Martin Martinez Hernandez, who together own Orox Leather Co.
In 1933, Felipe Martinez was, as his great-grandson Martin describes him, "pretty addicted to baseball." He started a business in Mexico making related products, such as mitts and balls, along with traditional Mexican huarache sandals. When his son Jose Martinez Aduelo (also known as Don Pepe) later took over the business, he concentrated on the footwear aspect and expanded the scope of production. "He had 14 children, so labor was not an issue," Martin jokes.
Among those 14 was Jose, Martin's father. During the '80s Jose was enamored with pop figures like Rod Stewart and followed the trends of the time, and asked his father to buy him a pair of Converse. Don Pepe countered that if he wanted Converse, he could make his own. So Jose set about making replicas of the iconic style in different colors, bringing one of what would become many external influences into what had originated as a business based on traditional Mexican techniques.
From among Jose's many brothers and sisters, it was he alone who stuck with it, eventually inheriting the reins of the family business. His reputation eventually landed him in Japan, where he introduced Mexican craft to an eager audience, designing prolifically and expanding beyond wearable accessories into museum-quality leather carvings made from complete hides. In return he learned the art of lean designs that highlight rich materials from his own observance of Japanese techniques. Returning to Oaxaca after six years, Jose attempted to open a restaurant there featuring such foreign delicacies as sushi and sashimi. "Oaxaca is very traditional," chuckles Martin. "Raw fish is not really an option."
After exhausting the effort of trying to convert his neighbors to the joys of eastern cuisine, Jose moved his family north to Portland, in part because of its buzz as an enthusiastic scene for both craftsmanship and entrepreneurism. Once here, he began reviving his sandal designs, adding a complementary rainy-month repertoire of accessories like belts, bags, and suspenders. Dovetailing with the progressive local market are the efforts Orox puts into its green-leaning practices, sourcing domestically wherever possible (much of its leather comes from the same tannery used by the venerable Red Wing boot company), using water-based adhesives, and Oregon-recycled rubber.
They christened the relocated endeavor Orox in part as a combination of "Oaxaca" and "Portland," as well as in reference to aurochs. Pronounced the same way (and familiar from an appearance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, although there they are portrayed as more boar-like), aurochs are the mythologized wild ancestors of cattle—creatures to whom all leatherworkers by definition owe tribute.
This week, after years of selling amid the chaos of the Saturday Market, Orox is celebrating the grand opening of its first Portland storefront, a longtime goal achieved in part through the support of the Portland Development Commission's efforts in downtown retail development. Along with Ninkasi beers and storewide discounts, they are also creating an installation at the former Church of Elvis next door—Martin is hesitant to spill too many secrets regarding the details, but says they are using it as a way to tell the story of their unique, internationally informed company's origins. It's planned to be up for viewing all month, but don't miss this opportunity to learn from the legacy holders themselves.