When JAY-Z fell The Black Album in 2003 and announced that he was “retiring” from rap, citing a lack of competition as the reason. “The game is not hot,” he told me New York Times. “I love when someone makes a hot album, and then you have to make a hot album. I love it. But [the game] is not hot.”
Hov made that statement almost 20 years ago, and of course was discussing the rap game – not the sneaker game. However, his opinion on the state of hip-hop in 2003 could be copied and pasted to describe sneakers in the final days of 2022. The game just isn’t hot. Sneaker culture is constantly changing and evolving, but over the last few years it has begun to move at warp speed, sometimes at the expense of its overall substance. Storytelling, a core tenet of every “iconic” sneaker of the past, often seems to take a back seat to quick-release calendars and silly collaborations that are forgotten almost as soon as they hit shelves.
Frank Cooke sees it as his mission to challenge the ephemerality of modern sneaker culture. “I’m a designer by trade, but I see myself as more of a curator and storyteller,” he told Hypebeast during an August 2021 Single mates interview. His resume supported this statement. During his time working on the NRG team at Jordan Brand – the group responsible for Jumpman’s most coveted collaborations and rare releases – Cooke led the charge on culture-defining projects such as the Nigel Sylvester x Air Jordan 1, the Air Jordan 1 “Not For Resale” and Air Jordan 1 “Top 3,” shoes that helped swing the trend pendulum away from adidas and a certain bombastic rapper’s collaboration, while also ushering in an era of uniquely designed, story-backed drops from the Jumpman. “I thought the way Frank told a story with his collaborative products on was A1,” Cooke’s longtime co-conspirator Nigel Sylvester told Hypebeast in his own way. Single mates interview.
Then, in October 2018, Cooke left Jordan Brand. The news sent shockwaves through the industry and the sneaker interwebs. Cooke appeared to be at the height of his powers. What happened? “You can get lost and wrapped up in the corporate structure of such a large company,” Cooke noted over a video call from his home in Portland. Before Jumpman Cooke cut his teeth at famed Atlanta store Wish ATL, so adapting to a corporate lifestyle was a culture shock. “I’ve always loved all kinds of brands, so to be able to work with just one brand, even one as good as Jordan Brand, was more challenging for me than I realized at the time,” he recalls. “In stores you’re always looking for a ‘shock factor’, something cool and unique, whereas in a corporate company you’ll find it but scale it back so it’s more palatable.”
Cooke also notes that the different standards of success in a larger business also required an adjustment: where he was used to 100% of his products selling through on Wish, sometimes the sell-through on a Jordan Brand product would be less than 50%. Of course, a footwear titan like Jordan Brand will have a much higher output—both in terms of overall styles and production numbers—than a store, but for Cooke, who was used to seeing every one of his creations blow off the shelves, a new shift in perspective was required
The designer holds himself to extremely high standards, and has occasionally found numbers of this kind difficult to bear. “I would definitely go down on myself, man!” he says with a hearty laugh. That statement, and its delivery, is a microcosm of Cooke’s personality: he’s easy-going, friendly and quick with a smile, but his genuine happy-go-lucky shell belies his fierce drive and determination. That’s to say nothing of the mental struggles a creative person who is hard on themselves can face, which can 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 everything under control,” he says. “I was functioning at a high level, so I thought alcohol was part of the creative process, even if 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. However, on the inside, Cooke began to have an inkling that he needed to lead a healthier lifestyle. He started working on cutting down his alcohol intake bit by bit, but soon a faster change would be necessary. Although Cooke indicated that he never had any day-to-day lingering effects from drinking, he did share that things “went south” one day earlier this year and he found himself in the emergency room.
The designer notes that the trip to the hospital was the “wake-up call” he needed, and because he has an addictive personality (a trait 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, noting that the path to sobriety can be achieved in many different ways. He also noted the reduced strain on his mind, stating, “Creatively, I feel like I have a much clearer view of where to go with a project and how to execute, where before I had great ideas but would have trouble with to connect with them and see them all the way.”
Cooke had made a major lifestyle change and, as so often happens after a change in perspective, opportunities came. Shoe Palace needed a creative director, and Cooke, after his extended freelance stretch, was looking for some structure around him again. Although he admitted that he was wary of returning to a corporate environment at first, he noted that his experiences at Jordan Brand and his time as a freelancer gave him a unique perspective.
“I have a broader perspective now because I have seen both sides of the same issue. 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 although Shoe Palace is a corporate company (located under the huge JD Sports umbrella), the work culture is more of a “middle ground”, blending the free-thinking and free-wheeling spirit of working in a shop with the structure and resources of a larger , more traditional business — the perfect amalgamation of styles for someone who has experience in both areas.
When asked what excites him 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 order, but Cooke believes his signature blend of design prowess and storytelling makes it the perfect challenge for him. “It’s about finding the perfect balance between design and curation,” he says. “I want to fuse the two things together. We get to work with so many different brands that I can tell stories – which is my greatest strength – from a bunch of different perspectives and angles.” A good storyteller never gives away the end of the story too soon, so Cooke cheekily hints at upcoming projects for 2023, including an A-list collaboration set to drop next Halloween.
“None of the shoes I designed previously said ‘Frank Cooke’ on them because I wanted people to take the shoe I designed and make it their own instead of forcing my story on it.”
In addition to his new beginnings at Shoe Palace, Cooke is expanding his personal brand for the first time ever. “In the past, I had never been interested in using my own name for branding,” he said. “None of the shoes I designed previously said ‘Frank Cooke’ on them because I wanted people to take the shoe I designed and make it their own instead of forcing 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 part of his audience and that working on his own personal projects could help him create another 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 site).
The first Frank Cooke product? A special version of 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 “Making a premium 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 that’s burning the market, it’s a different kind of fun – and shows if you’ve really got the juice!”
For Cooke, just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s luxurious. The Jazz is a perfect example of that hypothesis: it uses shaggy suede for a premium feel, but still slips in at a steady $100 USD, an anomaly in today’s increasingly expensive world of athletic footwear. It was important to Cooke to create a shoe that was affordable, both for its general availability and because the price point related to his personal history: although he was occasionally rewarded with a more expensive 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.
“Jazz was respected, it was different,” says Cooke. “It was affordable, but that didn’t mean it was underdeveloped—it always had high-quality materials and good color choices.” The subtle and unique color scheme that mixes dark blacks and grays with vibrant pinks and purples is also a key part of Cooke’s Jazz collaboration, as he notes that his parents often wanted him to buy simple shoes to match his school uniforms, while he pushed against more wildly colored models, and even bought women’s colorways when he liked their color blocking.
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 fit,” he says. “My sneaker choices 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 in doing so open up doors for the next kid like me.”
As our conversation ends, Cooke takes a moment to reflect on what the future may hold for him. He’s just started a new chapter in his life both personally and professionally, but still looks to the future – and what comes to his mind is community. “I want to make sure that what I do is rooted in the community. I want to tell stories that make people feel seen and heard, and in doing so open doors for the next kid like me. There is always someone in the next generation who has bigger dreams than you.”
Until the day 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.