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Meet the Next Big Men's Brand: Chris Salgardo's Atwater

Published September 6, 2022
Published September 6, 2022
Travis Shinn

Chris Salgardo has the story of a career path that I never tire of sharing—a beauty industry veteran that started on the retail floor, moving up the corporate ladder to the corner office. He took it one step further, walking away from his post as president of Kiehl's to follow his entrepreneurial dreams.

In his next act as founder, Salgardo wants to be a face men can trust with their skincare, building a future where men can freely talk about their needs and find common ground that bonds them with one another and encourages them to be their best. With a content platform, The Majestic Man, and Atwater, a men's skincare brand, Salgardo shuns stereotypical masculine marketing, leaning into educating consumers.

Salgardo has nearly 100,000 Instagram followers, an influencer in his own right, but his strategy for building Atwater uses old-school tactics grounded in making what exists work. He's launching Atwater with a Nordstrom exclusive supported by a series of public appearances, building the brand one interaction at a time.

You stepped away from the beauty industry at what many would have considered the height of your career when you left your position as president of Kiehl's in 2017. What was the impetus for that decision?

I took a barometer reading of my life so far and knew if I stayed on my current trajectory, I'd be heading to retirement and may be too old to pivot to something new once I hit that point. I decided to organize myself, made a list of my biggest dreams, and went to work. I knew I needed to step away to make these dreams a reality. I couldn't be president of Kiehl's forever, so I closed that chapter in order for another to begin.

After three decades of successfully climbing the big beauty corporate ladder, what made you decide to throw your hat into the start-up world?

Temporary insanity. I'm obviously kidding when I say that, but being an entrepreneur is next-level business management and incredibly stressful. Creating this skincare company, Atwater, was a lifelong dream, and I knew exactly what I wanted it to be. I knew if I wanted it to come to life, I'd have to create it. Even though this has been one of the most challenging journeys of my life, it has also been the most rewarding. I can't wait to be able to share my story with other entrepreneurs as a mentor and to share what I've learned. There is room for all of us to be successful.

There has been chatter about the men's category "exploding" for as long as I can remember, but it has never quite happened. What makes you think now is the time?

I know … I've heard that same chatter. I think all indicators point to the fact that men are becoming increasingly more aware of their skin and wanting to take care of it. I think beyond great products, which are core to his purchasing decision, he also wants a trusted resource to answer his questions. I believe Atwater can serve both of those purposes. I would also challenge the retail community to think differently about men and give them the position and marketing fuel they deserve. When we are relegated to the back of the department on two shelves, it doesn't look very important, so why would men pay more attention? If we get this right, we can all win. Men are ready to spend—just give them a good reason (and products) for why he should.

Why not leverage your time at Kiehl's and tap into the movement of shifting the traditional male vs female binary marketing paradigm that's historically governed the industry?

Nowhere on the packaging for Atwater does it say "for men"—our packaging is gender neutral. We must remember there are thousands of female-targeted brands and fewer options for men. We need to meet men where they are and give him a chance to catch up. Men have sweatier skin; it's dense, we shave, and we hate the feel of anything heavy on our face, so formulating for his skin is still very important.

While the men's skincare category may be less crowded, there is still no shortage of start-ups. What makes the Atwater products different?

I don't think you necessarily need to reinvent the wheel to be successful. There are many interesting formulas, but they all live in different places. When it came down to formulating, I wanted to make sure we brought together the right ingredients, texture, and comfort level in its application. We have kept cleansing simple and affordable, but built skincare to be highly effective through brightening and with highly effective ingredients at the right levels. I think using color on the packaging to guide the customer to their needs was also very important. I like to think of Atwater as a very smart skincare brand.

"I want men to evolve in their view of skincare and its purpose. It's time to stop saying "I don't care" when you know he does, but maybe society doesn't make him feel comfortable enough to say so."
By Chris Salgardo, Founder, Atwater

What were the inspiration and non-negotiables for the brand and packaging? Is there any meaning behind the name?

Highly effective, smart products that could last him his lifetime were at the core of our branding. We were focused on everything needed to meet today's clean beauty standards, which is table stakes in formulating products. I wanted pricing to be entry level for the prestige category so it would keep us out of luxury but allow the brand to be aspirational.

The name comes from the town my father is from – Atwater, CA – and it is also representative of all the 13,000 miles I've ridden on behalf of HIV/AIDS, Breast Cancer, and Ovarian cancer organizations to every tiny town across America. Through this I’ve felt like some towns were thriving, and some dying, but I have found the people I have met incredibly inspirational. Atwater is every town and any town in the USA. 

Packaging comes from my love of armoring up for the day and the modern-day garage, while the simple copy on the packaging informs the consumer and color coordination guides him in his purchases.

You've launched the brand with what might be considered a traditional strategy starting with a department store exclusive supported by in-store appearances. Can you share the thinking behind the choice of your retail partner and the launch strategy?

The men's category is a different beast altogether. I don't think it's about being traditional, but it's about making what exists work well. Department and specialty stores are thriving again and are doing an incredible job of reimaging themselves. We have a lot of retail space out there, so let's hope they continue to get it right. And I'm not sure we see much in PAs for men's grooming. And that is something I love to do. I spent five years behind the counter, so having that one-on-one interaction is everything to me. Nordstrom has always had a great and loyal men's business, and the customer service is legendary. This will be a great place to start.

You could have raised money to launch Atwater with your CV and in this investment environment. Why did you decide to self-fund this venture?

It was my mission and on my list of goals to have my own business that I could approve every decision and see the brand through my vision. It's hard deciding to start your own business while also funding it, but I couldn't imagine answering to stakeholders for financial approvals. Not everyone receives an opportunity like this, but I am grateful to have been given one … even though it's given me more gray hair.

What does success look like for Atwater?

I want men to evolve in their view of skincare and its purpose. It's time to stop saying "I don't care" when you know he does, but maybe society doesn't make him feel comfortable enough to say so. Skincare has changed my life—it gave me confidence that I didn't have before, and I've seen the power of what looking good can do for one's sense of self. If we can make men feel better in some small way, from all walks of life and regardless of money and status, I will feel that my mission is accomplished.

Chris Salgardo in conversation with BeautyMatter founder Kelly Kovack.

Chris Salgardo, CEO of Chipican & Founder of Lightning Bolt Industry Consulting and Atwater, sits down with Kelly Kovack to discuss his career path from the retail floor to President of Kiehls, why he walked away from it all in 2017, and why he decided to come back. Click here to listen.


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