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Black History Month Spotlight: Why Frank Cooke Has a Love-Hate Relationship With the Corporate Side of Footwear

For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ series of feature. For 2020 we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodburry-Spencer, to design the series’ logo.

Like many in the footwear industry, designer and collaborator Frank Cooke pursued his career out of passion. Although enamored with the achievements of pro athletes including Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi and Bo Jackson, he was equally enthusiastic about their sneakers.

Where Cooke’s story is different from many of his peers is the caliber of product he’s been involved with: Several projects attached to his name have become touted as classics. Starting in the footwear business 20 years ago as a part-time retail associate, the shoe industry veteran produced much of his best work during his tenure at Jordan Brand from 2015 to 2019. Cooke was part of the design team that produced statement sneakers, including several Air Jordan 1s (“Top 3,” “Reverse Shattered Backboard 2.0,” the Nigel Sylvester and Colette collabs), the Air Jordan 4 for Travis Scott and more.

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For the 34-year-old, the road to becoming a respected sneaker designer was a long one.

“My first job was Footaction at like 14 and it was dope. I worked there until college. And then I worked at Wish ATL as a buyer and then as a collaborator and as a creative — that’s when collaborations were kind of fresh. Had a great run there, did some amazing projects with some amazing people,” Cooke said. “And then I got that phone call from [Jordan Brand senior design director for special projects] Gemo Wong to come on the NRG team in 2016 and the rest is history.”

Today, Cooke works freelance, helping retailers and celebrities bring their collaborative visions to life with an expertise only he can provide. His post-Jordan Brand resumé includes work with boutique UNKWN, retail standout Shoe Palace and reggaeton star J Balvin among others.

Here, Cooke talks about combatting stereotypes and why hiring minorities is more critical than “[filling] a quota.”

How do you leverage your diversity as a strength daily in your professional endeavors?

“By being unapologetically me. There’s always going to be hurdles and stereotypes and preconceived notions about who you are before anybody can meet you or know who you are to your core. I try to go out every day and break down barriers and do things for people who look like me. We don’t have to be accepted but our voices will be heard.”

How do you help other people of color gain access to the industry?

“There’s a lot of different avenues and that’s what I want to bring to light. There aren’t many creative options in the communities where we come from, so there needs to be more opportunities in these communities to be able to get into the sneaker industry. We should be able to have a chance to have our voice in this industry as well. A good avenue is college programs and after-school programs and also internships, but how many of us have the chance to get to those spaces? You don’t need a college degree to be creative, so those programs need to [exist] more in our community.”

Is this the responsibility of brands or educational institutions?

“Absolutely, brands and institutions, because I feel like, as black people, we’re good enough to support it or buy it, so we should be good enough to create it. And I can’t say that there’s absolutely no programs. [There’s the Jordan Brand] Wings program and there’s [the Jordan Brand-backed] A’s for J’s  — things like that. People are definitely trying to move it forward, but there needs to be a lot more.”

What barriers exist in expanding opportunities for African Americans in the footwear industry?

“Just the corporate structure of it all is very difficult to navigate. Even the process of recruiting. A lot of those jobs are internal jobs so how do you break through and say, ‘Hey, my talent should be considered as well.’ The percentage of African Americans and minorities in these companies is so slim, but if you look at where the product goes or where it’s most sold, it’s in black communities.”

What capabilities do people of color possess to overcome these barriers? 

“We’ve always had to overcome. We’ve always had to create, whether that be out of poverty or scraping from the bottom of the barrel. We always find a way. God makes a way for us. We’ve always had a wall up that we had to get through. It’s a tough thing but we always persevere.”

What is the role of companies and their leadership in eliminating barriers?

“There’s a huge responsibility on them. You have to do more than checking the box, it can’t be ‘We’re going to do inclusion; we’re going to get our numbers up to this percentage.’ There’s real action that needs to take place versus trying to fill a quota. There’s a lot of talent out here that gets overlooked and when it comes to being in that corporate structure, there needs to be a lot more mentorship for young corporate employees for them to learn how to navigate through the bulls**t.”

Want more?

Black History Month Spotlight: How Bimma Williams Is Making Sure People of Color Claim a Seat at the Table

Black History Month Spotlight: Portia Blunt Spearheaded New Balance’s First Black History Month Capsule

Black History Month 2020: Your Diversity Is Your Super Power

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