If you’re a Jordan Brand enthusiast, then you’ve likely heard or seen the moniker “NRG” [read as Energy] accompany a pair of hyped sneakers. Over the years, the NRG has helped notable cultural figures like Travis Scott, Don C, Virgil Abloh, Aleali May and many others actualize their collaborative Air Jordans, each with a unique storytelling element that invites the wearer into the mind of its guest designer. The impact of these projects reverberates throughout Jordan Brand, maintaining its longstanding legacy and giving exposure to its ambitious new silhouettes. So, who exactly is behind the NRG division and what do they do?
Franklin Cooke, best known as @FrankCooker, is among the few names linked to Jordan Brand’s creative collective. Humble, yet necessary beginnings at Atlanta boutique Wish ATL helped set things off for Frank, as he went from a retail buyer to serving as Jordan’s collaborative liaison to the worlds of streetwear and hip-hop. With the recent release of the Air Jordan 1 “Nigel Sylvester” and forthcoming “No Ls” added to his growing portfolio, we chopped things up with Frank about his journey through the industry thus far, his thoughts on the secondary market, the NBA lifting some of its footwear restrictions and much more.
How’s everything on your end Frank?
Good man, how are you?
It’s been pretty good, I can’t complain. You ready to let sneakerheads inside the mind and life of Frank Cooker?
Yeah, let’s get to it.
Alright, so we’re gonna take it back to before the JB days. You worked as a buyer and creative at Wish ATL during the early ‘10s; what was the streetwear scene like during your time there?
Oh man, it was a great time. I think, for Atlanta, this city is so great and just the sheer talent when we talk about music, when we talk about movie production, when you talk about all these things that are going on, it’s like black mecca you know?
So it was just a ton of different scenes. You know, you got your rap scene, and you can go to the club. There were promoters, there were rappers, there were artists, there were a ton of people. An eclectic group of people always coming through to show love.
How did you even up at Wish ATL?
So I took on an associate role in my junior year of college, then I worked there part time. I actually left to move to Portland after I graduated from Atlanta University. I thought I was gonna get a gig there then but I didn’t, so Wish called me to be a buyer. So I came back in 2008 until 2014 and it was a great time.
I took a chance on being a buyer, I kind of went into it blind, but I knew I loved shopping, I knew I loved clothes, I knew I loved this subculture of streetwear and sneakers. So it all made sense. It’s cool because now when I look back, I thought that straight out of college I wanted to go straight to the big leagues, but Wish prepared me, and the relationships and all the great people I’ve met and the good projects I’ve worked on prepared me for Nike and gave me what I was missing.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, you went straight from Wish ATL to Jordan Brand?
Yes. So I had a little in between time just to get my thoughts together and Gemo [Wong] gave me a phone call. I went in as kind of part time for the first year and a half. So I was just a contractor. I was super thankful for that opportunity, and it was at the perfect time. To have that kind of access to product and to be able to work on such a high caliber was a challenge, but it worked out for the better.
So how did you end up on the NRG team?
So Gemo is the director of NRG and he said that he needed a designer, and it happened to be me…well, I’ll get to that later. He wanted me to join the team and NRG was just kind of starting off. There were a few things that they worked through, PSNY, Supreme and fragment [design]. They worked through that, so it was already great energy there. We just built upon the very thing that made Jordan, which was that exclusivity and people genuinely wanting quality product. We just wanted to take that a step further.
One of the things that I think we did as a team very well was storytelling. So branching off of that, you’ll get an Aleali May or a Nigel Sylvester and even a Travis Scott. You know, because these are the new stories that need to be told so the kids can relate.
Can you break down what exactly the NRG team does?
So there are two designers, me and Paul Savovici. We also have a PLM–product line manager–who’s Jeff Atienza. For example, during the design process they’ll come to us saying, “Hey, we need to break it down, we need to have, this, this, this on the line.” And then we create it. We’ll then tell the narrative and they’ll place it where we need to put it out. Gemo was the director and we have a developer, Brian Mitchell.
Basically, he’ll make sure that the product is what they want, that it passes testing, that all the specs are right, you know, the leathers are good and all the materials make sense and that we get to the best product possible. So a lot of the time we go against timelines to get the product back and make the best thing.
What was the first project you got to work on?
I’d say the first project that people gravitated towards was the Air Jordan 1 “Top Three.” It started out as the “What The” concept, which has always been a great one to me. It was always the one that stuck out in my mind and Air Jordan 1 is a staple in streetwear, a staple in culture. So at first, it started out with me trying to mix a bunch of them, but it just didn’t click well to me. Jeff Atienza was the one who came up with the “Top Three” theme. He was like, “Well, here, everybody loves the ‘Royals,’ the ‘Breds’ and the ‘Black Toes,’ so you might as well try to figure out how to do that.” That made a lot more sense to me.
A lot of the NRG releases end up selling for much more on the secondary market. As someone that has worked on both the retail and brand sides, what are your thoughts on the current state of reselling in the sneaker industry?
I think that reselling is a part of the whole sneaker game. With releases, it has to drive value, right?
So an important part is balancing everything out because resellers are needed. As much as people try to hate on resellers, it’s much needed because it controls the market. A lot of people base those decisions on outlets such as StockX, but to me, I’ve always been an enthusiast of style and what’s the narrative of the shoe. The storytelling and how can I relate to the shoe. Whether that’s shoe design or whether that’s new innovation. Retros aren’t reinventing the wheel, but you can make the wheel better, you know what I’m saying?
So it’s not like it’s anything new, but it’s also the way that it makes you feel, or the nostalgia. I think only music and footwear can take you there, you know what I’m saying? For me, I love to enjoy shoes. I love to enjoy what they are. I don’t know if you saw, but did you see the Air Jordan 1 “No L’s” that I made?
The yellow, black and white ones?
Yeah. A lot of people thought that was a shot at the reseller, and it wasn’t about that. It was about us taking the time to digest and actually enjoy shoes. Let’s not just as soon as we get them flip them, which is lucrative for people and I’m never gonna hate on that. But I feel like we don’t take the time to enjoy what we have because there’s a release week after week, it’s so saturated. How do we get back to just taking the time out and just “hold up, this shit is actually fucking dope.”
Taking it back to what makes the Jordan Brand what it is.
I wanted to take the approach of us getting back to wearing shoes and enjoying shoes. This time [in the sneaker industry] has been better than ever. The control that we have from the artistic standpoint to even just how sneakers are moving. I think it’s a great time and we just need to cherish that and make it move forward so we can open it up a little bit.
Because you mentioned names like Aleali May and Travis Scott, I wanted to get your thoughts on influencer marketing and pro athletes taking a backseat to musicians, entertainers and the like.
You know what, I wouldn’t say that. In my eyes I wouldn’t say that they take a backseat. Because if you have somebody like a PJ Tucker who’s just killing it during pregame and on-court…
We didn’t have that many outlets. We just saw Michael Jordan play or Penny or Iverson. These were the people that were in our face but now it’s kind of expanded because there’s different avenues in black culture than just having a “wicked jump shot.”
But it’s a much different industry compared to the 2000s…
For me, growing up seeing Allen Iverson–and I’m heavily tattooed–provided a lot for me as a kid. When I saw them on the cover of Slam or Sports Illustrated that was just the ultimate shit. I feel like now the athlete’s still very, very influential, it’s just in a different channel, you know what I’m saying? For us growing up–I was born in ‘85–all we had was TV, right?
We didn’t have that many outlets. We just saw Michael Jordan play or Penny or Iverson. These were the people that were in our face but now it’s kind of expanded because there’s different avenues in black culture than just having a “wicked jump shot,” you know? A woman can relate to Aleali because she can say “I can be the next Aleali,” or Nigel’s story of saying, “Hey, I came from New York and I have a bike which is a vehicle not only for me to get to other places, but for me to take my brand to the next level.”
That’s where I see it now, because again, there’s a lot more information [available] than back in the day and there’s a lot more positions and different kinds of occupations and options that kids can go to now. Back in the day, it was just either you were a clean cut white collar kind of guy or a blue collar kind of guy or you were a celebrity but there was not social media. It was just pure celebrity. So I think that’s where it changed, but I think that as long as they’re creating the narrative, or winning, or winning championships, I think the kid will always be involved with the athletes.
Continuing with the NBA, what are you thoughts on the league removing all color restrictions?
It’ll get very interesting. The one thing that the NBA hasn’t mastered is 3M reflection because of the cameras. I think it’s gonna be a great time. It’ll be a great time for storytelling. I just like the fact that footwear is even considered on such a high regard when it comes from the tunnel all the way to the game. You know, just to incorporate lifestyle into the game.
Now more than ever, you can kind of see fashion mixed with sport. I think that’s a great combination when you have those two.
And being tatted head-to-toe, what do you think of the NBA requesting players to cover their brand name tattoos?
That’s above me right there, I think that’s a little too much. I don’t know if I could answer that one. I don’t want no smoke with the league on that one. We can go to the next one. Next! [laughs]
No worries. So what’s a signature Jordan model that you want to work on?
That’s a great question…hmm…that’s a good one. I would probably say the 19.
Oh, that is a good one.
Yeah, the 19. Especially with the inspiration being fencing and it holds color well and the canvases are open enough for it to take color and to take materials, so I think it’s right in the perfect spot. I think that’s kind of Bloody’s [Osiris] thing, you know what I mean? The way that he takes game shoes and makes them fashionable is none other. I’ve never seen somebody able to do that the way that he does. Only a few people can take one of those high numbers and make it the shit. It’s like, “damn, he really splashed with that.”
I’m a big fan of the later numbers too, just because they were so ahead of their time, from like 18 and on.
Absolutely. You hit it right on the head. It’s like, damn, these things actually had crazy technology in them and now trying to recreate that and going back on it, it’s like, damn once you break down the shoe, like a 19, knowing that they use these different materials, whether it be some kind of flex-plate or some kind of cushioning that you didn’t see or pay attention to back in the day, now that I can break down sneakers I’m like, “damn, this shit is crazy!” This is a Ferrari, for real! You saw the outside of it but you never really broke down the leathers on the interior or what the internal engine really could do. Those shoes are like Ferrari’s man.
So going back to your relationship with Jordan brand; you shared on the Instagram that you decided to part ways. Tell us about that decision.
My time at Jordan Brand was nothing short of amazing, man. I mean, that’s a great company to work with; the experience, just to be in a magical place. For me, it was like being at Disneyland. The experience was just so great man, and the time there was unforgettable. I got to learn and travel and just experience the footwear industry as a whole and how things work behind the scenes such as breaking down materials and breaking down factories and things like that.
I got the true essence and education of footwear. Because I was just a true enthusiast growing up, so you knew a lot about sneakers, right, and I knew the knowledge of when they came out and who wore what. But it was like, the process, I got to learn the process and that’s one of the biggest things that I’m thankful for.
You mentioned that you want to help educate the sneaker industry, so if you were to teach a class on kicks, what are three topics that you would want to examine?
Hmm, I would say some kind of consumer research for one. Because without knowing who you’re making things for, or the purpose of what you’re designing, I feel like you can’t just design anything and just put it out in the world. You have to know exactly who you’re targeting. Secondly it’s honing in on the craftsmanship. People can call bullshit to me, you know what I mean? So how do you hone in on the details, how do you hone in from start to finish and what’s the box like, what’s the lacing that you’re gonna put in, how is the material going to hold up with people in New York and different areas if they’re on the go. Lastly I would say marketing and storytelling, because it’s a big part is merchandising. A big part of it is where are these shoes landing, what’s the accessibility to them? How do you make it special, you know? That’s what Jordan was built off of.
One of my favorite projects ever, if not the favorite, was the satin drop of 2018. I’m standing in the middle of New York City, the biggest city, the most fashionable city. So stores open up at 10:00-10:30 and nobody’s in line for shoes where only 500 have been made. In the most popular city and nobody’s there. So I felt like the whole city, they whole storytelling of it, the shoe being the most perfect shoe, from October 18 being the day that Jordan basically signed with Nike. So all that comes together and being the most craziest thing and nobody knows about it? It was just like magic.
I’m going to close out with a hypothetical question: so there’s a fire in your house, what’s the one pair of sneakers that you’re grabbing to save and why?
I’m going to have to go with the fragments. It has that appeal to it. If it wasn’t the fragments, I’d probably go with the Breds. I feel like if you wear whatever color, the fragment and kind of that black toe seal goes with anything. So I would have to go with the fragment AJ1.
I don’t want people to be like, “Yeah he would go with something that’s super limited.” I hate to be like that, but that’s my one shoe. I wasn’t working at Jordan Brand when I got mine, I wasn’t even at Wish.
fragment was a headline in itself. It dropped and I remember I was scrambling for it. I’m like, “This shit is ill!” I obtained a pair, and I was like, “Damn, these are it.” So it’s funny because as rare as they were and how they were flipping and all that shit, I wanted to put them on! I just started rocking them and whether they’re, you know, out the box or if they’re beat to shit, they just look good.
Be sure to follow Frank on Instagram at @frankcooker.