Intro: Welcome to the second episode of the PlatformE Podcast. In this episode, we'll talk to Hugo Martins, CEO of Salsa, about how the brand is creating personalized jeans with a personal touch, combining tradition and cutting-edge textile technology. Salsa was founded in 1994 in a small town in Northern Portugal, right in the heart of the local textile industry, and it has a mission to produce the best personalized fitting jeans in the world.
James: So welcome to episode two of the PlatformE podcast. I'm with Hugo Martins, CEO of Salsa.
Thank you for hosting us, and letting us spend some time in this beautiful showroom, an impressive facility. We've had a tour by one of your colleagues and a lot going on, a lot of people moving around. And again, thanks.
So, before I start getting down to the nitty-gritty and asking you a lot of questions and finding out more about the facility and the brand itself. Could you, obviously I know a lot of people, 99% of our viewers will know who you are, who the brand is, but could you give us an introduction to yourself in the brand?
Hugo: Yeah. On a quick note, and thank you for inviting us as well. I’m born and raised in Porto, so I actually started working in the digital realm, but a few years ago and what was a very different digital world at the time, in a large telecom media operator, did a lot of strategy and Ops there. Did my MBA in INSEAD, tried some strategic consulting, and some private equity, in the end, just to come up to Sonae. So I joined Sonae in 2011.
Sonae is the largest Portuguese employer, 7 billion Euro in revenue company, that operates mostly around retail. And I joined the company at that time to actually help restructure and grow the non-food retail side of the business. Did a lot of strategies there, business development, M&A, and it is within that M&A that I happen to get to know Salsa and that my relationship with Salsa begins. I actually acquired Salsa in 2016 in an endeavor to increase its fashion brand portfolio. I then joined Salsa back in 2019 full-time to spearhead its digital transformation, acting as its chief digital officer. And since the beginning of the year, with the departure of our previous CEO, I've been leading the company and its ambitious transformation and growth plan.
James: Nice. So, in terms of strategy that you guys are obviously trying to implement, to become bigger than you are, you're obviously a large brand, but in terms of trying to fulfill, what is the mission to be a number one denim supplier or just fashion brand in general, what's the strategy going forward for you and the brand itself?
Hugo: I would say that nowadays it's increasingly clear. We say we are “Proud-tugese“ approach with a brand that was born and Portugal is proud of it. A denim-wear brand that crafts the best-fitting jeans in the world.
And how did we get to that statement?
It also goes back to when back in 2019/ 2020. We were thinking of it, how to take what these pants had best and make it more distinctive. And in that sense, that meant really going back to our roots. And our roots have always been to create really good, high-quality, best fitting of denim.
So we've been around for 30 years now. We operate in the north of Portugal. So our approach to creating denim is very unique, in the sense that we are obsessed with the way we create each fit, each model, and almost each size. So we do all of our product development internally.
So whenever we come up with an idea for a new model or new fit, we are capable of doing 50 prototypes until we get the correct, what we really want to take to the client.
And then we'll take it to a whole development process where we think about the finishes, the washing, the sewing and all that.
The most important thing and we try to summarise that goal in a simple expression, is what we call “the fit and feel“. So it's really important that when a client, and especially because we are a men and women jeanswear brand, but we are predominantly a feminine brand, it is important that the fit is good, that the jeans fit the client well.
But most of our competitors try to do that. Most importantly for us is that they feel good. So when you put our fits, when you use our fits, and our fits are very distinctive from the competition, especially because they work in the women's jeans wear space.
It is important that women feel in a good way and feel in a different way with each pair of jeans that we create for them.
James: So in terms of obviously creating these products for the client and for the clients to enjoy them, as we know a lot of feedback, a lot of people within PlatformE, a lot of staff members within PlatformE, purchase your goods, wear your goods on a regular basis.
In terms of producing these, is it a longer drawn-out process? Are you implementing certain technologies to achieve certain things within materials or within the court, within the field of the materials? What pain points and how do we get around these pain points to give the client what they want?
Hugo: So I think the thing for us is always to get the right balance between the traditional way of doing things and the best technology out there. So if you think about the life of a pair of jeans during the production process, it starts in the most traditional way. So it starts with a hand drawing.
So it's a paper drawing that we do back there with our team that has been working on that, some of them since the beginning of the company.
Then you need to execute that pair. So the first samples will be made in-house. So we need to make sure that it fits and it feels good. To do the production, we have a small network of partners that have been with us for decades now, who run that, and then you go to what I would say it's a bit of a special sauce in terms of the denim wear industry, which is the process where you go through the laundry.
It's really where technology and tradition mix in the best possible way, because in the one hand, we are using the most advanced laser technology, also in washing the sorts.
But in the end, most of these jeans will go to our finishing line, where our technicians will finish each pair of jeans by hand manually. So each pair is really unique. So I would say that even for the future, as growing up, the key challenge is how do you sustain that balance between tradition and technology's usage?
James: Is there, let's say, a real solid foundation, a solid idea or strategy to stay within Portugal, to keep producing in Portugal, to stick with these partners? And obviously, look, working with PlatformE, being a Portuguese company, obviously the partnership that we do within personalization. Are you looking to grow other partnerships in Portugal? You're always looking to stay local?
Hugo: For sure. So if that was an idea a couple of years ago, I think that now it must be a certainty. If you put together both the upsides of doing this within a region where the knowledge and the accumulated expertise, we're talking about centuries of accumulated expertise around textile production and finishing and craftsmanship and also the proximity to other complementary sources of the industry. With the shocks that doing and favoring long-distance chains and spread adult production models have shown in the past couple of years, the certainty that we need to grow, our capacity to build and to produce in Portugal needs to be built up.
In that sense, we have in the works to launch still this year, a full program to increase our industrial capacity. So we will fully revise our laundry facilities. And the thing is, we are trying to take the way we work with these partnerships, like with PlatformE and with other local producers, which we've been working for decades now, to take it to the next level, to actually try to be as integrated with them as possible.
I would say not in an exclusive way because we favor this proximity, but also the sharing of knowledge with other brands. We don't need to fully incorporate these partners with our brand. It's the same way we work with our launch, with our industry.
We also work for other brands because fashion has always to gain from this. So if we all move in the same direction, we all will be better and better in the end.
James: Touching on the raw materials.
Are you guys sourcing in a different way now compared to obviously, when you first started out? Is there a heavy sort of aim or lean towards sustainability in terms of the raw materials themselves that you use? How are you sourcing these materials? Are you looking at recycled materials?
Hugo: I would say, I'll split the answer into two parts. When talking about what we call non-denim and denim, which have two different challenges. I would say the keywords there,
it's not so much sustainability, I would say responsibility and circularity, which are the two thoughts or two demands that we are most focused on right now.
So in terms of the responsibility, our goal is to really increase the usage of low-impact certified natural fibers. But the really important thing and this is something where we have made significant progress in the last year, which we have not fully communicated, but we will in due time, is really to understand the potential of each piece that you make in the sense that you have to actually design it in a certain way. If you want to maximize the time that it will last, but also the alternative usage, you can give it to it, after a certain usage time as its main attributes, as a piece of clothing.
So to embed that thinking into the way we create those pieces, into our operations, into the services that we offer to our clients, it's something that we are really pushing forward.
In terms of denim, I would say that the challenge is that and a bit more, so at least the way we see it, we look at denim as a very special fabric. I think it's common in many denim brands. You really become in love with that fabric and that fabric can be so much more. So we've been trying to increase the benefits that a pair of jeans through the denim that we use can deliver to the client.
So in that sense, we may have water repellent denim or extra resistant denim, or denim that makes you warm or denim that makes you cool. In that sense, if you increase the benefit that you give the client, and you increase the number of opportunities. The times he's going to wear it, if you lose the time that he needs to wash it, you are allowing the customer to also be very much more responsible to reduce his own footprint, but in a very positive way.
So not constraining him at all, actually adding benefits to the piece.
James: What do you think the clients are looking for mostly now? Let's say your average Salsa brand advocate is saying, what's the noise from the general consumer base? Would you say that at the moment? Is it more about sustainability? Is it more around what you guys are doing with the fit, making sure that each is perfect?
Hugo: I think there are a number of layers that have been there for a while now and maybe with a recent twist that we are trying to cater to.
So the concern about the way brands are increasingly more responsible, both in the way that they treat their people, the transparency of their supply chains, the way they draw their products, the footprint and regarding plastics and waste and carbon and all that.
That has been there and that has been shared, and it's shared by denim brands and all fashion brands.
I think that something that is more recent and that is very close to us.
And we like the evolution a lot is that people begin to see their clothing increasingly as an investment. So they start to understand that the best way to actually reduce the impact that they have with their apparel consumption is actually to buy better, slightly less, longer lasting clothing.
So as long as we, in terms of the way we make our products, the materials we use, the added benefits that we give them, the ability to personalize them in a way to increase their emotional relation with those items and the benefit that they get from them.
We will be making, if you want, giving them a better deal, not in a promotional way, but in the sense that we are giving them, in fact, a piece that they can love and wear for a many more years. I would say that that's probably what is changing the most right now.
James: Would you say that this is sort of a financial impact or a financial cost, for the business, an acceptable one, to make their goods, to do the research, to find a better way of operating to provide these goods?
Hugo: If you think long term, very long term, I don't think you have that many other options. You can focus on the short term if you want, and maybe next year will be okay.
James: But it's the way the industry is going and the raw material is going anyway.
Hugo: Because you feel now, I think that directionally, the industry is changing. Not everybody is going to make it. I think that if at your core, you really believe in it and the types of products you make are fit for it. If not, it's not going to work. You have a fair chance of being there. It's all about really committing to it.
It's about the way that your guys or our guys, when they work and they create a new pair of jeans or a new piece they have that intrinsically, they are thinking about it when they make it.
If we all think like that, it will be okay.
James: Okay. Superb. The two final questions. I don't want to take up too much of your time today.
We have a couple of questions, normally at the end of the conversation. The first question is, if there’s someone else, obviously away from Salsa, maybe someone that you collaborate with, maybe it's a designer, maybe it's another brand doing something really impressive that you've seen recently and you think: “Wow, I like what they're doing.”? Is there something of note that you've noticed?
Hugo: I would say we tracked a lot. I think the sector has become fantastically open to collaboration in the last three/four years. It was not very common in the past and that has created amazing partnerships and amazing new products. Where I see probably and I am most impressed by the constant creativity. I would say it happens at two extremes.
I would say the luxury houses.
I think the way that the luxury houses have transformed and rebuilt themselves in the last ten years, it's amazing. So the way that they've lowered their guards and they open themselves to experimentation at all levels is really fascinating and motivating for us to try new things, and then on the other end in the new brands that come up every day.
So in the way that a lot of creators and sometimes people, not even with the specific technical training from the fashion industry, but they have a very clear creative idea and they create concepts that are really interesting brands that you see as they grow and the potential that they have.
So I would say that those two extremes, we are more fascinated by them. I would say in terms of responsibility, it's slightly different. So I think that everybody is making a clear effort for that. I would say that then we are mostly impressed by either brands that have been here for a while, but they have that responsible thinking at their core, as their purpose. I would say the usual suspect would be something like Patagonia or something like that.
But then also again from the new brands. So a lot of new brands that are creative and they really do not think it is possible to act any other way. We are really inspired by what these smaller guys are doing.
James: There are a lot, probably too many to list them. The second and final question, there is I wouldn't say a huge percentage, but a small percentage of our viewer base or following of PlatformE are students, obviously, guys in education doing courses, looking to gain in fashion, whether it be design or other areas of the business.
Again, another very broad question.
But what sort of advice would you give to aspiring, let's say CEOs of brands or let's say something that you've noticed throughout your route to where you are now? Then maybe what you would have done differently.
Hugo: Just to be perfectly clear, I never expected to finish holding this role in the fashion industry. So as I said, I started in Telco and Media, which seemed like a very fitting starting point for me, very structured. It was going to work. In a way, I think that fashion is one of the most passion-oriented industries. You either love it or it's completely indifferent for you. If you love it, regardless of your background, or your training, you will make your way. So if you commit, if you find a company, a brand that you love and a team that works well with you, that supports you, you will make your way.
I think that's something that's very beautiful about the industry and if I think about the people that are working at our open space just behind that door, and we have people from all sorts, from all countries, from all academic backgrounds that have been working in all sorts of different companies before. What they do share is really a passion for the industry and then a passion for Salsa.
So it is an industry, where you really need to love the brand you work for. If you are capable of that, I think that anything is possible.
Well, again Hugo. Thanks for your time. Thanks for the beautiful surroundings and the invite to Salsa. It's been nothing, but a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you.
Hugo: Thank you.