Inside On, the Red-Hot Swiss Sneaker Brand Backed by Roger Federer

By

The new On headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland, set to open in summer 2022, rises 17 floors near the Limmat River. A climb is embedded in the building, a stairway that rises, twists, and shifts through every floor, moving and spiraling with a little different character in every spot. The climb gives the On HQ an active focus and provides visitors a glimpse into every aspect of operations, from the research and development lab to company meeting spaces, sometimes with views of the Swiss Alps, downtown Zürich, and the running trails and roads just outside. 

That focus of movement and looking beyond has propelled the 11-year-old running footwear brand, making it the fastest-growing athletic footwear company of the largest 25 brands, and giving On a distinct perspective on the future. 

Rooted in performance technology, On took the international stage in 2016 by winning the brand’s first Olympic medal, when Nicola Spirig won silver in the women’s triathalon. Within months, the same brand appeared on the red carpet and the cover of Variety on three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Chivo Lubezki. The distinct visual of the CloudTec outsole moved On into a new world, as young consumers embraced them for both performance and aesthetic. 

Runners love the tech. Design fans love the clean, minimalistic aesthetic with a fresh approach to color. And the sustainability mission impresses multiple demographics. While many brands can easily get enamored with lifestyle appeal, the word “lifestyle” is largely relegated in Zürich, even if it slips out every now and then. From the start of the brand’s success, On made a point of not compromising technology. Instead, its lifestyle category is known as “Performance All Day” meaning every shoe designed with an eye toward street style—including embracing its most famous investor by creating a family of Performance All Day sneakers with tennis legend Roger Federer—still uses CloudTec engineering underfoot, often a highly visible reminder of the birth of a brand and its hybrid use.

“I feel very much like they have that magic sauce,” Federer says, “whatever that means. Is it CloudTec? Is it the Speedboard? Is it their brains? How they go about things is a bit not-so-typical, maybe a bit disruptive. The sustainable angle is on point and what we need at the moment.” 

No matter what’s working for On, Federer knows everything started—and will continue to succeed—by churning forward on the brand’s original running path.

“I see they are incredibly nimble,” the 20-time Grand Slam champion says. “They make decisions very quickly and that is because they are small. I remind them they are a running brand, to remember they come from running. They have done an incredible job of getting where they are, and I’m happy if I gave them a bump along the way.” 

The Federer involvement with On started organically, much the same way the average consumer has taken to a brand that went public in September and now boasts revenues upward of $800 million, passing competitors like Hoka on its rise. 

Federer says he was intrigued early by the Swiss brand—Switzerland, with its national population of 8 million isn’t known for producing the next wave of footwear leaders—that his wife, Mirka, was wearing and he was seeing all around him on the streets.

“The outsole is just very different, you have to get used to it a little bit, it is quite visible,” he says of his first impressions of On. But he wanted to get a feel. “Finally, you meet a guy who has the same size [shoe] and you say, ‘Can I try it on?’ to see what is this mystique about it.” And once Federer slipped on that borrowed pair, he says the minimalistic design, speed laces, and aesthetic all fell into place. “The shoe is different than other shoes out there,” he says. “I think that initial feeling, it is very simple, was the most comfortable shoe ever and I wanted to meet the boys.” 

The boys, co-founders Olivier Bernhard, Caspar Coppetti, and David Allemann, were just as happy to meet the most famous person in Switzerland.

It was the belief in technology, coupled with a genuine connection between the founders and Federer, that led to a financial investment in the brand by Federer in 2019. Even before anyone signed official papers, Federer was in the Zürich offices working with the founders and head of design, Thilo Brunner, on both an on-court tennis shoe—Federer stepped out in On’s The Roger Pro in Doha in March 2021—and a don’t-call-it-a-lifestyle The Roger family of shoes that released in July 2020. 

Having Federer onboard opened doors for On that Allemann says they didn’t even know existed.

“He has challenged us for the last two years,” the co-founder says. “He challenged us on how you can reinvent the tennis sneaker in the same way you did the running shoe.” The result was CloudTec in a lightweight foam and vegan leather to reduce the shoe’s carbon footprint 70 percent compared to a typical shoe of that style. Having Federer as an investor instead of an endorser, he says, “emotionally that ties us together very strongly.” 

“Roger is not classy, he has class,” Coppetti says. “The people he surrounds himself with are just the best. If he wants to learn or know about a certain area, he has access and then asks the very best. And he leads through questions. Now it is him pushing us in a real, authentic way.” 

Federer came in with a plan, focusing on both on-court (The Roger Pro was worn on-court in 2021, including at Wimbledon) and the minimalist classic aesthetic of a white tennis shoe, but this with On technology hidde on the outside in The Roger Centre Court, Clubhouse, and Advantage silhouettes. “It is something more than a regular shoe,” Federer says. “My urge to be in lifestyle was way bigger than a tennis shoe.” 

Don’t expect Federer to stop. He comes to On—between 20 and 30 times in 2021 alone—with Mirka for entire days at a time, not really with an agenda, just sorting through swatches and bottom units.

“That is post-capitalist happiness that we are experiencing with him because he loves shoes, he is so keen,” says Gérald Marolf, head of Performance All Day. “The first tennis shoe is Roger’s tennis shoe, the second and third ones are very interesting concept cars. The lifestyle part for him is the shoe he wants to wear, and it has tech in it. Now we have these hybrids and that is what we have to be very good at.”  

That humble demeanor from arguably the greatest tennis player ever has been something the three co-founders want to emulate. “Even if I win today,” Allemann says, “the next morning when I stand up it is about the next peak or the next race. If I am not kind of questioning everything again, it is potentially not going to happen. Roger keeps reminding us on that and reinforcing that in our organization.” 

The Performance All Day category has officially existed for two years, now includes the Cloud, the mid-top Cloudnova, the outdoor vibe of the Cloudaway and The Roger family.

“That is still the balance we are working on to this day to make sure we are clearly catering to the runner and accepting a lot of people out there, me included, who are at max casual runners but very much more in for a comfortable, good-looking shoe,” Marolf says. “We know what we clearly don’t want to be. We don’t want to have one-hit wonders, we do not want to tap into a huge talent to make a version and we believe in inner creativity. For us, the most important aspect is that no matter what, everything is rooted in performance.”

Co-CEO Marc Maurer says Performance All Day also attracts a younger audience. And that’s where the brand will continue to go, while remaining a premium brand with a premium price point focused on running culture.

“We are a running brand, born in running,” Maurer says. “It is a performance product, but there is a huge opportunity to bring the design and technology to the All Day space. It is not a product for running and another without technology, it is making this product and giving it multiple uses.”

Launched in 2010 by Bernhard, Coppetti and Alleman, the CloudTec technology comes based on a Bernhard concept. Changing in shape and form based on each shoe’s use case, the individual clouds cushion both vertical and horizontal forces. The ridges lock when compressed, allowing for a natural push-off, and provide cushioning only when needed. While Bernhard’s first attempt at creating the cloud-like sensation consisted of cutting up a garden hose and adhering it to the bottom of the shoe wasn’t practical, it offered a catalyst for engineering. Combined with the company’s Speedboard flex plate technology that debuted in 2013—made with differing materials, including carbon fiber at times—for additional propulsion, the technology combinations gave On performance credibility. 

First created as a training tool to soften impacts, the tech showed that it also improved running times. Adding the Speedboard made the product even faster. Brunner says as On continues to explore engineering and sustainability, they search for new materials.

“CloudTec is really a feeling and not a very specific shape,” he says. “The shape evolves over time to manifest the feeling we want to achieve. We still start every project on how we feel a shoe should feel and that is where we take it.” 

Bernhard, a former world champion triathlon athlete, knew shoes. But he wanted a unique feeling. He wanted to feel like he was running on clouds. “This feel is so unique,” he says. “We are not just selling a new product for a new color; it is the tech that made the idea.” The intuitive, visible technology helped runners understand what On was doing and breakthroughs have included moving from rubber to foams, reducing weight, and doubling energy return. 

Coppetti says the underfoot feeling is contagious. From the start, On wanted to get the footwear on runners’ feet. On average, On wearers recommend the brand to three to five friends, helping push that effort.

“We don’t do the financials as a target, but how many pieces of apparel or pairs of shoes,” Coppetti says. Early industry awards gave On a quick grassroots start of 9,000 pairs on feet in the first year, in 2011. Then it was 35,000. Then 60,000. The growth rates were double or more every year. Now On has about 20 million people wearing the product.

Even the brand name and logo come from the feeling the tech provides. Coppetti says they wanted a name that described the feeling, the activation, the “switch on” that a runner felt. “It is really like a switch turning me on,” Bernhard says. The tick on the “o” offers an old-school light switch look. 

Every time the founders flip that light switch, it highlights the need to focus on the future. “We are not interested in doing something twice,” Coppetti says. On doesn’t plan to compromise to hit mass taste, whether a design or a color. It wants to be bold, in minimalistic designs and colors and technology. 

On expects to launch a new footwear franchise in March 2022, adding to the 38 silhouettes already available. The Cloudmonster, the brand’s distinct take on maximum cushioning with a double layer of CloudTec, will add to the already popular Cloudflyer, Cloudflow, and Cloudswift. The key designs in the outdoor space feature the Cloudventure, Cloudrock and Cloudultra. And while each one of those also has its own Performance All Day following (especially the Cloudswift), On has The Roger family of three silhouettes, the Cloudnova and the new outdoor-inspired Cloudaway silhouettes already pulling in new fans. 

On started branching out nearly immediately, reaching into Foot Locker in the United States in 2011, all a necessity of starting in a relatively small country. Now with over 1,100 employees, on pace to reach 2,000—the average age of an employee is 32, keeping it modern and nimble. Functioning across nine offices and selling in over 60 countries, the brand has a global footprint. While Zürich remains the largest office with about 500 employees, the Portland office isn’t far behind, with about 300 employees. With nearly half of all On business coming from the United States, the brand believes it has room to grow everywhere it already is. And in places it hasn’t yet reached. 

Tastemakers have taken notice, from Kith to Dover Street Market. The authenticity in running helps spark the interest and must continue to be embraced, Federer says. Already, On spent 2021 building in running culture by creating events around the world’s largest marathons, inviting in artists for celebrations of running and culture in its “Run .2” efforts in London and New York. 

“This could be an All-Star weekend for running,” Marolf says. “Running is not just the crazy nerds who block your city for a weekend.” One of the most accessible sports in the world has some of the fewest activations surrounding it. “This idea that we are inspiring humans to movement,” Marolf says, “it spurs creative ideas and that is why Run .2 celebrates that intersection (of sport and art).”

On also wants to embrace sustainability, touting recycled content and vegan leathers and 2022 Cylon subscription product, a fully recyclable shoe that you won’t own. 

There’s also a push in apparel, which first launched in 2015. Already roughly 10 percent of the brand’s overall business, apparel accounts for about 25 percent of business in its fast-growing China market. New apparel pieces, both coming highly technical and fitting of the brand’s minimalistic designs, will expand in 2022. 

With expansion comes a fresh focus on retail. On opened its first flagship store in New York in December 2020, an experience-driven space with 3D foot scanning. Allemann says it is still early days for On at retail and they expect to continue to create new experiences, even as they have opened eight stores in China and plan their next flagship at the upcoming Zürich headquarters. 

“I think it is important from a brand perspective and how the people see you and being from Switzerland, maybe it doesn’t seem like an important thing, but for us growing up in Switzerland you never show off too much,” Federer says. “You remember your roots; are grounded. They have very humble backgrounds, same with my wife and I, we come from completely normal backgrounds. That will resonate with people. These guys go on their bikes to the office, it is a friendly environment, they are very approachable and don’t live in that ivory tower. They are super humble.” 

That means you can expect that between co-founders, CEOs or Federer, everyone at On will use that 17-story climb in the new Zürich headquarters, either in a high-level running shoe or a Performance All Day model.

Latest in Sneakers