July 16, 2017

Interview: Jeff Cole on Sneaker Art that Stops You Scrolling

Jeff Cole’s Insta depiction of Kanye wearing a ‘Zebra’ space suit stopped us in our thumb-scrollin’ tracks recently. Turns out Cole’s not the full-blown sneaker enthusiast you might think he is – more a long-time art hustler with a straight up desire to inject a little extra visual poetry into our daily rotation.

Let’s get into it. How did you get into sneaker art?
I’d always been an illustrator and I’d been working for companies, but I started thinking, ‘If I could do this on my own, what would I do? So, I started conceptualising how I could get people’s attention. I knew that the sneaker market was booming on Instagram, and I wanted to lay a story behind a sneaker besides its colourway. Mostly you see a one-liner about the shoe – ‘Jordan, “Royal Blue”’ – and I thought there was such a bigger world behind the shoe.

So how do you make sneakers into a story?
The best way is to reimagine them as something that pop culture likes and can easily relate to. When people are scrolling fast on the page, what makes them say, ‘What the fuck was that?’ So, I made one. The first one I made was the ‘Red October’ at the start of 2013.

Don’t you think brands are already telling stories with releases?
Well, yes, but I definitely think that all these brands could be telling deeper stories. I think the best company doing it right now is Jordan. There are so many materials and so much design and intricacy that goes into them – shoes are the most intricate accessory that human beings wear in their everyday lives. Obviously a shoe with a story is going to be easier for me to work with, but I also think it’s fun taking something minimal and creating a bigger story.

Are you forever seeing characters when you look at sneakers now?
I mean, yes. With any shoe, it’s definitely on my mind. When I’m shopping for myself, I don’t think of it, but when I’m in my creating mode I’m in a completely different mindset. I guess I have a buyer’s mentality and then a creator’s mentality when it comes to sneakers.

So what came first, art or sneakers?
Definitely art. I got really into art, semi-professionally, as a kid. It started from basketball. I used to play when I was young and, being from Chicago, my idol was Michael Jordan. Everything I drew in class was Michael Jordan. I have folders and folders’ worth of stuff. I remember when the Nokia wireless phones first came out, kids would pay me to paint Jordan logos on the back of their phones

You’ve been marketing since a young age then?
Yeah. It’s always come naturally, so I’ve been wired to think the way I do. This past year and a half, everything came full circle and I figured out how I wanted to break through [the market] in a sense. Probably 10‑15 percent of my work is what you see on Instagram.

Really? What are you doing with the rest of your time?
I do freelance branding for other companies: tech companies doing user experience, user interface or packaging for products. I just founded my own art canvas company called Ikonick, which is taking up a bunch of my time. And I’m getting some pretty cool gigs – sneaker art stuff that I do in my free time.

Your work stands out from the crowd. What do you think makes you different?
Honestly, I think it’s ideas. In shoe terms, I think I’m pretty far above in terms of execution, but that’s really not the element that separates me – it’s more my ability to tie my ideas together. It’s also speed.

How long does it take you to pump out a piece?
That I can’t say. That’s the one thing I don’t tell.

That fast, huh?
Just because there can be conflict with companies’ contracts. I want to keep some sort of mysterious element to it. But speed is definitely my competitive element. I don’t think anyone can put out content at my quality and speed.

You’ve said you enjoy Jordans, but we’re also seeing a lot of adidas on your page. Do you prefer working with adidas over other brands?
I honestly don’t. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m a Jordan or an adidas guy,’ but I know they have to have competition – the Bulls wouldn’t have won six championships if they didn’t have six competitors. But at the end of the day, it’s not up to you, it’s up to the market.

One shoe that’s exploding in the market right now is Nike’s Air VaporMax, but I haven’t seen it on your page. What’s up with that?
It’s funny, I’ve been trying. I liked some ideas but I’m like, ‘Ah, do I do it?’ It’s definitely something I have on my list.

So the VaporMax is proving harder than others?
Yeah. It’s definitely cool because of the Air sole and different textures but I haven’t nailed any concept that I’m really excited about yet. We’ll see.

Are there any pieces that have particularly boosted your profile?
I think the best early one was the Just Don 2 merged with Sonic the Hedgehog. That one did really well. But anything I do that’s different, like the Jordan 1 on a Lamborghini; no one had ever seen shoes on a car before that. My personal favourite, where things levelled up, was the Jordan space helmet I did with the True Blues.

Wait, so you were the first, or one of the first, to put sneaker designs on cars?
I think I was. The first one was actually a Yeezy. I did the ‘Turtle Dove’ Lamborghini and that went crazy. Shortly after that I did the Jordan, then I started doing a bunch of car ones. But yeah, the ‘Turtle Dove’ Lambo was the first one in the space.

Wow, that concept really took off then.
Yeah. It sucks that no one’s reached out and wanted to actually put these [ideas] to life. I’ve been getting a lot of people DM’ing me pictures of actual cars inspired by my designs; like today someone just did the ‘Top Three’ Jordan 1 on their Lexus, but I want to do one to scale to make it come to life.

Must be hard out here for someone trying to paint a Lambo.
Yeah, I just don’t want to pay for it! But if the company was smart they’d hit me up. So if you know anyone…

Anyone who would like Jeff Cole to paint their Lambo can contact him here

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