At Portland's Orox Leather, Generations of Mexican Artisanship Live On

From Oaxaca to Old Town, a family business just keeps getting better.

By Eden Dawn June 28, 2018

Martin, father José, and brothers Kevin and Levi Martinez of Orox Leather

Walking into Orox’s open studio space—the smell of leather in the air, beautifully crafted handbags on the wall, traditional sandals on display, and a row of makers chatting as they carefully stitch pieces together right in front of you—you might not expect the instigator behind it all is Rod Stewart.

Yes, the spiky-haired Brit’s sexy-swagger style is what made an 8-year-old José Martinez embrace the family leather-making business down in Oaxaca, Mexico—all so he could have a pair of red leather kicks just like Stewart’s dancing shoes. So he went all in, learning the craft in his grandfather’s workspace; his grandpa had been making custom leather baseball gloves, traditional sandals, and bags since the early 1930s, in a field that takes exact precision because of its material's unforgiving nature.

José Martinez at work on an Orox piece

“Oaxaca has a unique position—the state is surrounded by mountains—so when the Spaniards came to colonize they had such a hard time getting over there, [so] they just blended instead of demolished,” says José’s oldest son, Martin, co-owner of Orox, on what makes his hometown a hotbed of artisan crafts. “The culture got fostered instead of eliminated, so we have it all: the best food, amazing tapestries, the rugs, a surfer style from actual surfers living there. It was a unique vibe. And people look to Oaxaca for authentic crafts. You grow up there to make things.”

Over the next three decades, José Martinez perfected his craft, including a six-year stay in Japan manufacturing his designs to a throng of fans in love with his use of color and tooling of leather. He took a break from leather to open a sushi restaurant in Oaxaca with his wife, Jackeline (and with help from their children).

But leather wasn’t done with José. When son Martin came to Portland State University to study business, the then-19-year-old put together a business plan for a class project. “The professor told me to put together a plan for something I was passionate about, something I would never quit,” Martin says. “I called my dad and said, 'What if we put the leather business back together again?'”

The crazy idea worked. Orox, a portmanteau of Oregon and Oaxaca, began small, with José and Martin working out of their garage, like many a startup before them, selling accessories at Saturday Market and craft fairs. Finally, in 2012, José's other sons, Kevin and Levi, also moved to Portland, and they all snagged a retail space in Old Town, turning half of it into an open-air studio where shoppers can watch José and his kids slicing leather into belts or stitching a bag handle.

Six years later, the shopping destination is an entertaining one. Deep-red wallets and matching bags sit next to picnic-perfect wine caddies—complete with a cased corkscrew and waxed area that can handle ice to keep your rosé chilled. The family has decades of experience making their traditional sandals, using leather sourced from small American tanneries, with soft adjustable straps that stay comfy even in the height of summer heat. The collection keeps growing every year.

“We have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Martin says. “And so does Portland. It fosters that.”

Orox leather tote bag and thong

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