When you’re a relatively young challenger running shoe brand taking on the world’s second best-known monster duopoly, you need to play it smart. No amount of clever technology and natty design will worry Nike and Adidas unless your brand message starts to cut through. Without mega-buck marketing budgets and A-list athlete sponsorships, nine-year old Swiss brand On has got high and minimal to tell at least part of its story. This summer it landed a suitably advanced looking mountain hut 2,500 metres up Piz Lunghin in Switzerland’s Engadine valley.
One of the fastest growing sports brands in the world and known for its distinctive exposed-pod soles, an innovation it calls ‘CloudTech’, On was founded by triathlete Olivier Bernhard and friends Caspar Coppetti and David Allemann. All three grew up in the Swiss Alps and, they say, put together a business plan for their nascent brand walking in the mountains above the Engadine valley.
The hut though is the work of Thilo Brunner, On’s head of design. (Brunner, was until recently a professor at Ecal, leading the MA in product design and collaborating with Barber Osgerby, the Bouroullecs, amongst others. Allemann says that after talking to a number of shoe-design specialists, they went looking for someone who could bring a new take to running shoe design.)
The sharply-angled mountain outpost, clad in high-polish corrugated metal, is only reachable on foot, a 700 m climb. It packs in (just about) two floors, a stove and toilet with a glass façade offering views across the valley. (On has restricted access to competition winners though, unsurprisingly, it has attracted a fair amount of attention from walkers and a clamour for guest privileges).
Built in light local plywood, powered by solar panels and using only collected rain water or water from mountain streams – Pix Linguin is the watershed of three of Europe’s major river systems – the hut should leave no trace when it is dismantled this autumn. Alleman says they hope to re-erect the hut next summer, either in its current spot or a new lookout and is considering building other versions to land in the US or Asia.
On have used the hut’s installation to announce the launch of its Cloudrock Waterproof walking boots and a reworked trail running shoe, the Cloudventure Peak, as the brand pushes beyond road running and into the hills and valleys.
On shoes and apparel are now sold in 6,000 specialist running stores in 50 countries. Headquartered in Zurich it has outposts in Portland, Yokohama and Melbourne, and in 2021 will move into a brand-new Zurich HQ building. Allemann says the company will double its staff numbers over the next three or four years to 800 people. ‘On has a very distinct culture,’ he says, ‘and how to maintain that when we are growing so quickly, moving from a one-floor office to a new one with several floors is a big topic. We’re looking into how to combine all the things we do daily at work like workshops, doing sports together and just being creative. At the same time we’re bringing selected partners into the new office space, we want to create a hub in Zurich for creativity, for startups and incubators.’
Brunner meanwhile is currently moving into a new separate ‘maker space’. ‘It’s a proper design maker lab,’ he says. ‘Computer-aided design is really important in design of course but I wanted to take the computer-generated work back to the work-bench to make design development much faster. If a designer has an idea, I need them to be able to build the shoe using their skills and the tools at hand by themselves within a few days.’
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