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Reebok Pumps New Life Into an Icon

For 25 years, Reebok’s iconic Pump system has been found in basketball and lifestyle sneakers. In April, it made its debut in a running shoe.

The ZPump Fusion is built on an updated Z Series sole, but it’s the upper that’s revolutionary: One piece of fabric wrapped around a slimmed-down, sleeker, and lighter version of the Pump bladder. There’s no tongue or foam, just a super-customizable sheath that grabs your midfoot and heel and locks you down for optimal support while allowing for complete natural motion.

“Sometimes you get displacement between your foot and the shoe upper, some slop,” says Paul Litchfield, Vice President of Reebok Advanced Concepts and the inventor of the Pump. “The Pump system add this level of fit where you don’t get that.”

Litchfield worked with Bill McInnis, head of Reebok’s global running, over a period of two years to develop the ZPump Fusion. Their teams went through roughly 10 prototypes and multiple rounds of testing before settling on the final elegant and eye-catching design.

“It doesn’t look like a traditional running shoe,” Litchfield says. “And I think that’s awesome.”

In this extended version of our interview with Litchfield, we chat more about the ZPump, how the tech can be used in other sports gear, and the legacy of that first Pump shoe, launched more than 25 years ago.

How does the Pump go from this cool but almost chunky basketball shoe tech to something so sleek and slimmed down for a running shoe?

I won't say it's like going from a Model T car to a current car. But we've had some significant evolutions over the years with the Pump and how we've created it and how we've been able to create a customized fit. And this is our latest version of it. It's very, very elegant. It's very kind of minimalistic. And it literally is a shoe that collapses on itself until you put your foot in it and use the pump to help give it structure.

The original Pump changed the basketball shoe. What does the ZPump mean for running shoes?

I think we're going to redefine what people consider the best fit for their particular shoe. And the fact that we've constructed the shape of the Pump bladder so that it essentially holds your heel in place and your midfoot in place and yet allows for incredible freedom of movement in your forefoot, it really creates — not a lockdown, but it creates a customization in the element around your foot that you want to grip and yet it also does not detract, it doesn't make for a bulkier, heavy shoe. So it grabs your midfoot, it grabs your heel, it locks you down over your base of support, which is your midsole and outsole, and yet it allows for complete natural motion and it does not encumber any of the flexibility.

Are you a runner?

I'm more of a waddler. I do a little jogging here and there, but I'm not a runner runner.

Does it help with the waddling?

Oh yeah. Absolutely! Definitely helps with waddling. No, it does! I do a lot of trail run and things like that, and what the Pump system does is allow me to really dial up the amount of fit based on smooth surface run or off-road run. And yet the shoe stays right with my foot. There's no slop or there's no gaps, if you will. It works super well. This is not your traditional, old school, Frank Shorter running shorts kind of running shoe. It definitely sets a new agenda for what people would consider to be a running shoe. It's pretty stylish, it looks pretty good, and yet it doesn't look like a typical running shoe.

The original Pump was also a lifestyle shoe. It sounds like the ZPump can occupy the same space.

It addresses kind of two populations. It is a great running shoe, and it works super well. And if you want to go out and run, waddle, walk, whatever in these things, the ZPump works very well. But it has the ancillary benefit of looking really good. And I do know that not only this first launch but a bunch of other products coming down the pike, these are going to be very notable shoes, to your point, are intended to look really cool. And I think they do because they don't look like other stuff out there.

How do you create a shoe like this? What’s the design process like?

How do you do it? You do it without being bashful. Bill McInnis, [Head of Global Running for Reebok], and the running team worked with us on the Pump side. But our running designers wanted to use the construction opportunity that was presented with this new Pump system with a chance to kind of change the styling so they could take advantage of the new Pump. I think they captured it kind of brilliantly with this kind of one-piece upper that creates this shroud around the Pump system itself, and it is super simple, it's super elegant, and it is effective but it doesn't restrict or encumber any of the natural movement of your foot. I think it's kind of a genius move on their part.

It doesn't look like a traditional running shoe. And I think that's awesome. And I think that's also part of what Reebok's about. If you look at the original Pump when we did it with the basketball as the Pump ball on the tongue, it looked like a very different shoe than what was out there. And then subsequently again when we did the Pump Fury, which is enjoying its 20 year anniversary this upcoming year, it's a shoe that challenged conventional running styling thoughts. And I think this new one does the same thing to a certain extent. I also think it's very modern, I think it's very timely for what the style's about.

Can this custom-focused Pump technology be incorporated into other gear, like a hockey skate?

That is the $64,000 question. The short answer is yes. There's a ton of versatility in this new Pump system we have. And I think you will see in the very near future an expansion of the current platform, both in running as well in some other categories. We own CCM and Reebok Hockey. We've been making Reebok Hockey skates with a similar technology with what we have... In Advanced Concepts, we've been working on this manufacturing method for years, literally, and we were finally able to perfect it. And one of the great test beds for us to evaluate it was in the Reebok Hockey skate for just those reasons. It's a rigid shell and we were able to look at the customization opportunities in hockey skate fit, particularly around the ankle, and it's worked out very, very well. And so it's been a kind of multi-pronged approach and so, yes, there's absolute versatility to how we package up the Pump itself and what categories of shoes or other sporting goods product we put it in. 

It's actually kind of exciting because, as you know, I've been doing this for a while now, and I think in today's Reebok, with our ability to make our experimentation and our new concepts in how we critically evaluate them, that leads us down one path. And then also on the business side, our business is a lot more kind of focused and our business is a lot more clear with where they want to go, so it's not just kind of a shotgun approach. I think what you're going to see is an expansion of the Pump so it's really appropriate, highly functional, as well as also equally exciting from a design standpoint.

When you launched the first Pump in 1989, did you think it would have the longevity and popularity that you'd still be talking about it 25 years later?

No, absolutely not. And, again, I was fortunate to be the person in charge of bringing the Pump to life, from a product-creation standpoint. But the truth is, much like with this Pump shoe, which is very, very cool, back in the day Reebok and Paul Fireman, who owned the company at the time, they put an absolute 100-percent committed effort to launching the product with regards to the sales, the marketing, the advertising, the whole thing. The shoe actually became bigger than life. And I'm pretty clear, it wasn't because of the shoe that me and my team made. It was because we had a product that worked well and Reebok embraced it and made it magical. And the coolest thing is, right now, we're kind of in the exact same place, where [Reebok president] Matt O'Toole and the team with Bill McInnis leading the way on the running side, they have fully committed to reintroducing the world to the Pump, the ZPump Fusion. And it's really kind of cool because I've been fortunate to be part of this ride, as well. It's almost like the Pump renaissance. It's very cool.

Photos: Reebok

paul litchfield reebok zpump
paul litchfield reebok zpump
paul litchfield reebok zpump