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NEW YORK, United States — While working as a shop assistant at renowned sneaker store Finish Line in Long Island, Joe La Puma spent two years as an intern at the revered youth culture magazine Complex, eventually landing his dream job as an online editor for the publication. Twelve years later, La Puma has seen Complex transition from a print magazine to both a global brand and a growing media company focused on convergence culture. He is now the senior vice president of content strategy.
Sneaker Shopping is La Puma’s most notable project for Complex, which launched in 2015, and is the world-leading sneaker series today, averaging over 3 million views per episode. Since 2017, the series has grown nearly 50 percent, starring artists and athletes including Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael B Jordan and Sean “Diddy” Combs in its more than 100 episodes. La Puma’s sneakerhead status will also see him host the Sneaker of the Year panel at Complexcon, the streetwear convention in Long Beach returning for its third year this weekend.
What qualities made you stand out in your first job in fashion?
I’ve always been good at establishing a rapport with people I am working with, which was as basic as talking through product with customers at Finish Line. You’re working in such a product-driven space, but you are not tied to the product. People want to talk to you and converse as a real person — that’s not just about product.
I had good mentors at Complex, who helped me shape my career and become the leader that I am now, especially in terms of the qualities of having a personality. I don’t say “a personality” as an entertainer, but the personality where you can hold a conversation with people. As an intern at Complex, I was a lot more shy, but I hung around the people in the company [who] could help me and educate me.
What was the biggest lesson you learnt as a junior?
The biggest lesson I quickly learnt was that it’s not easy to work in fashion. It’s not just picking the products that everyone thinks are going to be cool and talking about. My first assignment at Complex was helping the lifestyle editor pick watches for a page. I had no idea what he was looking for — I was just looking up Tags and Rolex, Urban Outfitters and Swatch — it was just this foreign land.
You can have tonnes of knowledge but if you don’t have the tools to establish rapport, you’re going to have a tough time.
I came into Complex like, “Hey I know what’s cool, I get it.” But it was way more difficult than I thought. Before, I had a mentor who was my manager at Finish Line and he was on the pulse of fashion, educating me on what brands I should be looking at as the bases of fashion and streetwear. But the thought that goes into curating the content that readers want to consume is a process.
The mistake I was making in my career as an intern is what separates a good product from one that’s a lower tier, not just consuming everything and putting everything on the same level. But when you are the starry-eyed intern, everything looks cool.
What are the challenges in building a career in streetwear?
It’s a crowded space and it’s always changing. You could say that the NBA is now in streetwear. LeBron, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant are wearing streetwear brands we’ve covered for years and now, with everything converging, you’re not only competing with other fashion publications — if you’re a fan of LeBron and you want to know what sweatpants he’s wearing and find out they’re John Elliott, then everyone is going to be educated.
It’s a matter of how you separate yourself from a content standpoint and tell the story as an authority.
What does content strategy mean to you today?
Content is always changing and with content strategy you have to be ready to adapt. Every day, the way content is consumed is changing. Some people are just reading Instagram and digesting snackable clips to get their news. On Twitter, you’re getting the news in 140 characters. Then there’s people who are commuting and reading long form content. We have to be prepared to service [all of] them.
Content strategy is being able to adapt, to be prepared to service the content consumer on all these different platforms — figuring out where you are the strongest and pouring gasoline on the fire in that situation.
With Sneaker Shopping, we have the gift of telling stories that are only tangentially related to sneakers. That’s what gives the show such great legs and trajectory. The sneaker store and the sneakers on the wall are just an entry point to the conversation. It’s a comfortable environment for the artist or athlete, where you are not going to get grilled on gossipy stuff. The questions are simple but everyone has a different answer — that’s what makes the show.
How does Complexcon impact your role as a content strategist?
There are conversations with leaders of the culture, but we learn as much from the audience as they learn from us. We want to educate readers on what we feel is next in music, pop culture, fashion, but we also need to be cognisant of where the space is going and who the audience is gravitating [towards], whether it’s a brand or an artist. You have to always remain ahead — in your peripheral, you have to see what’s going on. Complexcon is a direct engagement with the consumer as to what’s bubbling.
People used to look at me and say, “Oh you’re into sneakers, what is that? Like a hobby? Like trading baseball cards?” What I was explaining to you back in 2008 when you asked what I do — this is exactly what that means.
What attributes do you believe make you successful in your field?
It’s a mixture of having knowledge about the product but also a personality that people watching the show gravitate [towards]. Sneaker Shopping shows me in an authentic light, that is how I am. I grew up on this and I spent years in a sneaker store before Complex. But if you quiz me on every single sneaker of the last three decades, I would definitely slip up.
If you do your homework, follow the publications and learn from them, you could prepare yourself in a very sophisticated way.
You can have tonnes of knowledge but if you don’t have the tools to carry the conversation and establish rapport, you’re going to have a tough time on camera and the sneaker media space that we’re in. I never want to rest on the laurels of, “We established this platform, it’s moving and people show up every week.” You have to be fanatical about the job that you are in, especially if it is your passion job that as a young college kid you dreamed to have.
What typical career advice do you disagree with for those starting in fashion?
I hate it when people say, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” You’re not faking it. If you have a medium, you want to start writing and following [fashion], the tools are there for you to do it. Maybe it’s not a platform like Complex, but once you start your own thing or work at a company that fuels your passions, you can be prepared for it. When I was younger and trying to intern, I didn’t have those opportunities. Now you have the tools. You can really educate yourself on this culture.
The biggest take away I got from the Sneaker Shopping interview with Jonah Hill is that he didn’t learn hip hop and skating from the internet. He really lived it. But now, [you can] also study up on it. If you do your homework, follow the publications and learn from them, you could prepare yourself for this industry in a very sophisticated way.
What do you believe is essential for someone starting a career in the fashion industry?
You’ve got to put the work in. It is not an industry where, if you get an internship and you do it for a year, you’re going to get hired no matter what. But if you pay it forward in this industry and you do good work, it will work out for you. I did two years for free, and I stuck with it. You just have to believe that working hard and becoming a student of the job you want is going to work out for you.
If this is going to be a passion job, always remember that. When I was a kid in college, I was cutting out Complex pages and hanging them in my dorm room. This is what you’re working towards. Yes, there are going to be long nights, there’s going to be stress, you may have to travel, you may have to sacrifice some personal time, but this is where you wanted to be.