The men’s grooming titan’s journey from Kiehl’s to Atwater has been epic. Now, he’s ready for more.
By Marco Medrano
Whether you’re incessantly following skincare trends (who isn’t?), flipping through men’s fashion magazines (they still exist, yes?) or scrolling through your socials full of movers and shakers, I know you’ve seen Chris Salgardo somewhere. I mean, the beauty industry A-lister makes himself noticed. Salgardo’s public persona—bearded, burly, playful, larger-than-life—belies how often he seems to downplay his formidable business chops. Honestly, who among us could credibly go from a biker convention to the boardroom…in the same outfit? Exactly.
Salgardo’s long and public tenure as CEO of megabrand Kiehl’s in many ways helped to shape much of how the men’s grooming market is perceived today. With his patented entertaining, force-of-nature insistence, Salgardo showed tough guys how to care for their face confidently and efficiently at any age. Salgardo spoke to men who looked like him in a clear voice to counter the endless cacophony of contradictory (mis)information the beauty industry invariably is known for.
A resident of the Hudson Valley/Catskills for more than a decade, the grooming executive says his environment has had a profound influence in developing his latest and most personal venture, Atwater, his new premium skincare brand for men. The handsome skincare brand contains all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff—really. And at a price his competition sells for twice or three times more.
But who’s the real Chris Salgardo? Is he the couture suit-wearing dandy on the Chanel fashion show red carpet? Or is he the biker-booted leather-clad stud on a motorcycle ride fundraiser for amfAR? Or the T-shirt-and-jeans on weekends dude chillin’-and-grillin’ with his Catskills friends? Of course he’s all those things which tracks perfectly with his early career days on a retail floor working behind a beauty counter.
Let’s see what the man of the hour is up to.
How different has your work life been from Kiehl’s to Atwater?
Oh, it’s been a significant shift in my day-to-day work life. While I cherished my 18 years at Kiehl’s, Atwater has introduced me to a new dimension of responsibilities. As an entrepreneur at heart, the workload is all-encompassing, and I find myself handling nearly every aspect independently. In contrast, at Kiehl’s, I had the support of an expert team and the backing of our parent company, L’Oréal. The opportunity to build a brand on my own terms is something I’m profoundly grateful for.
Does living in the Catskills influence your business much?
The environment in the Hudson Valley and Catskills has a profound influence on my business. Although I’ve lived here for a decade, I may not have fully appreciated the natural beauty and slower pace of life until now. Having the influence of nature and a more tranquil setting allows me to focus intensely on creating products that can be the best they can possibly be.
If you could change one aspect of living here, what would that be?
It would undoubtedly be the availability of services. Many residents, including those who have moved here from the city, miss the convenience of urban amenities—you know, dry cleaners, tailors, diverse food options and comprehensive healthcare services. Personally, I still find myself traveling to the city for some of these essentials when I wish they were readily available locally.
Recently, a media titan told me her teenage boys break into her skincare daily. Do you think men are more informed about skincare than they lead on? Or, rather, do you think men are as simplistic about their skin regimens as the industry makes them out to be?
When it comes to men’s skincare, I believe there’s still work to be done. The younger generation is becoming more comfortable with skincare products, but there remains a stigma around men using such products, particularly in public settings like department stores. We must continue breaking down the stereotype that skincare is either egotistical or exclusively for women. Men need to know that we acknowledge their desire to take care of themselves, and it’s a commendable choice.
While some men have (quietly) used women’s skincare for decades, what’s it like to develop female fans for your male-focused brand?
Developing a female fan base for our male-focused brand was something I anticipated. Women often appreciate a compelling founder’s story, and since I played a central role in building Atwater, they resonate with the brand’s authenticity. Additionally, women tend to be more informed about skincare ingredients, making them more receptive to our products. Currently, 16 percent of our clients are women, and this number is steadily increasing.
What’s the most frequent skincare question you always seem to get?
Well, that varies depending on the audience. Men often ask about the correct usage of our products, seeking assurance that they’re following the regimen correctly. On the other hand, women frequently inquire if our products are suitable for them as well, and the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’
Did you think we’d reach a time when men’s nail polish would be the norm?
The acceptance of men’s nail lacquer has been a long time coming, and I’ve always believed in its potential. My fascination with it dates to my first rock concert when I was all of 16. Nail products, particularly lacquer, have been a significant success for us, indicating that men have a growing interest in various grooming categories. It’s an exciting evolution and a testament to changing norms and attitudes.