Onisha “Oni” Román has always been good with her hands. Oni’s telling us stories of her childhood on a quiet Saturday afternoon at the studio and living space that serves as the +FRESH.i.AM+ headquarters. Yet instead of marveling at the style wonders her fingers have created over the years, our conversation carries over to the pain they have endured.
“Do you see my hands now?! This is from the iron, I burned myself really bad,” Oni says pointing at some newer battle wounds. “You just build the callous’ and just hope that they don’t look too crazy.”
As the First Lady of and production lead for +FRESH.i.AM+ Oni will gladly take her nicks from “playing with colors” if it means continuing to make a living where she is her own boss . The Puerto Rican-born style wunderkind, along with her boyfriend, Tunde Ogunnoiki and C. Will, is one of the lead creative minds behind +Fresh.i.AM+, arguably the most influential local street style name to come out of Atlanta in recent years.
As a teen, Oni ended up in ATL by way of her father’s military background and the family’s connection to a friend of her mother’s. A “Goth kid” in high school who later designed costumes for herself and others to wear at raves, Oni realized she wanted to make a living creating clothes. While working in the Spelman College bookstore, and pushing her own fashion line, Oni met Tunde and C. Will and later started sewing bad words on hats and the like other garments.
Always cool and introspective, Oni shared her story with 13thflr.
Initially, you weren’t sold on ATL the first time you moved here. What were your first impressions of the city
It was pretty redneck, but that was like in the late ‘90s up in Alpharetta, before Alpharetta became what it is now. I came there when I was in elementary school and the first two questions that were asked of me were; “What school are you going to, Georgia Tech or UGA?” and, “What religion are you?” And then they were just dumbfounded at the fact I didn’t have like a specific religion. They were like, “Oh my God, you have to be Christian! You believe in God, right?!” I just thought that was really weird to me.
Were you always good at making things from scratch? Can you remember the first thing you made with your hands?
I used to draw a lot. I got a sketchbook for Christmas and I sketched my aunt’s cat. As far as making stuff, I did make a pillow with my grandmother. We made a little horse on a carriage and we sewed that together.
When you first met Tunde, you had something already made for him. What exactly was that?
I had been working on menswear, and I had these textiles that were really soft, and I had been making these boxer shorts that had all these bright colors. So I made him a pair of boxers, which sounds kind of taboo, but whatever. He loved them and he literally wore them until they fell apart. He then asked me, “Can you sew letters on hats?” I was like, “Yeah.”
How tough were those early days when you were literally sewing everything on the hats?
I was doing the bookstore fulltime and I would come home drained, but then continue to work with +FRESH.iAM+. I’d come home, take a break and then work till two or three in the morning. It got to the point where I had to start taking time off of work. Tunde, he was the one that was pulling me. He was like, “I promise you if you quit we’ll be able to support you and it will be OK.”
When did you realize your work had paid off? When did you realize y’all were “OK”?
Once it was able to support me. I was still weary. But it wasn’t really anything until I was finally able to quit. We’re taking care of ourselves, some of our interns and our contractor. Seeing just the growth of her business alone; she’s been able to hire six or more people. She’s slowly moving her family down here because of us.
You once told me it’s important for young kids getting into fashion and art to learn trades, why is that important for them and to you?
When you make something yourself you just add more value to it. You understand how it’s made and it’s just not like this arbitrary sort of whatever. Whether they make it to give it away or whether they make it to keep it. I do it because I don’t want to feel helpless, and that’s something that I can always do for myself. It’s more of an empowering thing so that way people can start going on their own and innovations can happen. I heard back in the early 1900’s Atlanta used to be a big manufacturing city, and I kind of want that for the city again because it seems like there’s a lot of people who are just kind of sitting around and waiting for help and not doing stuff for themselves.
As far as your work and +FRESH.i.AM+ is that always the hope, to inspire the DIY attitude? What’s the imprint you kind of hope you’re leaving?
I want people to be able to take care of themselves and not look to somebody else. Yea, the times are tough, but if you have a needle and some thread and the knowledge then you can start making money. I think the way that I help with that is that I show people, I reeducate people that this is a possibility. Even when I’m looking for contractors, they’re all older women, grandmothers and they’re surprised to see me. I also show kids that there is another way and you can’t just throw it all to China. The cost may be cheaper, but it kind of makes us want more for less, and then we wonder why we have shanty towns down the street and everyone’s poor and hungry and nobody knows what to do for themselves. As far as empowering people and helping people wake up out of the mindset that you need to wait for someone to do something for you, I think that’s very important.
Photography by Kelsey Ryan