Why does everyone — count Lil Nas X, Matt Damon, Alicia Keys, and Penny Hardaway — want to shop for sneakers with Joe La Puma?
By Stephanie Reitz
Photos by Peter Morenus
he sneakers are eye-catching, pitch black accented by crimson on the stripes, soles, and iconic Adidas trefoil logo. Overhead lights catch a subtle paisley design in the black leather, a nod to the ubiquitous bandana sported by the platinum recording artist and YouTuber who designed the footwear with Adidas.
The sneakers are eye-catching, pitch black accented by crimson on the stripes, soles, and iconic Adidas trefoil logo. Overhead lights catch a subtle paisley design in the black leather, a nod to the ubiquitous bandana sported by the platinum recording artist and YouTuber who designed the footwear with Adidas.
Shoes can be transformational. There’s art in their design and details. They can help you fit in or stand out, your choice. They can change your mood or, if you’re Cinderella or Carrie Bradshaw, perhaps your life.
Joe La Puma ’05 (CLAS) catches the understated but symbolic paisley touch. He and another sneakers enthusiast consider the design’s attention to detail, right down to the celeb’s tagline — “Underestimated” — on the ankle straps. Pretty sick, they agree.
Roll the clock back 20 years, and La Puma could have been having a similar discussion with friends in his UConn dorm room, the South Campus dining hall, or Gampel Pavilion’s student section. Known to friends for his ability to cop some of the latest sneakers on the market, La Puma’s newest pair surely would have generated intense interest among his fellow Huskies.
But this isn’t 2003-era Storrs, not by a long shot, and the black and red Adidas aren’t on La Puma’s feet.
It’s a temperate February evening in the heart of SoHo, and La Puma is in a high-end sportswear store Stadium Goods, with its walls of pristine sneakers of all makes and colors on display around him.
This pair — the hard-to-find KSI X Adidas Forum Hi model — was specially flown to New York City, and is now displayed in a glass case in the store’s center aisle.
And it’s KSI himself who’s walking La Puma through his design choices with Adidas while a production crew captures their conversation from cameras at various angles. After seven efficiently orchestrated takes, they’re ready to take down the lights and wrap up the latest taping of “Sneaker Shopping,” the Webby-Award winning YouTube show that La Puma originated and hosts for Complex Networks.
It’s garnered more than 1 billion views over 250-plus episodes since it launched in 2014, during which time he’s welcomed Grammy and Oscar winners, Hall of Fame athletes, Vice President Kamala Harris, and sneaker connoisseurs as diverse as Bill Nye the Science Guy and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
Using his UConn education and his Complex connections, La Puma has carved out his own career path to become the network’s senior vice president for content strategy and one of the nation’s — if not the world’s — foremost experts on sneaker culture.
Pretty sick, indeed.
A pop culture and sneaker enthusiast since youth, La Puma has made “Sneaker Shopping” the must-watch show for established and aspiring sneakerheads. The high-profile personalities who join him come from all walks of life, but share his passion for the industry’s history, creativity, and cultural significance.
Walking on air:La Puma built “Sneaker Shopping” from the germ of an idea to one of Complex Network’s most popular shows. So far this season he’s shopped for kicks — and talked trends, career paths, childhoods, and more — with guests that included KSI, as well as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris Tucker.
La Puma literally could not have known at UConn how his passions would lead to his profession — YouTube wasn’t even launched until a few months before his 2005 graduation. And sneaker culture, while having a rich history dating back decades, was still viewed then as a niche interest driven by — and catering to — pro basketball players, skateboarders, and others with big closets and disposable incomes to match.
Those early days are highlighted in this spring’s movie “Air,” which chronicles the origins of the original Air Jordan 1, considered the most influential sneaker since Converse’s Chuck Taylor All Stars became the first celebrity-endorsed sports shoe in the 1920s. Chicago Bulls rookie phenom Michael Jordan’s eponymous Air Jordans were released to the public in spring 1985, launching an industry that combined the star power of athletes with the design expertise of top shoe brands.
What they saw, and what La Puma and other sneaker enthusiasts instinctively knew, is basic: Shoes can be transformational. There’s art in their design and details. They can help you fit in or stand out, your choice. They can change your mood or, if you’re Cinderella or Carrie Bradshaw, perhaps your life.
Not that La Puma expected shoes to change his life when he came to UConn, planning to follow the business track favored by many of his friends back home in Bay Shore on Long Island. But business school wasn’t a fit: “I was coming home at the end of the day stressed out, head in my hands, knowing I was doing something that I wasn’t really interested in,” he recalls.
A professor suggested he try communications, specifically journalism, which could provide an avenue for him to explore his interests in a more creative and flexible way.
So he mastered the “who, what, when, where, and why” of stories by joining the Daily Campus, eventually convincing his editors to let him write album reviews and other pop culture stories. It was an ideal fit. Just like now, he had a knack for spotting culture and music trends, such as being among the early fans eagerly awaiting the 2003 debut studio album of a buzzed-about new rapper on the mixtape scene who called himself 50 Cent.
On UConn college breaks and during summers, La Puma returned to Bay Shore, selling sneakers at the Finish Line store where he’d started as a teen. After graduating in 2005, he went back to the store full time, working his way up to becoming a manager.
“I kept writing, though. I was writing for whoever I could, usually for free,” La Puma recalls. “A lot of them were websites that don’t even exist anymore, but being back in New York, finding journalism jobs was tough for everyone at the time.”
EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-award winner) Whoopi Goldberg told La Puma she decides which mismatched sneakers to wear by considering “what will be most interesting for me if I look down.”
Soccer icon David Beckham talked about customizing his kicks since childhood.
Actor/musician Idris Elba told La Puma he spent his hard-earned youngster money on clothes, shoes, and records.
Actor Jeff Goldblum was a Keds-wearing kid but ended his “Sneaker Shopping” episode with a bag of Yeezys for his own kids.
The turning point came when an internship was posted at Complex Magazine, which he’d bought religiously from the UConn Co-Op as a student, taping pages from one copy to his dorm room wall and keeping a second fresh copy tucked away.
“The HR person had a stack of resumes when I went in, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to get it. Not a chance.’ But then I got the call and now I’ve been there 17 years.”
For the first two years, La Puma was working full-time at Finish Line while interning at Complex, putting in the kinds of long days that become an alternating blur of adrenaline and exhaustion. Coming into Complex full-time as an online editor in 2006, when magazines were just starting to grow their online audiences, La Puma also wrote for the print version, where his ability to peer around life’s corners in terms of trends served him well.
It’s a skill he carries today into “Sneaker Shopping,” which started with the need for more online video content and the chance in early 2011 to meet up with rapper Jim Jones at Flight Club, New York City’s biggest sneaker shop. A few years after that first foray, the show became one of Complex’s regular features, and is now among its most popular.
La Puma has traveled the world for the show. Working with producers who are also adept at spotting talent on the rise, several guests have gone on to international acclaim shortly after their appearances, such as Lil Nas X, who came to his 2019 shoe-shopping taping directly from shooting the video for his soon-to-be breakout hit, “Old Town Road.” Many of his other guests — including 50 Cent, Whoopi Goldberg, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and UConn hoops legend Kemba Walker — were already comfortably established.
In building “Sneaker Shopping,” La Puma tapped into a simple truth: Wearing and shopping for shoes is nearly universal, but doing it with a seemingly unlimited budget isn’t. La Puma and his celebrity guests let viewers go along on those journeys.
He guides the conversation so that it feels like a chat between friends as the guests reminisce on the childhood shoes that were special to them — including those they couldn’t afford, but admired — why certain types hit a chord with them, and often share personal details and anecdotes.
On a recent taping in Austin’s Sneaker Politics store, La Puma’s easy banter with “Air” stars Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Tucker is interspersed with questions that show how deeply he researches his guests’ backgrounds to learn about their sneaker journeys. Damon and Affleck talk about being teenagers working at a movie theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when they first coveted Air Jordans. Tucker recalls working for his dad at a janitorial service and spending a week’s salary on Jordans: “He was the man!”
By the time Affleck pulls out his credit card to pay for the trio’s selections — 17 pairs of assorted Nike styles and four Atlanta Braves hats totaling $3,065 — the audience feels like it’s cheering on friends, encouraging them to treat themselves.
Speaking of treating one’s self, the record spent on the show so far was $42,032.28 in shoes and clothes by the late rapper Juice WRLD in 2019, beating the $38,971.85 spent a few months earlier by fellow rapper Future. But we digress!
… several guests have gone on to international acclaim shortly after their appearances, such as Lil Nas X, who came to his 2019 shoe-shopping taping directly from shooting the video for his soon-to-be breakout hit “Old Town Road.”
Aside from the cellphone full of celebrity friends’ numbers, La Puma remains much the same as he was at Storrs: an avid Husky who bleeds blue for his alma mater, sometimes sharing college memories on “The Complex Sneakers Podcast,” which he co-hosts for the network.
At heart, he’s the same Joe who tiptoed through heavy snow to Gampel in 2002 to protect the new Jordan Ginger XVIs he’d just gotten over winter break — surely the only ones in the region, if not the state, given that Michael Jordan had just introduced them.
But what he had then and now in abundance in sneakers, La Puma lacks in ego; friendly and welcoming, he remains extremely close with his family and several college friends, occasionally returning to the hometown mall where he logged so many hours at Finish Line and so many frenetic Black Fridays.
“I’ll just walk the mall and take it all in, and it’ll give me inspiration. It’s the same way I feel thinking about my time at UConn, like when I remember going down the staircase and waiting at the back door at Towers for the Wings Over Storrs delivery guy to come up the hill with my DC-3 Wings order,” he says.
“I’m a very nostalgic and sentimental person. I think of how far we’ve come, from $5.50 an hour at Finish Line in Bay Shore, to going to Buckland Hills Mall from UConn trying to figure out a way to get the new releases, to now dealing with all of these pop culture icons from different sections of entertainment and the young stars on YouTube and Internet personalities.
“Coming from those days to where I am now — it’s just surreal, and I never take any of it for granted,” he says.