Introducing THE ROGER Collection by On: An Abridged History of Tennis Fashion and Roger Federer’s Influence

Introducing THE ROGER Collection by On: An Abridged History of Tennis Fashion and Roger Federer’s Influence

They say the German language has a word for almost everything. “Zeitzeuge” has no direct equivalent in English, but it roughly translates to “contemporary witness,” or an individual still living who has experienced an event of significant magnitude in their time. One such event would lead Swiss performance-wear brand, On, to engineer and collaborate on a collection of footwear that they call, THE ROGER. 

On June 22, 1999, a 17-year-old Swiss tennis sensation made his debut on the hallowed Wimbledon grass. The ponytailed youngster put in a valiant effort, but eventually succumbed in five sets against his older, top 100 ranked opponent. The result didn’t matter. Of more importance was the sparsely populated crowd — the Zeitzeuge — in attendance that day; the people who, unknowingly, had just become a tiny footnote in the annals of history by witnessing this prospect at his future second home. The kid’s name was Roger Federer, and he would go on to rewrite the sport’s golden pages.

In his now-legendary essay titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience”, the late writer David Foster Wallace wrote that “beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.” In Federer’s case, the All England Club is a church. It’s here where the maestro was sculpted, ascending to record-breaking greatness with an aesthetic that’s been likened to Michaelangelo’s painting. Federer is a winning machine first and foremost, but it’s his elegance that sets him apart from the rest. No other has ever gone about their business with such immaculate grace; his personal style is microcosmic of what makes tennis both cool and just so damn beautiful.

Looking back over the decades, tennis fashion takes on all manner of forms. But its relationship with the streets remains constant. That statement can also be true of Federer. When exploring the Swiss’s wardrobe, it’s almost become a stereotype to use words like “smart” and “debonair”. He is the embodiment of a gentleman, sure, but not in a way that’s stuffy. Whether its his biker ready head-band or aggressive SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) shot, an edgier side has always bubbled beneath the surface.

The same vibe comes through in his new On sneakers, THE ROGER Collection. It’s smart and unassuming; a low-key workhorse you could throw on with some suit trousers to a casual black-tie event. Alternatively, it would just as easily compliment some funky shorts in the summer. “Timeless” is a word that’s overused in sneaker parlance, but the unassuming design is an aesthetic, similar to the man himself, that is built to last. But don’t be deceived by its stripped back appearance: Underneath the vegan-leather bonnet you’ll find CloudTec® and Speedboard® technology, as well as a midsole that incorporates a brand new type of lightweight foam. This acute attention to technical detail and On’s appreciation of timeless street fashion, brings effortless wearability to THE ROGER Collection.

As far as partnerships go, On and Federer are a good mutual sounding board for each, and not just because they share the same Schweizerdeutsch tongue. Like Federer, On is obsessed with being the best, and leaves no stone unturned in its quest for utmost performance. People have sat up and taken notice. The brand hasn’t so much as disrupted the footwear market as they have turned it on his head. In Berlin, you’re just as likely to see their silhouettes on the feet of cool kids in trendy Neukolln, as you would hardened runners in the parks of leafy Prenzlauer Berg. As far as crossover appeal goes, it’s hard to think of any other brand doing it better.

Gauging Federer’s impact on sportswear and wider fashion is no easy task. As a close friend of Anna Wintour, he is someone who thinks carefully about his choices, but never over-complicates things. The confidence and charisma is a huge part of the appeal, sure, yet not everyone can pull off a tuxedo with the same ineffable panache. He plays the role of a tennis royal well, and his style is universal, easy to admire whether you’re 15 or 55.

Federer’s status as a fashion icon follows a rich lineage of players who cared deeply about their sartorial choices. When Rene Lacoste eschewed traditional tennis attire for a polo at the US Open in 1926, he couldn’t have imagined changing the course of menswear forever. Fans embraced the Frenchman’s looser look, and soon he was building an empire of snazzy colored shirts. This success didn’t go unnoticed by a Grand Slam-winning English entrepreneur named Fred Perry, who fancied a slice of the action for himself. Come the late ‘70s, tennis wear had fully penetrated youth culture in Britain, and was being re-appropriated in a different context by skinheads and casuals. The gilded courts of SW19 might be a million miles removed from the ramshackle terraces of Birmingham and Leeds, yet sportswear-obsessed, football-going lads still managed to co-opt Bjorn Borg’s effortless looks in their own way. The dam burst and the gear transitioned to the lifestyle arena. That it hardly came cheap only added to the allure.

It’s remiss to write any tennis piece without mentioning Andre Agassi, the sport’s proverbial enfant terrible. The (then) mullet-haired American was a punk — an upstart whose distaste for the game’s conservatism extended to the point where he refused to play at Wimbledon between 1988 and 1990 because of its all-white dress code. He preferred acid wash denim shorts and neon spandex underlayers, inevitably accompanied with some lurid sneakers. For a generation bred on a diet of Bevis and Butthead, Agassi was a true renegade worthy of veneration. His unapologetic attitude and blood, sweat and tears “pusher” approach stood in stark contrast to eternal rival Pete Sampras, a dour but indomitable powerhouse famed for serves that risked inflicting blunt trauma on the unfortunate receiver across the net. Pistol Pete may have come out on top in tournament wins, but Agassi had the last laugh where fashion is concerned. “Agassi was a wave,” said Virgil Abloh in 2018. “He impacted me and what I thought about sports.”

That takes us full circle to the turn of the Millenium, and the boy who would be king of Wimbledon. As a youngster, I remember watching Federer ballet dance his way through matches on TV, thinking “this guy must be some kind of artificial avatar.” Everything was just too perfect: from the way he glided across the court to his perfectly measured 7” inseam short. It was a classical symphony in human form, a flawlessness we shouldn’t be able to attain in this life. Unfortunately, like every being, time is a foe that even a giant of Federer’s ilk can’t beat. At least, when he does finally hang up the racket, it’s now all of us, the Zeitzeuge, that can say that we were there to witness his greatness.

Credit to Graeme Campbell

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