On a recent Wednesday evening in Zurich, Switzerland, a group of runners gathered in the glow of On’s flagship store in the city. Several of them wore the Swiss sportswear label’s signature running shoes – easily recognisable for their honeycomb-shaped soles – before setting off into the darkness and up Käferberg, a chain of hills which overlook the city, for the brand’s weekly community run. At the top of the steep climb, a brief pause to take in the lights of the city below; in the daylight, the Swiss Alps can be seen in the distance. Such a feeling of elevation seems fitting: wear On’s sneakers and the brand promise ‘the feeling of running on clouds’.
The Zurich store is part of On Labs, a recently opened complex which houses the brand’s head offices, innovation and testing laboratories, alongside a vegan restaurant and coffee shop (previously, On had a much smaller office within a former church community centre). Housed in a converted tower block in what was once the city’s industrial district – in the neighbouring streets are the city’s University of the Arts and Museum of Design, both of which moved to the area in 2014 – its design mimics a mountain ascent, the various floors connected by a series of stairs made to evoke the feeling of hiking up an Alpine path (as such, the floors are titled ‘Forest’, ‘Lake’, ‘Mountain’ et cetera, while the twisting staircases get narrower as they go).
Inside On Labs, Zurich
‘We wanted to work out how to go from a horizontal office to a vertical campus,’ says Nicolas Martin, On’s head of retail expansion and office spaces, who headed the project. ‘The stairs create this spine for people to move up and down and meet people as they go. There are things you only discover on the trail – like the hanging tree installation on the fifth floor… these large, raw, natural moments.’
The design of the offices is a reflection of the origins of On (sometimes called ’On Running’), which came into being after a hike in the Swiss Alps’ Engadin Valley undertaken by friends – and now On co-founders – Olivier Bernhard, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti. The purpose was persuasion; Bernhard, a three-time world duathlon champion, had been working on a prototype running shoe with a Swiss engineer, first devised by placing cut-up hose pipe onto the base of the sole for propulsion. Initially, Allemann and Coppetti – who had worked in branding and marketing, Allemann being former global CMO of furniture manufacturer Vitra – had been sceptical of the unconventional design. ‘We were thinking – do we really need another running brand? Another running shoe?’ Allemann remembers.
But then they tried them on. ‘It was a rainy day, and Olivier took out a pair of wet running shoes. It was actually the shoe of another brand, with the outsole shaved off and the round pieces stuck on,’ he says. ‘Wearing them, the feeling reminded me of my first suspension bike, my first carbon skis. I thought: this will change running.’ The hike, which took place a little later, was the moment that cemented the project. ‘I’d spent 20 years up in the mountains, hiking, trail running, skiing, and so had Olivier and Caspar. It wasn’t a coincidence that to convince each other to do it, to pull the trigger, we went on a long hike in the Engadin. It’s where we eventually said: hey, let’s make this work.’ A sculpture of a boulder in the Zurich store – crafted from upcycled sneaker prototypes by artist Lucas Muñoz – commemorates the spot (only accessible by foot; exact coordinates sit on the wall alongside).
‘I think that moment translated into what we see as our mission. We feel whenever you go out and move, whether that’s around the city, or on a hike, something happens not only in your body, but in your mind as well. It opens up possibilities.’
Movement is at the heart of On’s philosophy, which remains centred around the CloudTec sole, now utilised in every pair of footwear – from running sneakers and hiking boots to tennis shoes, alongside more leisure-focused styles. In recent years, the brand has grown exponentially. In March 2022, they shipped a million shoes in a month for the first time; earlier this November, they announced that net sales had increased by over 50 per cent for the year (they now expect net sales of 1.125 billion Swiss francs for the year in total, their largest yet). It makes On one of sportswear’s fastest-growing brands, its success in part down to the links they have forged with professional sport. In 2019, tennis player Roger Federer – one of sport’s most bankable athletes – joined On (already a fan of On sneakers, he became ‘co-entrepreneur’ and has since helped create a range of tennis and leisure sneakers in his name).
In athletics and track – still the bedrock of the label – On has also made strides, beginning to compete with the sport’s major players Nike, Adidas and Asics for athlete sponsorship. In 2013, they won their first medal on the world stage, with Belgian Frederik Van Lierde winning the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in the brand’s Cloudracer style; in 2016, On athlete Nicola Spirig won silver at the Rio Olympics triathlon. The On Athletic Club (OAC) – a group of professional elite track runners based in Boulder, Colorado – was formed in August 2020, under the guidance of three-time US Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein. Two-time Kenyan 5,000m world champion Hellen Obiri is the latest addition to the team; earlier this month in New York, she undertook her first marathon – a distance at which it is believed she will excel – in a pair of On sneakers, placing sixth.
‘It happened again and again that athletes were finding us,’ says Allemann. ‘At the beginning, we weren’t doing the traditional model of going out and signing athletes, athletes were signing us. That even happened with Roger, who called us and basically said, “Hey, shall we meet for dinner?” And that’s when we enlisted him as a co-entrepreneur with us.’
Working with world-class athletes requires constant innovation, all of which begins in the research and development department on the lower floors of On Lab (special semi-transparent orange class keeps the latest inventions shielded from view). ‘It’s really important that we continue to build the brand together with athletes,’ says Allemann, who notes that international sportspeople often travel to Zurich to trial prototype styles. ‘It’s such a valuable feedback loop that that then helps to democratise the technology that we develop for athletes.’
‘We’re very athlete-orientated,’ adds Nils Altrogge, On’s head of innovation technology. ‘Our CloudTec is always the building block; its shape allows us to have both horizontal and vertical cushioning. How I break it down is that the innovation team’s goal is to make performance products that make our athletes faster, with the lowest possible footprint for the world.’
Sustainability is particularly important to On; Altrogge notes that the carbon footprint of each style is carefully calculated for each pair of shoes and items of apparel, while deadstock is utilised for over 50 experimental projects (in the new office, for example, a number of stools are crafted from upcycled sneakers). One recent innovation is the Cloudneo running sneaker, which is made from castor beans, allowing it to be 100 per cent recyclable (usually, only certain elements from a sneaker can be recycled, with the energy it takes to deconstruct these styles making them eventually unsustainable). Rather than owning the Cloudneo, you pay a monthly subscription as part of the ‘Cyclon’ scheme; when your pair runs out, you send it back to be recycled. As such, it promises complete circularity.
‘It’s an experiment at scale,’ smiles Altrogge, who notes that early feedback has been positive (particularly, he says, about how lightweight the Cloudneo is). ‘The Cloudneo is just the very small start of a big journey. We are developing other recyclable models in the future, and want to build up the Cyclon concept.’
Another upcoming innovation is CleanCloud, a groundbreaking foam created in a process that begins by capturing carbon from fossil fuel emissions before they enter the atmosphere. Taking over half a decade to perfect, these captured emissions are fermented into liquid ethanol, which can then be used to create EVA pellets to engineer foam cushioning for running shoes. Currently, Altrogge only has a small number of prototypes, which must be handled with gloves to prevent damage. Still, he believes it will eventually revolutionise the sneaker industry. ‘We 100 per cent are sharing this technology with other brands,’ says Altrogge. ‘In the Olympic Games, we want to be the fastest, so we wouldn’t share CloudTec with anyone. But this is something too important. We need to partner up.’
Innovation aside, much of On’s appeal continues to come from the way its sneakers – and ever-expanding apparel offering – look. Minimal in design, oftentimes colourful, and with the uniquely sculptural CloudTec sole, the brand’s sneakers have been adopted by swathes of consumers who have little knowledge of the years-long research and development it takes to make each pair. As such, a fashion collaboration seemed inevitable; in 2022, On announced it would unite with Spanish luxury house Loewe, and creative director Jonathan Anderson, on a range of sneakers and apparel.
‘In the tradition of On, Jonathan called us, rather than us him,’ says Allemann. ‘He said he was wearing our shoes every day. Loewe has this focus on nature and craft, so there’s a shared DNA. So we invited him to work with us, to create edits on our Cloudventure sneakers, made for trail running in the mountains. So there’s design, but there’s technology there, too.’
This technology continues to be the brand’s unique appeal, believes Allemann. ‘The way our shoes feel is the core. Then it’s the physical appearance; then the community you are tapping into – the people who come on community runs. It’s a grassroots, word-of-mouth movement. It’s about saying: I want to have that as a part of my life, my active life.’
Allemann often returns to the mountain in conversation; the struggle and reward of an upward climb. ‘If you think of all the times you went for a run or a hike, if it was bad weather, or the hill was steep, once you come back, you always feel better,’ he says, noting that he has spent much of his life amid Alpine peaks. ‘In Switzerland, you are often looking up a mountain, or climbing one. When you get to the top it opens up your perspective,’ he says. ‘It opens up possibilities.’
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Jack Moss is the Fashion Features Editor at Wallpaper*. Having previously held roles at 10, 10 Men and AnOther magazines, he joined the team in 2022. His work has a particular focus on the moments where fashion and style intersect with other creative disciplines – among them art and design – as well as championing a new generation of international talent and profiling the industry’s leading figures and brands.
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