Origins examines some of the most iconic figures, brands, stores and neighborhoods in the Highsnobiety universe, breaking down how they left an unforgettable mark on street culture. This installment follows the career of British streetwear pioneer and king of Nike collabs Fraser Cooke.
Streetwear in the early ’90s was a wide-open space for people to define an emerging culture. In the US, it spread organically across the East and West Coasts, while in Japan it took a more premium, curatorial form.
In the UK, what happened was a synthesis of those two forms. Less connected to the hip-hop, surf, and skateboard subcultures of its American counterpart, and lacking the dedicated boutiques and premium manufacturing of Japan, the British embrace of streetwear involved a lot of traveling, bringing things back, and creating a culture fueled by fascination alone.
This is where Fraser Cooke comes in. Having started as a hairdresser, Cooke’s encounters with fashion figures in London led him to a position as a buyer at a store, the launch of two of the city’s most important streetwear outlets, and finally a position at Nike, where he heads up most of the brand’s biggest collaborations. Put simply, if it's hyped and has a Swoosh on it, it probably involved Cooke.
We spoke to the man himself to discuss a career that's gone from cutting hair to some of Nike's most important collabs.
Early days and NYC connection
Cooke’s first encounters with fashion came while working as a hairdresser in London's Soho district in the ’80s. There, he cut the hair of the manager of a store called Passenger, who invited him to work as a buyer.
“He wanted to get into American sportswear because at the time there wasn’t really much going on besides Stüssy,” Cooke explains. “So I quit the hairdressing and started going to New York every month. The inspiration came from other people around me, looking at hip-hop record covers — Public Enemy in the Starter jackets, for example. All that stuff that’s so easy to come by now was very far away and exotic at the time. Even small things had a bit of symbolism.”
Through his travels, Cooke struck up relationships with emerging names such as Don Busweiler of Pervert, a brand he distributed in the early ’90s, and Karl Templer, who ran the "Hype" section of The Face magazine. “[Busweiler] just gave us some T-shirts and I had a mate who used to run the 'Hype' section of The Face magazine, so I gave him those," Cooke says. "He stuck them in there with my phone number, and next thing you know, I’ve got all these people with stores calling me saying, ‘Can we stock this?’ Before I knew it, I was distributing.”
Cooke befriended Michael Kopelman, founder of distribution company Gimme Five and one of the most influential names in British streetwear. Their relationship led to the opening of London boutique Hit and Run in 1999, soon to be renamed The Hideout. With a logo by design legend Sk8thing (currently of Cav Empt) and a brand roster of Japanese labels unmatched anywhere else, The Hideout became the UK's prime streetwear spot.
“The difficult thing with Japanese product was that it was too expensive to wholesale to anyone," Cooke explains. "Once you’d shipped it, paid duties, and the rest, it was difficult to make a margin. If you had your own store, you gave yourself half a chance because you cut out that need for a secondary margin. Those British counterparts like [BAPE offshoot] Very Ape almost came from necessity because it was difficult to sell Japanese stuff, especially sat next to more reasonably priced American gear."
The Hideout stocked collections by BAPE and Let It Ride, among others, with UNDERCOVER's Jun Takahashi designing special T-shirts for the store. It also sold Supreme and special-edition Stüssy products, but the focus was more on what was coming out of Japan.
As sneakers became an integral part of "the look," brands took note of what The Hideout was doing and reached out. “A guy called Jason Fulton, who was doing an early iteration of what I now do at Nike, asked if we would stock these Nike Woven trainers," Cooke says. "We’d built up a vibe and were powerful enough within London that we let them take over the store for a pop-up, changing the shop name and pulling everything out so it was just exclusive Nike product, and it was a success.”
After a handful of exclusive releases such as the Nike Footscape and Clogposite, the idea of hard-to-come-by kicks gained momentum. In 2002, Cooke and Kopelman opened sneaker store Footpatrol, which like The Hideout became a hangout for the UK's small but dedicated gang of streetwear and sneaker enthusiasts. “It was a little bit of a club, in a way,” Cooke says. Through The Hideout and Footpatrol, Cooke and Kopelman had become the de facto gatekeepers of British streetwear.
Hired by Nike
Legendary graffiti artist Stash introduced Cooke to some higher-ups at Nike, who he proceeded to show around London, including a trip to Footpatrol. Shortly after, in 2003, Cooke was hired by the brand. His job title has changed over the years, but his role has remained largely the same: connecting Nike with the people driving culture in any form, from art and design to music and fashion.
“Your job is to be a catalyst, a communicator, a bridge between culture and the company, looking at the most authentic ways to work with those people in a back-and-forth dialogue,” he explains. Even before the Nike position, it was Cooke and Kopelman, for example, who helped design the first ever Nike x Stüssy collaboration in 2000, two colorways of the Nike Air Huarache LE.
Describing how he could approach potential collaborators in his Nike role, Cooke says, “The way we looked at it, when I moved over to Nike, it was like, ‘Well, this way we can help each other in a different way. You guys are the relevant ones, the company wants to work with you, and I can understand you better, whether it’s Hiroshi Fujiwara, or Slam Jam in Italy, or UNDEFEATED. I can help in a different way.’”
Debuting in 2010 and now one of Nike’s longest-running partnerships, the Gyakusou running line by UNDERCOVER’s Jun Takahashi was the result of a dialogue between Cooke and Takahashi over many years.
“I met Jun on my first ever trip to Japan, and whenever I went out there, I’d usually stay at his house," Cooke says. "He lived next door to Hiroshi Fujiwara, so Michael would stay there and I’d stay at Jun’s. We’d always had this desire to do something, but we couldn’t find a fit.
"But then [Jun] started to get into running at a time when there was this new movement in Nike to try and work with running crews, to amalgamate the cultural side of things with pure performance running. So I chatted to him and asked if it made sense, and he was like, ‘Absolutely. This is great. I already do fashion and don’t want to do fashion with Nike. If it’s sport, that brings something new and interesting for both of us.’”
Nike x Tom Sachs
The Swoosh's work with Tom Sachs on the NikeCraft Mars Yard shoe coincided with the artist's "SPACE PROGRAM 2.0: Mars" exhibition. Describing the collaboration's origins, Cooke says, “Mark Parker, someone I knew had an agency outside Nike who I still work with today, and someone who was working at the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, we all seemed to be intersecting with Tom Sachs." We now know those people to be Giorgio DeMitri at Sartoria and John Jay of then Wieden and Kennedy.
Cooke traveled to Portland with Sachs and his film collaborator Casey Neistat, and everything clicked. “That was a great project because it was really ‘art meets Nike,’ and it’s endured today. Those types of collaborations aren’t frequent, but there’s always depth to them.”
Nike x Riccardo Tisci
One of Nike’s most explosive collaborations was with then-creative director of Givenchy (now Burberry) Riccardo Tisci and came from a desire to rejuvenate the Air Force 1. “It’s probably the most iconic Nike shoe and one of the biggest individual franchises within the footwear portfolio," says Cooke.
“We’d been talking to Riccardo and knew he loved the shoe. At the time, he’d been working on [JAY-Z and Kanye West's] Watch the Throne and we’d worked with him since he was a student, supplying him with shoes for his catwalk shows through Nike Italy.”
When Nike launched its R.T. line in 2014, Tisci slotted in perfectly. “The thing with Riccardo is, what he was doing with Givenchy and his connections to music and culture in the US was a precursor to what Kim Jones did with Supreme and Louis Vuitton," Cooke explains. "He had authentic connections, understood it all, and understood the things I’d been a part of also. It was authentic, it made sense, and really was the beginning of what now has become high fashion and streetwear combined.”
Nike x sacai
Cooke considers Nike's work with Japanese womenswear label sacai an important milestone. Chitose Abe’s Nike releases generated consistent hype among women, something that was unusual in sneaker and streetwear culture at the time.
“It was the first time I’d seen girls lining up for product like that," says Cooke. "We really wanted to do something interesting for women, and although Chitose came from working for Junya Watanabe and COMME des GARÇONS, her team really understand sneakers. They incorporate all sorts of iconic streetwear designs and items into their collections and mash it up, which she’s brilliant at.”
Nike x OFF-WHITE “The Ten”
The biggest sneaker event in recent years has been Nike’s ongoing project with OFF-WHITE founder Virgil Abloh, which started in 2017 and offered Abloh-ified takes on 10 of Nike’s most coveted models. With alternative colorways dropping and selling out instantly throughout 2018, it seems "The Ten" fervor is yet to subside.
“Internally, people [at Nike] were talking about a collaboration when OFF-WHITE had just begun to pop up, but it didn’t quite feel right," says Cooke. Waiting for the right moment made "The Ten" even more rewarding. "I think the project we ended up doing with him has been really huge in terms of impact. We’re at a point where the scale is there now, and I’m not just talking in terms of numbers, but also in terms of visibility."
Regarding Abloh's own approach to "The Ten," Cooke says, “Virgil wanted to share access to his world — the people he’s looked up to and who he’s learned from. I think that was a really well-rounded project, with more stuff on the go.” _
Cooke’s role at Nike and his earlier achievements are a product of cultural connections driven by passion and good timing. And despite Nike's primary role as an athletic wear brand, Cooke sees a fascination with culture running through every corner of the company.
“Getting insights from people who are sport-related is the soul of the company," he says. "But when you’ve got a lot of designers, you’ll have some more influenced by industrial design, others by cars, and so on. These people have a broad appreciation of anything creative.”
Even among collaborators with no obvious links to sport, there's often a connection to be found. “Virgil, for example, played really high-level soccer in his youth, which opened us up to doing football product with him," Cooke says. "Matthew Williams of ALYX, again, used to play soccer. Jun Takahashi started running, so then it opened up an avenue to work with him.
“The longer you do it, the more you find ways of understanding how to click things together. But it only really works if it’s genuine — that’s the filter. And ultimately you learn from each other. They’re just as fascinated by us as we are by them.”