When JAY-Z dropped The Black Album in 2003 and announced that he was “retiring” from rap, he cited a lack of competition as the reason. “The game ain’t hot,” he told The New York Times. “I love when someone makes a hot album and then you’ve got to make a hot album. I love that. But [the game] ain’t hot.”
Hov made that statement almost 20 years ago, and, of course, was discussing the rap game — not the sneaker game. His opinion on the state of hip-hop in 2003 could be copied and pasted to describe sneakers in the final days of 2022, though. The game just ain’t hot. Sneaker culture is ever-changing and evolving, but over the last few years, it’s begun moving at warp speed, occasionally to the detriment of its overall substance. Storytelling, a core tenet of any “iconic” sneaker in the past, often seems to take a backseat to rapid-fire release calendars and vapid collaborations that are forgotten almost as soon as they touch shelves.
Frank Cooke sees it as his mission to challenge the ephemerality of modern-day sneaker culture. “I’m a designer by trade, but I view myself as more of a curator and storyteller,” he told Hypebeast during an August 2021 Sole Mates interview. His resume backed that statement up. During his time working on the NRG team at Jordan Brand — the group responsible for the Jumpman’s most coveted collabs and rare releases — Cooke led the charge on culture-defining projects like the Nigel Sylvester x Air Jordan 1, the Air Jordan 1 “Not For Resale” and the Air Jordan 1 “Top 3,” shoes that helped shift the trend pendulum away from adidas and a certain bombastic rapper’s collaborative efforts while also kicking off an era of outstandingly-designed, story-backed drops from the Jumpman. “I thought the way Frank told a story with his collaborative products was A1,” Cooke’s longtime co-conspirator Nigel Sylvester told Hypebeast in his own Sole Mates interview.
Then, in October 2018, Cooke left Jordan Brand. The news sent shockwaves through the industry and the sneaker interwebs alike. Cooke seemed to be at the height of his powers. What was going on? “You can get lost and wrapped up in the corporate structure at any company that big,” Cooke noted over a video call from his home in Portland. Before the Jumpman Cooke cut his teeth at famed Atlanta boutique Wish ATL, so the adjustment to a corporate lifestyle was a culture shock. “I’ve always loved all kinds of brands, so being able to work on just one brand, even one as great as Jordan Brand, was more challenging for me than I realized at the time,” he reminisces. “At the boutiques, you’re always on the hunt for a ‘shock factor,’ something that’s cool and unique, while at a corporate company you want to find that, but scale it back so it’s more palatable.”
Cooke also notes that the different standards for success at a larger business required an adjustment as well: where he was used to 100% of his products selling through at Wish, sometimes sell-through on a Jordan Brand product would be under 50%. A footwear titan like Jordan Brand will, of course, have a much higher output — both in terms of overall styles and production numbers — than a boutique, but for Cooke, who was used to seeing every one of his creations blow off shelves, this required another shift in perspective
The designer holds himself to extremely high standards, and occasionally found numbers of this nature difficult to stomach. “I’d definitely get down on myself, man!” he says with a hearty laugh. This statement, and its delivery, are a microcosm of Cooke’s personality: he’s easygoing, friendly and quick with a smile but his genuine happy-go-lucky shell can belie his fierce drive and determination. That’s to say nothing of the mental struggles a creative who’s hard on themselves can face, which may lead to self-medication. Towards the end of his time at Jordan Brand, and after he left the company to pursue freelance opportunities, Cooke’s alcohol intake increased. “When you’re dealing with addiction, you think you have it all under control,” he says. “I was functioning at a high level so I thought alcohol was part of the creative process even though it was a crutch.”
And function at a high level after Jordan Brand Cooke did, working on projects with J Balvin, Aleali May and Nigel Sylvester. To the outside world, everything seemed fine. On the inside, however, Cooke started having an inkling that he needed to lead a healthier lifestyle. He began working on cutting back his alcohol intake bit by bit, but soon a more rapid change would be necessitated. Though Cooke indicated he never had any day-to-day lingering effects from his drinking, he shared that things “went south” one day earlier this year and he found himself in the emergency room.
The designer notes that his trip to the hospital was the “wake-up call” he needed and because he has an addictive personality (a characteristic he shares with many sneaker collectors) a “hard stop” was in order. “Getting sober is a very personal journey and it’s different for everyone,” Cooke said, pointing out that the path to sobriety can be achieved in many different ways. He also noted the reduced burden on his mind, stating “Creatively I feel like I have a much clearer view on where to go with a project and how to execute, where in the past I’d have good ideas, but would have trouble connecting them and seeing them all the way through.”
Cooke had made a major lifestyle change, and, as it so often does after a shift in perspective, opportunity came knocking. Shoe Palace was in need of a creative director, and Cooke, after his extended freelance stretch, was looking to have a structure around him once again. Though he acknowledged he was tentative to return to a corporate environment at first, he noted that his experiences at Jordan Brand and his time freelancing gave him a unique view.
“I have a wider perspective now because I’ve seen both sides of the same coin. I used to really stand my ground because I believed in what I was creating, but I learned the value of teamwork and creative collaboration.” The designer also noted that though Shoe Palace is a corporate company (situated under the vast JD Sports umbrella) the work culture is more of a “middle ground,” blending the free-thinking and freewheeling spirit of working at a boutique with the structure and resources of a larger, more traditional business — the perfect amalgamation of styles for someone who has experiences in both spheres.
When asked what excites him the most about his new role, Cooke doesn’t hesitate. “In the past, I got a chance to work on a lot of high-energy ‘exclusive’ products. I’m looking forward to trying to make general release products just as special this time around.”
Making a general release product feel “special” in today’s hype-and-scarcity-driven world of sneakers is a tall task, but Cooke believes his signature blend of design prowess and storytelling chops makes it a perfect challenge to him. “It’s all about finding the perfect balance of design and curation,” he says. “I want to mold those two things together. We get to work with so many different brands that I can tell stories — which is my biggest strength — from a bunch of different perspectives and angles.” A good storyteller never gives away the end of the tale too soon though, so Cooke cheekily hints at upcoming projects for 2023, including an A-list collaboration that’s set to drop next Halloween.
“None of the shoes I designed in the past said ‘Frank Cooke’ on them because I wanted people to take the shoe I designed and make it their own instead of imposing my story on it.”
Besides his new beginnings at Shoe Palace, Cooke is, for the first time ever, expanding his personal brand. “In the past, I’d never really been into using my own name for branding,” he said. “None of the shoes I designed in the past said ‘Frank Cooke’ on them because I wanted people to take the shoe I designed and make it their own instead of imposing my own story on it.”
However, Cooke realized that there was a desire for him to share more of his personal story, that his own experiences resonated with a large portion of his audience and that working on his own personal projects could help him craft a different vision than he did with his Shoe Palace work (Cooke notes that the Shoe Palace team encouraged him to pursue his own designs on the side).
The first Frank Cooke product? A special take on Saucony’s classic Jazz 81, limited to 750 pairs and sold exclusively at APB, one of the businesses that make up longtime Cooke cohort James Whitner’s The Whitaker Grp. For Cooke, taking the road less traveled for his first solo collaboration was an easy choice “Doing a prime Jordan or a classic Nike sneaker and making it shake is one thing,” he muses. “When you tell a story on a shoe that’s not on people’s ‘grail’ list or blazing the market, it’s a different type of fun — and shows if you really have the juice!”
To Cooke, just because something is expensive doesn’t mean that it’s luxurious. The Jazz is a perfect example of that hypothesis: it uses shaggy suedes for a premium feel, but still slides in at an even $100 USD, an anomaly in today’s increasingly high-priced world of athletic footwear. It was important for Cooke to make a shoe that was affordable, both for its general accessibility and because the price point tied into his personal story: though he’d occasionally be rewarded with a pricy pair for good grades or as a Christmas present during his childhood, his back-to-school shopping was strictly limited to the classic Foot Locker 2 for $89.99 deal, which included the Jazz 81.
“The Jazz was respected, it was different,” Cooke says. “It was affordable, but that didn’t mean it was underdeveloped — it always had high-quality materials and good color schemes.” The subtle-meets-standout color scheme that blends murky blacks and greys with vibrant pinks and purples is a key piece of Cooke’s Jazz collaboration too, as he notes that his parents often wanted him to buy simple-colored shoes to match his school uniforms, while he pushed towards more wildly-colored models, even buying women’s colorways when he liked their colorblocking.
This inspiration is directly called out on the Frank Cooke x Saucony Jazz 81’s insole and inner box lid, with a handwritten “note” from a seventh-grade Cooke to his parents. “I’ve always had a style where my shoes never really had to match,” he says. “My sneaker selections as a kid were very androgynous, and I wanted to be sure to communicate that on this product.”
“I want to tell stories that make people feel seen and heard, and by doing so open up doors for the next kid like me.”
As our conversation winds down, Cooke takes a moment to reflect on what the future may hold for him. He’s just beginning a new chapter of life both personally and professionally, but is still looking towards the future — and what comes to his mind is community.“I want to make sure that whatever I do is rooted in community. I want to tell stories that make people feel seen and heard, and by doing so open up doors for the next kid like me. There’s always someone in the next generation who has bigger dreams than you do.”
Until the day that the next generation walks through that door, Cooke is — to quote The Black Album — “back like Jordan, wearin’ the 4-5,” on a mission to make the game hot again.
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