Over the course of his 18-year career at L’Oréal, Chris Salgardo has been at the helm of Kiehl’s, Shu Uemura, and Giorgio Armani Beauty, in addition to leading L’Oréal’s premium outlet destinations. At Kiehl’s, Chris was in charge of the brand’s U.S. strategic evolution, brand vision, and retail marketing. Since leaving L’Oréal at the end of 2018, Chris was CEO of Sofia Vergara’s new brand (to be launched) in collaboration with Cantabria Labs. At the start of 2019, Chris founded Lightning Bolt Industry, a brand-building consultancy specializing in grooming, skin care and beauty. Chris’ newest venture, Atwater, is a premium men’s grooming brand launching on August 16. The collection, which comprises 10 products, and pays homage to the hometown of Chris’ father, Atwater, California, will debut at select Nordstrom U.S. store locations as well as at Nordstrom.com. Here, Chris shares with CEW Beauty News how Atwater was guided by trial and error, both as a consumer and as an industry veteran with a 30-year career in the beauty industry, and why it all comes down to simplifying a man’s daily skin care regimen.

Beauty News: What have you been doing since you left L’Oréal?
Chris Salgardo: I had the most amazing run at L’Oréal. Not only did I get to build Kiehl’s, but I also had a run as President of Shu Uemura and President of Giorgio Armani Beauty. But there was a time when I needed to make a change, and so I officially left at the end of 2018. I did a lot of traveling. Then I started working on my brand. I always had this idea for a men’s brand and wanted to bring it to life. I thought if I’m going to get serious, I need to be in one place, be inspired, and focused, so I moved to the country in upstate New York in 2020 where I’ve had a house since 2013. I took a brief pause, then accepted a job as CEO to create a new brand with Sofia Vergara and Cantabria Labs, a partner out of Spain. (The brand has yet to been launched). I also went back to school and finished my degree in business administration at Purdue University Global. I’ve been the longest student in history. After that, I finished up my men’s brand Atwater which is launching on August 16.

BN: What opportunity did you see on the market that you’re hoping to fill?
CS: I’ve been at the skin care game since I was 18, a skinny, gawky acne-ridden kid in the eighties getting a lot of bad advice from dermatologists. When I looked at the men’s market, I felt there was an opportunity to come in as an authoritative voice. I wrote a book about it in 2015, Manmade. When it came down to developing the products, it was always very simple for me. What drove me when I was 18 still drives me today: I want to look good, feel good, and put my best face forward so that I’m successful in business. Most men buy skin care for that reason. I have always loved an even complexion and being well-groomed, achieved through a healthy skin approach. What worked best for me was brightening products. Think of a wrinkle, it’s a play of light and dark, skin tones, whether you’re very dark or very light, and everyone can benefit from lightning products.

BN: Tell me about your vision for the Atwater regime.
CS: I wanted to keep the cleansing simple because what does a cleanser do? It runs down the drain. So I thought, let’s not spend a lot of money on that. Let’s do a good scrub that helps to lift impurities and remove dead skin. I decided against doing an antiaging facial routine because you’re going to age, no matter what. That said, we definitely have skin types, so I decided to go down that road. I also added a killer eye cream because I’ve been an eye cream fanatic since I could put eye cream on. That is the core of the Atwater journey. It’s an uncomplicated routine, with all-clean ingredients driven by brightening. You can imagine all the products that I’ve seen, tried and launched over the years, but I always come back to this routine. If my consumer asked me, Is this all I need? I would say to him, Yes. Could you add products? Sure. But this is really all you need, plus a killer shaving cream.

BN: Why did you choose a men’s line and not a gender-neutral line?
I wanted to pick a lane. The women’s category is super-crowded. I felt like there was more I could do on the men’s side. That said, even though this is a men-focused brand, it doesn’t say anywhere on the packaging that it is for men.

BN: Is there an ingredient focus across the line or a key ingredient in several SKUs?
If you’re going to power up, you have to use niacinamide. That’s probably the best ingredient out there today, useful for brightening. We put it in higher levels while maintaining a clean, gentle story because if you formulate for sensitive skin, you catch everybody. With Skin Armor Facial Moisturizer, which is by far going to be our number one SKU, we used a high concentration of niacinamide. We also used a high concentration of licorice root extract. We worked on the textures too, focusing on how the formula feels upon application, 15 minutes later, two hours later, and at the end of the day. Our Heavy Armor, which is for dry skin, includes more shea butter. For oily skin, I wanted more of a watery texture.

BN: What did you learn about the male beauty consumer in your research?
CS: I’ve been in this space for a really long time and the truth is, it hasn’t changed a lot. Everyone is using shaving cream, everyone is using a cleanser, and not a lot of steps. In the era of Zoom, everyone wants to look good on a camera. Men are starting to groom their brows a bit and use moisturizer. The problem is, where do you go for information? Who’s the trusted source? That is where I felt like I could come in.

BN: Where do you see the American male consumer on the beauty spectrum compared to, say, the Asian male consumer?
CS: It’s apples and oranges. In Asia, especially Korea, you see such early adoption. There’s not much of a hurdle to doing five or 10 beauty steps whether you’re a man or a woman. I’ve done the 10 steps. I don’t know that it got me any further in terms of looking my best versus a simple [regimen]. If men in Korea are at 100 percent, I’d be being generous in saying that in the U.S. it’s 15 percent. It’s low.

BN: Atwater is launching exclusively at Nordstrom. Why are they your launch partner?
CS: The male consumer shops online. He’s not going to come to a skin care clinic in the middle of a mall. That’s not his thing, not yet. When you think about men’s, the best places to go are those that have a highly developed men’s business, and Nordstrom is one of them. Nordstrom has an enormous men’s clothing business, clearly a big shoe business, they fish where the fish are. Plus, Nordstrom is a good environment for us to learn. I want to build this brand per door. I want it to be meaningful, not just sit on a shelf.

BN: Where are your products formulated?
The initial lineup was formulated with three manufacturers: one in Vermont, the other two in New Jersey. It was an incredibly fun process. I went in like a laser beam. I knew exactly what I wanted.

BN: How did you choose your packaging?
CS: I wanted to have the most minimal footprint. It was important that we didn’t do any outer packaging, no inserts. We were very careful about where it was sourced from. I insisted that the eye cream go into a tube even though it’s dense and should be in a jar. We want to keep the product in tubes, and show a pathway for the consumer to recycle it.

BN: How are you going to get word out to this male consumer?
CS: I have a very small, but mighty, group of like-minded individuals who are doing everything from digital to communications to brand info. Because of my operational background, I can do a lot of things, so I was able to piece a lot of this together. The mission will be to get out there as much as possible through all the different channels. I don’t know if my TikTok skills are what they need to be, but I’ll sharpen them up. We are also doing live events. And, if they’ll have me, I’d love to be in store. I love working with customers. I have very specific ways that I like to apply products, and I want to share that.

I’m also working on an editorial men’s website where I can talk about all sorts of things. I want to create a space for men to ask questions. We’re good at so many things, and this is one area that needs some work and some help. I hope I can fill that [space].

BN: Is the website lifestyle-focused or beauty oriented and tied to your line?
It’s not going to be tied to my line. I want to have the ability to address many things. I want to write more books, do seminars, build this brand. I have a perspective on men in other areas, and I want to explore that creative side. You can almost say that this is my life’s work.