May 03, 2024
by Karl Smith
ON x Post Archive Faction: Cultural Moment or Missed Opportunity?
by Karl Smith
May 03, 2024

When it comes to functionality and Earth-friendlier material make-up, few sportswear brands come as close to getting the balance right as On Running. What’s more, the Swiss label also seems to have locked in the all-too-rare cultural piece, becoming not only a wardrobe staple for non-athletes from Los Angeles to Tokyo, but also a sought-after collaborator for the kinds of aesthetically innovative fashion brands that might otherwise never have entered the athletic-wear marketplace at all.

While this unique standing might not be immediately obvious when looking at some of the Zürich-based brand’s more traditional offerings – its ongoing collaboration with compatriot tennis star Roger Federer, for example – it clearly presents itself in On’s joint efforts with the South Korean label POST ARCHIVE FACTION (PAF), an LVMH Prize semifinalist founded in 2018 which, in showing at Paris Fashion Week and previously working with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, should theoretically have close to zero overlap.

On further inspection, however, the two have more in common than meets the eye: a penchant for progressive design, though not necessarily in the exact same ways, and a clear focus on technical utility make for a strong bond between brands that are otherwise geographically and culturally about as distinct as it gets.

Still, while their coming together presents a unique opportunity for On – its name now floated positively in circles it would likely never even earned a mention before, winning column inches in Berlin’s über-cool 032c magazine – there is a sense that this collaboration is less than it might have been in more tangible ways. Most notably when it comes to material innovation and Earth-friendlier construction.

Take the Cloudmonster 2 PAF, for example. This is a shoe aesthetically inspired by natural forms, specifically the ebb and flow of moving water, replete with all the usual technical aspects that have helped build On’s name in the running community. Along with a few experimental design flourishes, courtesy of PAF, the shoe boasts what On describes as its “biggest-ever CloudTec®,” as well as a nylon-blend Speedboard®, dual-density Helion™ superfoam, a light-weight and well-ventilated upper, and a forefoot foam insert to absorb impact. It is, for all intents and purposes, an exemplary shoe in terms of form and function.

Where it fails, however, is in the details.

Toward the back end of 2023, On released its Pace collection – a line of apparel made with LanzaTech and Borealis’ carbon-capture technology – and, well before that, a fully-recyclable and subscription-only shoe constructed from 90% bio-based materials. Both of these, it’s fair to say, were wholly innovative product offerings. Sure, they may not have had the aesthetic allure of the PAF collaboration, but they demonstrated the Swiss brand’s commitment to cleaning up sportswear’s less-than-stellar reputation on environmental impact.

While it may not be entirely fair, it’s these kinds of forward-thinking releases which have earned the brand a higher standard of expectation than its long list of competitors who do much less.

And it’s with this in mind that the PAF collaboration doesn’t quite measure up. Across the shoes, shorts, pants, T-shirts, and jackets of the capsule, its only claim to planet-forward thinking is a selection of recycled plastics, which in some cases register at as little as 20% of the product’s DNA.

Again, perhaps this isn’t fair; perhaps, if this were another brand, we’d be (very lightly) applauding the effort. But On has proven it can do better. It has proven, time and time again, that function can be delivered alongside Earth-friendlier innovation, and it’s hard to process the fact that doesn’t seem to have been a real consideration here.

Yes, the design work is aesthetically and formally interesting, as you’d expect with PAF’s involvement, but there’s nothing here that immediately says, “We couldn’t have done this if we’d used lower-impact materials.” In a way it feels like a trade off – but an entirely unnecessary one, made to advance one aspect of the brand without protecting or progressing another key element.

And so, while the collaboration is winning plaudits from one perspective, at the end of the day you have to wonder: is the cultural moment worth the missed opportunity for further progress in a way that really matters?