The Market Makers – A Conversation with Fraser Cooke and Hiroshi Fujiwara

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“Perhaps their lateness is some form of divine intervention?”…

As I thought to myself.  Seated in a café nestled behind flashy dance clubs and trendy boutiques, I watched weekend revelers packed into alleyways in the popular East District of Taipei City.  Still the streets are congested even more so this Friday night.  Making the vehicular traffic from the usual trickle to non-existent.  The reason – Kobe Bryant’s visit to Nike’s TPE 6453 Gallery 2 doors down.  But I’m in this city of 2 million plus not to absorb the scenery or to join the festivities of Bryant’s Asia Tour.  Instead, I’m here to meet 2 other personalities in Taiwan this weekend Hiroshi Fujiwara and Fraser Cooke.

“This question just doesn’t sound right, does it?”…

I whispered out loud. An unintended reply of “Huh?” came to my left from an attendant pouring my third coffee refills.  The question in doubt is inquiring both Hiroshi Fujiwara and Fraser Cooke their definitions of what is an “influencer”.  Luckily, the localized traffic jam gave me time to appraise it.  Most of us have titles as a mean for identification. Some, like doctors and professor, earned those titles through scholarship and experience.  On rarer occasions, titles are bestowed by third parties, as in the case of both Fujiwara and Cooke and the title “influencers”.  Except, it is inaccurate.  Both gentlemen are more than just industry movers, they are “market makers”.

“So how are they different?”…

Pondering while spinning my pen in on my palm. “Influencers” worked within the perimeters of a market, setting trends based on predetermined standards.  “Market makers”, on the other hand, established new markets with ease.  Breaching against tested trend formulas and creating genres unlike others in the marketplace.  One example is Fujiwara’s Fragment Design.  Despite the current recession, worst than the one hit Japan in the early 90s.  Fragment Design and related products continue sold out in stores.  Even before joining Nike Brand Energy Group, Cooke’s involvement in pairing artists with merchandisers sparked the current trend of collaboration projects.  Similar to mavericks of the old American West, both are exploring new resources for their creativity in various forms as regular magazine columnist, architectural acoustic designer, new materials tester, and more…

“The phone is ringing?”…

My train of thought scrambled.  Apparently, both gentlemen made their way through the maddening crowd.  I looked down at my notepad one last time and crossed out the question on the definition of an “influencer”.  It is obvious, both are more than just that…

A Conversation with Fraser Cooke, Nike Global Energy Director and Hiroshi Fujiwara

First of all, welcome to Taiwan.Hiroshi, Taiwan always had a close affinity with Japanese popular culture. This is especially true in recent years with the influx of urban trends, new media, and progressive designs. What are your perspectives on this?

Hiroshi: Yeah, both countries share a close relationship. It’s all over the world. If I go to London and Paris it’s kind of the similar thing.

So you have been here for a day or two?

Fraser: Not even a day.

Wow, not even twenty-four hours. Well, what stood out here in Taiwan when you first landed?

Fraser: For me it was like, it was very not built up. I was expecting Taipei to be all built up. Taipei is kind of like a small city or maybe a big city with low rise. It is a bit tropical, some of the trees remind me of a tropical place.

Fraser, Many people we’ve talked to in the creative field have said Tokyo is the best place for them to conceptualize their ideas. Did you feel the same when you made to transition from London to Tokyo?

Fraser: To be honest, no I don’t. I’ve heard people say that but I don’t think it’s particularly any better to conceptualize ideas in Tokyo, or London or New York. I think there is something interesting to come out of well, any place now, especially these days. In the past, I think it was really difficult because there is a lack of connection. I think Tokyo is an amazing place to see because you get to see a lot. There is a lot of information overall in design, but I think it’s generally the same in different places now.

Hiroshi: It’s the same. Like if you go to SoHo in New York or Paris, you see similar stores. For example, we see a store in Taiwan run or established by local people. But it could be anywhere. It could be in New York, Paris…

Right, it’s the same thing now

Fraser: It was never used to be like that in the past.

In the past it was more like there is its own identity in each city…

Fraser: You are right. I think one thing I will say about Japan is I think they are very detail oriented, have a very good sense of aesthetics and finishing. So, the quality of the things produced are very thorough. And that’s actually more so in Japan than a lot of other places. In Japan, usually if someone does something, they do it right beyond expectations and that makes the difference. With Japan though, it’s very much like it’s “inspired by”. I don’t see too many things that are original in terms of ideas coming from there, but Japan is pretty good at finding the things– knowing what’s good, cherry picking and making them even better, which is not copying. It’s something beyond that.

Hiroshi: But i wish there is something unexpected. It’s like if you are at a tea house here and there’s nothing like that any where else in the world, where young people hang out at [tea houses]. If there is something in the fashion industry in the same sense where there are some elements you can only get in Taiwan… As the core technology is shock resistance, there fore we were not just dismissed as a fashion watch. Popularity grew largely due to the media such as magazines which started to take notice of the watches.

So, this element makes it original ?

Fraser: I guess we saw nice stores, but we didn’t see store we were like “wow.” But, where as at the tea houses in here, this is something from Taiwan.

Fraser, Currently, you are in charge of the Nike Global Brand Energy Division. But before that, how did you get involved with Nike?

Fraser: Actually, I was working with Michael at Gimme Five in London. We had a store originally called Hit and Run that became HIDEOUT, which is still there now. We were dealing with a lot of Japanese brands, a lot of stuff that Hiroshi and some people around him worked on. We also had American stuff, like Supreme…all the rest of it. I was always involved. I was personally into sneakers even before that I got into buying. In the past, I was at the stores and I wrote about sneakers. And so, we decided to open a store.

Actually, Nike came to us and asked us if we would showcase the woven shoes when they made them. Back then, I had a meeting with Jason. Funny enough, the partner they were doing it with didn’t work out, so they were like, let’s try something new, with like a boutique. That was the initial concept, and then we started working with Nike. We started various projects and realized the people buying the sneakers at that time weren’t always interested in the clothing. So, we thought there was a gap in the market with the stores, and that’s how we came up with FOOT PATROL. That was around the same time as NORT, Rivington Club… UNDFTD came a little bit after. But at that time, the general feeling was it was good to run a boutique that filled a niche like that. So while we were doing that, the guys from Nike came to London and needed someone to show them around. Some friends suggested to Mark Parker that I can be a good guide, so I took them out for a couple of days. They said they were trying to build closer connections to [the London] culture and would like someone maybe from here to work inside the company. That’s how they offered me the work. It took a while to figure out how I can work with them, but that was the initial conversation and then it led to the job.

Hiroshi, let us now focus on Japan. An overwhelming majority of our friends in the creative field have stated that Tokyo is the best city for inspirations, and rightly so. Is it because the juxtaposition of thousand year old tradition with ultra modernity? Or, in your opinion, something more?

Hiroshi: Japanese people have good eyes to pick up something from America or Europe. Like denim or khaki– Americans made them but they don’t know how good they were and they don’t really care. They see [denim and khakis] as everyday items. The Japanese picked them up and made them into trends. There aren’t many special things created in Japan, so it became like a custom where we take an idea and improve upon it.

So, basically it’s the morphing into its own culture

Fraser: I think you can see the value or the beauty in something that aren’t always obvious when people make it first. I think the important thing is to really appreciate the authenticity.

Hiroshi, your projects have always generated a lot of interests. How do you balance between long-term interest from the consumers and short term fad? And how do you reinforce that interest? Is it through design? Or something else?

Hiroshi: Its just a feeling and just an eye for it. If I say the shoe is good, it will be good.

Fraser: I think Hiroshi’s thing is like, knowing what’s good ahead of time. Maybe just slightly ahead of the time so it’s on time. I don’t think Hiroshi is thinking about [trends] three years from now. He is not like those people who go, “Oh, it’s 2011 and it’s Spring, so we gotta do this.” With regards to the question, it’s just more of doing the right thing at the right time. Is that fair?

Hiroshi: I usually think of something that already exists but it is the thing that everyone kind of ignores. So, what I do is to bring it back just because you’ve never noticed at the beginning. And also because I like it too.

Fraser, Nike Global Brand Energy, it is term familiar with some die-hard sneaker collectors. But what exactly is Nike Global Brand Energy? What are its functions?

Fraser: Really simply, we are really just trying to connect something interesting from Nike, be it a story or something else, to the creative community initially. Then, the opinion leading community. We try to work on the unexpected in some interesting ways, and do some interesting projects. We work with creative talent and collaborate with people on the outside on a range of things — it can be products or it can be a film like the one we did in the last 2002 Worldcup. We think about creative ways to work all the time. It could be something with Michael Lau on a shoe, or it could be Hiroshi on something else. It’s just bringing interesting twists and buzz around the brand. It’s very multi-faceted. And there’s also getting to utilize and know people in each city…the idea is to tap into what’s going on culturally locally.

Hiroshi, You just embarked on a unique assignment recently with Mr. Masamichi Katayama (Wonderwall) Mr. Hitoshi Ito (Groovisions), and others. Its called The SOHO at Tokyo Bay. Could you share with us what this project is and how it will transform the way we work?

Hiroshi: It’s architecture. SoHo-type building. Katayama designs the building, Ito from Groovisions does the graphic and I work on the music. I’ve composed an original score for this project. It’s like the experience of hearing a building. For example, I’ve composed the music for Omotesando Hills.

Hiroshi, You have a certain preference in music? Or do you listen to a broad range of music?

Hiroshi: I listen to broad range of music but not as much as before. I’d quit DJ-ing so I don’t really follow the current popular music. I just buy music from itunes.

Fraser, What are some of the common obstacles you have to deal with thus far? Or it is unique to each project?

Fraser: Of course there is. In everything there is always stuff along the way that is tricky. Any time you are collaborating with somebody, to make some kind of event or something happen, there is always trying to explain Nike perspective. Everything is about perspective, so it winds up where somebody has to see your point of view or you have to see theirs. These things are just part of the process. When you work on products with people, that is something that often can take longer than people perceive. It always takes me longer collaborate with someone than to make some kind of special edition internally. Actually, it also kind of depends the person; if it works, it’s faster. However, sometimes you are not sure what they want exactly, so there is a lot of going back and forth and changing, and that can get kind of slow.

So it’s just the process that takes a lot of time.

Fraser: It’s just managing people. Managing any situation…

Hiroshi: And process.

Fraser: It happens on any situation.

Hiroshi: It’s not necessarily good or bad, but what is true is Mark Parker has been into the creative side, and creativity matters the most at Nike. It’s very rare for the CEO of a huge company to be interested in the creative side of business.

Fraser: He comes from design, which is a good thing. But he has a good business mind as well.

Questions for Hiroshi and Fraser. If you were both writing an autobiography, how would you describe yourself? In your own words.

Hirsohi: I don’t describe myself. I prefer to be mysterious.

Fraser: I think I can be flexible. I can be a comedian in a lot of different situations with people. It doesn’t mean that I change myself. I’m pretty much the same person, but being flexible and funny help me with my work. If you are too rigid, you are going to have friction with some people. Not that it doesn’t happen, but I think [these qualities] help me do what I am doing right now.

Hiroshi: For me, there had been a dilemma where people think music has nothing to do with fashion. 20 years ago, if a musician tried to do fashion, people usually ignore it. That’s what happened to me when I was DJ-ing. Other DJs used to say “Oh, Hiroshi? He’s a fashion guy, he’s not a good DJ” or, “Hiroshi is a DJ? He’s faking the designer stuff.” But now, everyone does it.

Fraser: Yeah, now everyone does it. Sometimes I think a little bit too much. I think everything has become very thin now, everyone can just play around with anything. It’s good for some people but for some it doesn’t work.

Any final words? Both of you?

Fraser: I’m looking forward to the new kids doing something I don’t really understand. Maybe it’s happening right now and I don’t get it. Kind of looking forward to that.

Hiroshi: I think the recession is a good time for us now because now making things are not only about making money. Before, people try to make money, but now you just have to do the things you want to do with attitude and don’t think about money because you can’t make as much anymore.

So, the quality and originality.

Fraser: Now it’s a good time to show what is your passion and how you execute it.

Hiroshi: There’s been a bubble for a while now that a lot of things that aren’t that great were sliding by. Right now, that’s not the case. We have to all be really good at making it, and this sense of urgency can only be good for the overall creative atmosphere. Thank you both taking the time to speak with us.