Streetwear has always been defined as a conglomerate of different cultures, a genre fabricated from skateboarding, graffiti, music and more. Graphics have always been a key ingredient in this mix – from skate graphics of the early 2000s to visual icons like the BAPE ape head or the Supreme box logo – and the graphic T-shirt has eventually become synonymous with streetwear. Now designer Jeff Cole is bringing pop culture references into the fold in a new way, blending sneaker designs with the most recognizable characters from movies, television and video games.
While the designs may be conceptually simple to describe – i.e. a YEEZY Lamborghini – the final results are intricately made, visually compelling, and completely perfect for Instagram. Cole’s account is garnering quite a bit of attention from kids who love seeing his original Air Jordan x Spiderman mashups, but also celebrities who want to hang his work in their walls, and brands like Air Jordan who are interested in how he is re-imagining their products.
We caught up with Cole to get to know him a bit better, check out our interview below.
First, tell us about yourself. Did you go to school for graphic design?
My first memories as a kid were of drawing. My preschool teacher told my parents they should put me in art classes after seeing some of my early “work.” From then on I took private classes doing everything from sculpting to painting. I took an interest in basketball and hip-hop culture at a very early age. Being from Chicago Michael Jordan was my idol growing up. I would draw him or anything related to the Bulls any chance I got.
I was more of a hustler artist growing up, I was painting Jordan logos on Nokia phones and selling them to my friends in junior high, or transferring drawings on shirts to sell. I majored in studio art with a focus in illustration in college, but it wasn’t until after college I jumped on the computer to start freelance designing and making some money. From there I did everything from designing merch for artists, mixtape covers at Def Jam, corporate package design, product design for luxury brands, UI for tech companies, so I’ve done a lot at a young age. All the work you see on my Instagram is only 10 percent of what I’ve created as a whole.
What programs are you using for your work?
I mainly worked with illustrator for years since it was a natural transition from studio art. In 2013, I challenged myself to learn photoshop, I wanted to morph Kanye’s face with the Red Octobers. That’s where the sneaker art came from. So now I work mainly with photoshop. A lot of people think I use 3D rendering programs, but I don’t.
A lot of your work bridges between video games, movies and sneakers. Is that the sweet spot for your content? Is that a reflection of your personal interests?
It wasn’t until 2013 when Kanye dropped the 350 Boost, when I wanted to do another mashup. That design circulated through a ton of sneaker accounts. I wanted to bring something unique to a community that was already booming on Instagram. That triggered my interest to reverse-engineer people’s habits on social media. Everyone scrolls quickly on Instagram and Facebook so I needed to grab their attention quick. My idea was to tie together things that are easily recognizable and relevant to culture and nostalgic. The end product had to be highly engaging and sharable.
From there, I’ve been blessed with a very supportive community of fans. It’s amazing to see so many accounts and companies have an interest in what I’m creating. It all started as a hobby and a love for pushing myself as an artist.
The sweet spot is tying relevant and nostalgic characters with upcoming hyped shoe drops. But there are always exceptions. Over the many years of creating I’ve learned to leave emotion and personal interests out of my work. The market will choose what it likes and doesn’t like.
Do you ever have a difficult time coming up with ideas?
Coming up with the ideas is definitely the hardest part. That’s kind of where I take the most pride. A lot of musicians don’t write their own lyrics. But in my case, I formulate every word. Execution of an idea is the fun part. The process of arranging sneaker elements like a puzzle is very therapeutic to me.
If you could choose one image on your IG to bring to life, what would it be?
It’s very hard to pick one. I’ve done hundreds over the past year. But one that has a special place in my heart is the Just Don x Air Jordan II x Sonic. It’s the only design I almost quit in the middle of making, but I pushed through and it became the most-liked photo on my page. Just a lesson I learned to never quit.
But hopefully one day I get to wrap my own supercar in one of my own designs. That’s a goal for sure.
I noticed Nick Young took an interest in your art, have you been commissioned by any other celebrities?
I’ve seeded Kanye the Red October canvas. All the other work I designed for my brand IKONICK. I’ve sold those pieces to people like DeAngelo Russell and Kristaps Porziņģis. I provided all the artwork and brand direction for this brand called Active Dreamers, which opened doors to a ton of NBA guys. I designed for Steph Curry, and most of the top guys in the NBA. Just now I’m getting a ton of inquiries from celebrities for my sneaker art. Chris Brown has hit me up, and a couple of NBA guys want logos.
What are some of your favorite sneakers? Have you always been into sneakers?
I have an even Jordan-to-adidas ratio right now. Those are my two favorite shoe brands. Jordans remind me of my childhood and adidas reminds me of the present. My favorite Jumpman sneaker is the Jordan VI “Carmine” and my favorite adidas sneaker is the YEEZY Boost 350 V2 “Zebra.” As a kid, I was always into sneakers. My dad was actually a bigger “sneakerhead” than me. He would take me out of school to cop new shoes. He even had the Dada spinner shoes.
Lastly, where can people buy your work?
Right now you can find a small selection on my art canvas site IKONICK.com, along with a lot of other art that isn’t sneaker related. I’m currently working on selling them all though as the requests have been overwhelming. So stay tuned!
Makes sure to stay updated by following @Highsnobietysneakers on Instagram.