It’s a scene that some of us in the industry have become accustomed to: The smattering of media invited to hear from a quartet of disruptors—some of them, yes, of wispy beard and of shaved head, dressed in T-shirts and sneakers—out to change established practices and reinvent how we live.
What you usually don’t see: 20-time Grand Slam champion and living legend of sport Roger Federer at the tail end of a barnstorming tour of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Ecuador among them. But Federer’s new game-changing partnership with the founders of On—the Swiss brand behind those almost supernaturally comfortable shoes with the odd logo that you’ve been seeing more and more lately—is anything but normal. After ending his long shoes-and-apparel partnership with Nike last year, Federer signed a long-term deal with Uniqlo for apparel—and, more recently, with Zurich-based On, founded by a trio including Olivier Bernhard, a three-time duathlon world champion and six-time Ironman champion. Federer received no bonus and will take no salary; but if the brand does well, he does well.
Just how Swiss is On? Swiss enough that the brand was founded in 2010 by three people—with more or less zero experience in the shoe industry—out on a long hike in the Engadin Mountains outside of St. Moritz. Swiss enough that cofounder Caspar Coppetti, at the small press gaggle to announce Federer’s partnership, touts his new partner as someone who’s “invented new, how do you call it, ‘hits’?”
“Shots,” Federer says with a laugh. “Shots!” Coppetti exclaims.
“Maybe ‘moves’ as well—I’m not sure,” Federer says shyly.
“You surprised people with those moves or shots!” Coppetti says, with a kind of joyous effervescence. “That’s the spirit. Well, we like to be innovators, so here we are.”
Here, as Federer explains afterward, reclining on a sofa upstairs in his suite at the 1 Hotel Central Park, is a rather rarefied—and extremely global—place. “They’re doubling every 18 months in terms of the people they’re hiring—they’re going into the big-time, and they’re big, big dreamers.”
What you won’t hear—from Federer or from any of the other partners—is the usual disruptors’ crowing about reinventing the wheel and changing the world. Only under a kind of cross-examination did cofounder David Allemann tell me that On is the fastest-growing running brand in the world, that their growth in the U.S. in particular hovers around 100%, and that their shoes are now on the feet of seven or eight million people around the globe. (The brand’s many fans in the fashion world range from Akris creative director Albert Kriemler, who has put Ons on his Paris runways, to Jonathan Anderson of JW Anderson and Loewe.)
“The whole self-promotion thing isn’t really our style,” Federer says with a smile. “Secretly, all of us Swiss want to be successful—but we’re not going to shout about it, because it comes across as arrogance.”
The mere fact that he’s here (and smiling!)—after sleeping the last five nights on a plane while tearing through South America and Latin America, and then spending much of his day literally running around Manhattan with his On partners—is a testament not only to Federer’s fitness, but to his passion for travel and for adventure.
“Some people wondered why I wanted to do all of that, and, in fact, it was very simple: I felt an urge to connect with the people in that part of the world. I mean, in Mexico, we played in front of 42,500 people—we broke the all-time world record for people at a tennis match,” Federer says, sounding, for one brief shining moment, distinctly un-Swiss-like. “The last time I was there, I was 16 years old—I played qualifying, and lost in the second round. Yesterday I was playing in Ecuador, right at zero degrees latitude, right on the equator—the line was right on the court and you play the North versus the South. And, I mean, the language was a barrier—I speak French, English, and German, but not Spanish—so communicating was highly interesting, but on the tennis court, everything is easier. It’s a great privilege to do that, and to have my kids grow up in that same world as we travel to Australia, America, Africa, Europe—every continent, so many countries. I just think it’s an incredible upbringing for them.”
And while both Federer and his partners are cagey about just what sort of mysterious project, or products, they’ve been working on (“It’s a secret, let’s be honest,” Federer said earlier), all will be revealed in a few months—at the same time as the unveiling of a brick-and-mortar On store in New York City. Something Federer doesn’t keep close to his vest, though: His tennis style heroes.
“Björn Borg was special for me,” he says. “Stefan Edberg too—when I grew up, in the ’90s, people like [Pete] Sampras and [Andre] Agassi had more of a baggy look, but he always looked cleaned up, proper. And then as time went on, we all became more fitted again. Now it’s almost going back to a loose fit again, but I like the fitted, crisp, clean, good look with nice touches of details.”
But what happens when bad looks happen to good people?
“I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus,” says the man seemingly constitutionally incapable of throwing anybody under any bus, “but sometimes we try to be innovative and it just doesn’t work. Especially with shoes on the court—the classic tennis shoes that we know from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s didn’t have to endure what shoes have to endure today, but somewhere along the way, tennis shoes became so bulky-looking and almost ugly because they had to endure sliding and wear and tear. I thought that was a pity—I think you can make good-looking shoes that can handle anything. But some things just didn’t work—I look back sometimes and wonder why there wasn’t more touch put into it—and it’s unfortunate, because tennis players change our collection maybe 10 times a year, and it’s a huge opportunity to work with.”
Earlier, Federer spoke a bit about both the opportunity and the challenges of working with brands. “When you’re an ambassador for a brand, you hear a lot about numbers, about how many days you’re expected to give, about bonuses,” he says. “There’s an expression in sports, ‘you’re only as good as your next match,’ and this is because brands want to protect themselves. Usually in tennis, you have a deal for a year, three years, and eventually, they switch you out for a younger guy or they move out of the sport. I’ve been very fortunate to be together with my partners for a long, long time. And when my Nike deal ended, it allowed me the opportunity to explore what I could do for clothes and for shoes. It’s the first time I had to speak with my wife about a deal or a partnership that exceeds my playing days. But I felt comfortable about doing that because Uniqlo believed in me not only as a tennis player, but as a person, a philanthropist, a father—and gradually, organically, this partnership with On grew. That’s when I thought, Let’s do a different kind of deal—something that usually athletes cannot touch—and become an investor; really feel like you’re in it. It’s extremely exciting.”
What’s next for this frequent flier? Something even more exciting—and perhaps more urgent. “Right now, I’m just looking forward to a vacation!” he says, throwing his head back on the sofa. “Regroup, reset, train hard in the off-season—and get ready for whatever’s coming next.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue