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Caesy Oney

Named by Complex Magazine as one of “30 Designers Under 30 to Watch”, Mr. Caesy Oney is grabbing attention with unique interpretations of leather goods and varsity jackets alike. We joined Caesy (and canine companion, Boogie) in his studio to discuss design, inspiration, and fuzzy backpacks.

Montana is known for many things, but breeding fashion designers is not one of them. In Caesy Oney’s case, Montana made an exception.

“I grew up in the Flathead Valley and lived for several years in Missoula, two of the most idyllic places to live in the West,” says Caesy. Anyone who’s visited either location (or can execute a google image search) can attest to the halcyon tranquility of Big Sky Country. He’s since relocated to Portland, OR — primarily for proximity to culture, art, and capital — but the impact of home remains with him through his urban sensibilities. “Montana is special place to me and an integral part of my understanding of the world and how to make things.”

And make things he does. The 30-year-old creative is a multidisciplinary photographer, designer, and hands-on maker of everything from leather bags and tee shirts to varsity jackets and sneakers.

In his own words, “I really like to make stuff.” And, as Caesy’s success proves, he’s damn good at it.

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Caesy graduated in 2008 from PNCA with an art degree in photography, but his creative focus shifted shortly thereafter. “I had started sewing in college, and I became really fascinated with how objects are actually produced.” Caesy’s focus would quickly shift from standing behind the lens to creating the objects in front of it. Moving back to Montana after college, he picked up odd jobs while developing what would go on to become his first brand: Draught Dry Goods.

“I was delivering flowers and pizzas and also working at a coffee shop,” says Caesy. “And then I spent the rest of my time on a sewing machine, teaching myself how to work leather. It was a great learning experience, but it was slow.”

After much trial by fire, it was time to turn the corner. In January 2011, with images of two bags and a handful of leather accessories on his website, Caesy launched Draught Dry Goods to the world. And orders started to roll in. “I had no business starting a business. But I caught a lot of press right out of the gate. Style websites were getting legs under them for the first time and everyone was hungry for content. I got busy selling bags pretty quickly.”

Moving back to Portland six months in, Caesy found himself sewing 60 hours a week, but also surrounded by a community of creatives that inspired him to spend more time designing. And perhaps even more quickly than selling bags was an escalation of tension — a tension that seems to arise in all of Caesy’s creative endeavors: to produce or to design.

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“It’s hard to budget for design time when you’re getting paid to produce,” says Caesy. “It’s a balance. When you’re paying all of your bills with production, you’re tempted to make compromises.” But this “tension” of production and design is, for Caesy, an influential force that seems to make both more achievable than less. Compromise has never been on Caesy’s radar — he is a creative in the truest sense of the word. But he also has a knack for creating things that people want to buy. Draught alone has been independently sold in over 50 shops worldwide, including Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Thailand, The United Kingdom, and over 20 shops in Japan including Journal Standard, Tomorrowland, and Isetan.

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But no amount of success seems to dampen Caesy’s drive to build his businesses his own way. “Really, I need my process to be a slower game that’s done right. Over time, I realized I needed a strong foundation of factory partners with people who were going to use the right materials and deliver production on time and that everything is going to be right. It takes a long time to get those partnerships and process down, but I’m getting there.”

“Getting there”, early on, was achieved through strategic collaborations and private label projects with friends. “For a while, every order that came in was saving me at the last minute,” says Caesy. “They were perfectly timed to keep me going as I was running out of money.”

But over time, “getting there” has evolved into longer term collaborations as well, one of which developed into an exceptional line of handmade varsity jackets with friend and colleague Aaron Settlemier.

Caesy smiled as he spoke of his relationship with Aaron. “He’s a great dude. I met Aaron when I was looking to produce a jacket for Draught.” Aaron Settlemier runs his family’s Portland-based factory as a third generation jacket maker (the factory is aptly named “Settlemier’s Jackets”). It wasn’t long after their initial conversations that Caesy approached Aaron about starting a project together.

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“There are huge, almost empty factories around town,” says Caesy. “The business went away when most production moved overseas, so a lot of those people left to where the jobs were. The fact that we have a jacket factory in town is something special that should be protected. When Aaron and I talked about collaborating, I knew I could offer vision and creative direction and design, and he could bring his expertise in production and manufacturing.”

It was a great match and the two became fast friends, the partnership maturing into what would become Odd Fellow Company. The cornerstone piece in the Odd Fellow collection is a slim-fit varsity jacket, cut-and-sewn in the 6,000 square foot Settlemier factory, barely a 15 minute drive from Caesy’s studio.

“The designs are my passion. And the production of them is not only Aaron’s family passion but his business and his livelihood and his family legacy.” A legacy that, if the OFC jackets are any proof, is being honored in spades. The highest quality garments we’ve encountered are those in which there is an uncommonly close relationship between the owners and the products produced. Odd Fellow is no exception.

And on top of OFC and Draught Dry Goods, Caesy Oney also has a “day job”. Admittedly, this is no ordinary day job.

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“My position is in the Nike Innovation Kitchen as a Concept Creator for Converse,” says Caesy. In a nutshell, Mr. Oney prototypes concepts at a ridiculously fast pace. “The advantage is that I can make samples same day by hand. Within six hours, I can go from cutting a pattern to having a prototype on the table, ready to be overnighted to Boston for a meeting the next day.”

Prototyping for most companies is a time consuming process: a concept originates from a design studio in the states and then gets sent overseas for pattern and prototyping, then back over for review. This back and forth process repeats for an undefined number of iterations. Shortening those transitions allows for faster and arguably better innovation.

“I do specialized making for Converse at large and for our internal team, identifying opportunities and technologies, construction methods, cushioning, and such. I do the same for bags and garments as well. As a concept creator, it’s really a maker position. I make cool stuff really fast.”

“Making cool stuff really fast.” Caesy’s explanation of his position is a perfect example of his subjective paradigm at play. What is an unheard-of talent at rapid prototyping is, to him, another day at the office. And it is perhaps because of his subjectivity that he’s found so much success. The matter-of-fact perspective on his skillset results in a unique ability to solve problems with pattern and construction and materials with especially creative solutions.

One thing that is not matter-of-fact about Caesy, however, is his immense respect for the opportunities he’s been given. While he’s quick to share confidence in what he’s created, he’s quicker to honor those inputs that have helped him achieve such success, be it principles he’s learned from art school or the inspired designers around him, with whom he works on a daily basis.

“It’s an absolutely amazing privilege to work at Nike in one of the most storied prototyping studios in the world,” says Caesy. “They’ve taught me so much. They’ve refined my ability to make things at a level so much higher than before.”

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One quickly gathers that between Nike, Draught Dry Goods, and Odd Fellow Company (not to mention time with his girlfriend, two dogs, and enjoying a good meal), Caesy’s “work” is anything but.

“I’m blessed to be able to do this. It’s not lost on me. All the things that I do are aligned with my favorite thing in the world: I’m making stuff. It’s the entire expression of my creativity. This is a lifetime dream.”

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Favorite things:

Music
“I like to listen to a lot of rap and dance music.”

Magazines
System, Apartamento, Fantastic Man, The Gentle Woman, Purple, Document, Flaunt, Pop, Metal

“I used to get most of my inspiration from blogs or Tumblr or fashion sites that I would look at every day. But it was almost too much imagery and not enough true content. I made a decision to pivot that early morning time on the internet and replace all of it with reading publications. I read them cover to cover now, and it’s so much more valuable. There’s real substance. It’s not just a bunch of pictures.”

Community
“My community is huge. My best friends in town are all makers, and they’re amazing. People that will give you honest criticism and feedback. That sounds like some art school bullshit, but it’s real. It makes your work better.”

Brands
“I love Acne, 69, Common, Our Legacy, Visvm, Needles, Engineered, Valence. And, of course, my own shit!”

Shops
Open Ceremony (LA), Assembly, APC (New York)