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Looking Back at Puma’s Celebrity Endorsers

Before Rihanna, Kylie Jenner, and the Kering group put a new spin on the label, Puma boasted a string of celebrity fans both official and unofficial

Last week it was confirmed that Kylie Jenner signed a $1 million six month deal with Puma. Officially, she's an "advocate," meaning she can still wear Adidas, because, Kanye. Unofficially, the balance of power in the sneaker wars has shifted once again.

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Before the brand had a chance to either confirm or deny the rumors that Kylie would follow in the footsteps of Rihanna, Puma's Women’s Creative Director and global brand ambassador, Mr. West tweeted a vaguely threatening warning for Puma not to "divide the family." He also creepily vowed Kylie’s allegiance to Yeezy on her behalf. But none of that mattered; on February 17th, Puma confirmed that Kylie was their new face.

Puma’s latest celebrity acquisition has made its famous origin story relevant again. The young Adidas company had already seen some international success when World War II tore its Dassler brother owners apart. Rudolf was a more fervent Nazi supporter than Adi, with a paranoid streak that left him bitter after he saw combat and believed his brother had set him up. The company was split, Rudolf Dassler named his offshoot Puma, and the brothers didn’t speak for the rest of their lives.

Clydes at a 2006 event. Image: Bob Levey/ Getty

Generally speaking, Puma isn’t the sneaker of winners. Without Nike's groundbreaking marketing or the heritage of Adidas, Puma has had a perpetual near-miss relationship with mainstream cool. In fact, Puma almost outdoes Adidas’s classicism just by virtue of their lack of innovation. Any layperson might be able to visualize three of the German brand's shoes, two of which are nearly identical. The most recent of the three, Walt Frazier’s ‘Clyde’, dates from 1973, which might lead you to believe that Puma is perfectly content not to compete with the big guns (not that almost $3 billion in annual revenue is anything to scoff at). When Kering, which owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, among others, bought the brand in 2007, still nothing happened. But now, Puma is on to the attack.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

Despite a lack of Michael Jordans or Run-DMCs on its team, Puma has managed to feature in some historic moments. One of the most unlikely was the furthest thing possible from a scripted endorsement. Olympic gold medalist sprinter and black power hero Tommie Smith made history in his red velcro Puma spikes and then made more history when he removed them to receive his medal in symbolic black socks. As part of San Jose State University’s statue commemorating Smith and John Carlos’s salute, Suedes sit on the podium blocks beside the athletes’ figures.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Puma was in the process of carving out superstar representation in every major sport. Thirty years before Dee Brown’s shameless Pump-ing up, the legendary Pélé agreed to ask a World Cup referee for time to tie up his signature ‘King’ Pumas before resuming play, guaranteeing TV close-ups of the boots across the globe. The company drafted NFL and MLB stars like Joe Namath and Reggie Jackson for its "on and off the court" print campaign in an attempt to fuse leisure and performance connotations.

Unofficial Puma supporters had their share of time in the spotlight, too. Clydes, Suedes, and the matching cat-adorned tracksuits were adopted en masse by New York breakdancers and remained B-boy mainstays well into the ‘80s. The Puma sneakers, even with monochrome or contrasting fat laces worn loose, were a sleeker alternative to the gold standard, ubiquitous shell-toe Adidas Superstar, which had beaten the Suede to the market by a year. Puma even hit the big screen with the 1984 breakdance vehicle Beat Street. (Meanwhile, in the UK, cult models like the Vilas and Roma played a minor role in the UK’s casuals subculture.) The brand jumped from cardboard to wax when KRS-One, who favored the Swoosh, dissed the Juice Crew in the course of the influential "Bridge wars" beef. On "The Bridge Is Over," he taunted "You better change what's coming out your speaker / You're better off talking 'bout your wack Puma sneaker."

The same Suede v. Shelltoe question played out years later in the malls of suburbia when MTV latched on to an early hip hop renaissance at the end of the ‘90s. There was suddenly a slew of old school themed hits, like Def Squad’s "Rapper’s Delight" remake and Jason Nevins’s update on Run-DMC’s "It’s Like That," both of which verrrry prominently featured the Superstar in their videos. And then there was Lauryn Hill. Her multiple VMA-wining "Doo Wop (That Thing)" video seemed less exploitatively retro than those other videos, and it co-starred a pair of refreshing wine-colored Suedes.

The synched split screen format portrays a New York block party in two eras; the left half is set in 1967, one year before the Puma Suede was introduced. Directed by Monty Whitebloom and Andy Delaney, the breezy but potent video/song/shoes seemed to precisely capture the atmosphere of that late summer and early autumn. I was hit with an early, visceral case of sneaker lust — an effable attraction and case of design fetishism, the kind that feels deeper than the crass consumer conditioning it surely is.

Usain Bolt at a Puma event. Image: Paul Morigi/Getty

Of course, I remembered it totally wrong — it’s an anonymous dancer who sports the ‘Cabernet’ colorway in the video, not Lauryn herself (far too casual, probably) and though they do get a lengthy close up, they’re only really featured once about halfway through. But this is just testament to how striking and timely the revived Suedes were.

In the same year, Puma entered into the luxe/designer world with a Jil Sander collaboration, prefiguring what’s now a standard component of sneaker company strategy. More recently, sprinter Usain Bolt and footballer Mario Ballotelli have been the faces of Puma, dominating billboard space and TV spots. (Puma outfits Ballotelli’s Italia team, as well as Arsenal.)

Of course, their biggest endorsement yet was Rihanna, in 2014. Adding Meek Mill to the roster in 2012 may have been a misstep, since all but the most level-headed rap fans seem to view him as a disgraced punchline, but signing rising star (and 'Ye collaborator) Vic Mensa, on the other hand, may be a move that continues to pay dividends.

Given that a familial spat was central to the creation of Puma, the transformation of Adidas, and by extension, the birth of the global sportswear industry, Kanye West's comments about Kylie's business pursuits posing a threat to the unity of their family are amusingly in keeping with the companies’ roots. In a way, he’s "stayed on track like a box of Pumas."

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