Launched 25 years ago, Reebok’s Insta Pump Fury aimed to rewrite the design aesthetics for a running shoe – resulting in an iconic a product that the company has ever put out. With the relaunch of the ZPump Fusion this year, our latest #HSTBT explores what went into bringing the Insta Pump Fury from a paper sketch to reality.

The creation of the Reebok Insta Pump Fury started with a series of “what ifs.” Whether you’re problem solving everyday minutia or trying to change the sneaker industry forever, the simplest solution is often the one that works best. For Paul Litchfield, VP of Advanced Concepts; and Steven Smith, the shoe’s designer, the answer to one of those questions came from an unlikely source: a ski boot.

In December of 1987, Reebok acquired Ellesse USA and the Ellesse trademarks for the United States and Canada from Ellesse International S.p.A. for $25 million USD. Prior to the acquisition Reebok has also snatched up Avia, Rockport shoes, and the Boston Whaler boat maker, but it was the Italian-based Ellesse which had been known for their designs and innovation in the world of ski-wear that proved the most lucrative. With all of their products now in the fold, Litchfield recalled to Sneaker Freaker “they had a ski boot with this pumping mechanism and it had big brass fittings and stuff like that. Somebody said to [Paul]Fireman (Reebok founder), ‘Hey, you should put this contraption on a shoe!’ but for a while there, it languished and no one took it seriously. It looked like an iron lung. It was just a rough prototype idea. If you look back in the US patent literature, there’s all kinds of inflatables and pumps. I was given the task, the unenviable task to make a shoe out of it. We were looking to make a customizable-fit shoe and we looked at foams and straps and ended up settling on a Pump mechanism which was hollow so you could change the shape by inflating it. We didn’t have spare designers and development people, so a local Boston design firm and I basically worked on making the first Pump shoe, probably in early 1988.”

On November 24, 1989, the first Reebok Pump was released – followed soon after by the Omni Zone, Twilight Zone, SXT Pump and Court Victory Pumps. Having seen success in the realm of basketball and tennis footwear, there was a logical progression to utilize their one-of-a-kind technology in a new sporting sector.

“The story of the Pump Fury begins in 1992,”designer Stven Smith recalled to DeFY.Reebok had allowed Steve Burris to assemble its first Innovation department two years earlier. At the beginning, it was Steve as the director, with me as the Senior Designer and Peter Foley and Paul Litchfield as the Senior Developers. We were operating as the ‘blue sky’ think tank for the company. All of us had pretty diverse backgrounds in the sporting goods and footwear industry, and that eclectic mix of talents and knowledge helped us create some pretty impressive technology for such a small team. For our next project, we had some cool ingredients for lightweight construction and improved cushioning, but we also wanted to do something dramatic with the Pump technology. After some brainstorming as a team, we thought ‘hey, why not combine a few of these great ideas into one showpiece of footwear’ – sort of like a ‘concept car’ for all of our innovation projects. I was fired up and started sketching right away.”

Reebok’s logic for the yet-t0-be-created shoe was simple: while no two feet are alike, it was especially important for those who partook in running as both a pastime and as a serious passion to be married with a product that could adapt to their running gait. While the shoe would eventually be produced millions of times, their original intentions were to be like tailors expertly crafting a bespoke suit. “The challenge was to create something that would not be cumbersome or push the shoe so far into the future that it was not practical,” Litchfield said.

From a visual standpoint, the origins of the Insta Pump Fury lay in the New Balance Super Comp. Smith himself landed a job at New Balance right out of college and went on to design such staples like the 574, 996, 997 and 1500. “That was the New Balance I knew (as a kid), with these radical colors,” Smith told Sole Collector.  “I always loved that because it looked like your feet were on fire. Because it went yellow, orange, then red across the upper. And so I thought, I’m gonna do a shoe like that. We were struggling on what to do with the tip (of the Fury), and if you go back to those old New Balances they have that split tip as it came around on the top of your toe, and so if you look at the Fury, it kind of has that little snake tongue tip.”

While Smith and team were literally “fired up” on the notion of being bold, the idea of having such an aggressive colorway like red and citron in a running marketplace marked by subdued palettes of greys and blues seemed as alien as the radical design itself. The marketing department was convinced that they didn’t need a bold color to convey their message; the bladder system and Hexalite cushioning were enough shock and awe to last a lifetime. Litchfield and Smith were on the opposite end of the spectrum. As the story goes, Smith went home and spray painted the prototype in grey primer, and then tossed them on the desk of the marketing department in protest/disgust. As it turned out, Litchfield and Smith were right. The yellow and black colorway outsold the grey version 65/35.

You know you’re on to something as a designer/company when your rivals – in this case Nike – looked to copy their technology. The Swoosh responded to Reebok’s Pump phenomenon with their own creations: the Nike Air Pressure, Nike Air Command Force and Nike Air Force 180 Pump. Ultimately, they never quite caught on like Reebok’s original and Nike downplayed their failure on the Air Pressure by stating that they only did a small run of shoes.

The Insta Pump Fury was released in 1994 to mixed feelings due to its out-there look. Paul Litchfield sums the shoe up best: “You put the Pump Fury on the shelf, particularly at the time, and fifty people would look at it and go ‘That’s the coolest thing ever!’ Fifty people would look at it and go ‘That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen!’ but 100 people would notice it, and that’s important.”

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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