For Kathy Thomas and Sara Zilkha, it all started with a shared love of adventure travel and a frustration about what it took to be properly prepared.
Their solution? Salt + Snow.
The new e-commerce site that they unveiled on Sunday is intended to be a one-stop shop for adventurers seeking the right gear as well as the best places to eat and tips on what to see and do on their trip.
As the site explains, the idea for Salt + Snow “began as a conversation on a surf trip where we discovered our shared obsessive nature around adventure travel. Not just the adventure, but the planning, the sport, the gear, where to go, what to eat and the secret gems for only those in the know. And after several margaritas, a plan was hatched to build a tried-and-true marketplace and community to plan the perfect trip for like-minded people from the suitcase to just about anywhere.”
In preparation for the launch, the duo hired a team of experts including longtime Ralph Lauren executive Brooke Gerschel as chief merchant and journalist Brooke Danielson as chief marketing officer, and lined up $1 million in financing through friends and family to get the business off the ground.
While the site is very colloquial and chatty — there’s a section devoted to their travel blog, The Wanderist — the founders’ determination to succeed is based on extensive research and development. And they’re gunning for a piece of the $120 billion activewear market.
Thomas and Zilkha will be drawing from their experience in business and leaning on their new hires to ensure Salt + Snow offers a mix complemented by informative content to help it stand out from the big-box retailers they’re competing against.
Although women’s represents around 65 percent of the offering, children’s and menswear is also offered. Products range from swim and surfwear to wetsuits, jackets, dresses and shorts. In addition to products arranged by gender, the site offers a tab to encourage shopping by environment: mountain, beach, studio + gym, court + course and lounge.
Although a few of the brands being offered are well-known names — Cynthia Rowley and Eugenia Kim, for example — the bulk of the assortment is under-the-radar labels including Left on Friday, Anemos, Alps & Meters, Seaesta Surf, Matuse, Kassia + Surf, Amundsen, Xcel, L’Etoile Sport and Dinoski.
There are 20 brands at the launch and that number will be expanded to 50 by the end of the year, they said. “It’s really about the curation,” Thomas said. “You can find sites with tons of brands, but there are too many. We wanted it to be easy and effortless.”
That’s where Gerschel comes in. The merchant, who joined Salt + Snow last July, said the site will launch with a focus on “surf and salt” brands for the warm weather and will shift its focus to the ski slopes for fall. She said it was more about uncovering the most appropriate brands across women’s, men’s and children’s, for the launch rather than a particular number.
Although the plan is to eventually add some larger labels, don’t expect to see Nike on the site. Although the big sports brands have a place, Salt + Snow would rather concentrate on like-minded brands seeking to expand their reach with the company’s target female customer. That includes Rhone, she said, which she expects to add as an anchor brand for guys.
Nate Checketts, chief executive officer and cofounder of Rhone, said he was all-in after he heard their mission. “They reached out and told me about what they are building,” he said. “They shared the experience of taking great family vacations but having to jump around to different brands and stores to get everything the family needed to make these incredible trips happen. Kathy and I started speaking about how both of our dads made family vacations a priority and then we realized that her dad and my dad worked together for years and years. Creating special family memories is a core part of Rhone’s DNA and I knew we offered the perfect lineup for dads, sons and future dads, whether hitting the beach or the slopes. I felt honored to be their men’s brand of choice. We will likely launch with them in May.”
Gerschel, who left Ralph Lauren during the pandemic to spend more time with her family, believes Salt + Snow is different from the other online players like Net-a-porter or Mytheresa because of its focus on active brands, and from Backcountry, REI or Dick’s Sporting Goods because of its female-centric approach.
Thomas grew up in New Jersey and New York and started out working in the music industry before going to Duke to get an MBA, where she focused on e-commerce marketing. Shortly after, she met her husband and took a pause on her career to have four children.
Zilkha grew up between Virginia — her mother who worked for The Washington Post — and Alabama, where she spent time on her grandparents’ farm. She moved to New York to work in human resources for Goldman Sachs and quickly realized it wasn’t an industry she wanted to focus on. Instead, she got a master’s degree from the New School in non-profit management.
After marrying, she had five children and lived in a variety of cities including San Francisco, London and New York. It was during her time in Manhattan that she met Thomas, who was volunteering at her childrens’ pre-school.
Thomas had been an avid skier her whole life and took up surfing as an adult. As a way to share her love of sports with others, she started organizing active vacations that she called Chicks on Sticks for a mountain adventure, or Out the Back, a term used in surfing. “I became an expert for my friends,” she said.
Zilkha said she became an athlete in her forties when her five “very active” kids helped her to discover a love of the outdoors. It even led her to relocate to Aspen, Colo. So when Thomas convinced her to give surfing a try, she was ready. And it didn’t take long for her to love being out among the waves. “It’s very zen,” she said. “I found another side of myself.”
“And no kids can reach you,” Thomas added with a laugh.
Their friendship deepened as their kids played hockey together and their husbands also got to be chums. It was then that Thomas shared an idea she’d been mulling. It started with the fact that her father had trouble balancing on the beach and would have to watch her surf from the parking lot. But because everyone wore black wetsuits, he wasn’t able to pick her out.
So she started searching for quality, colorful wetsuits and a germ of an idea was born — to create a marketplace and a community for like-minded, active women.
It didn’t take much convincing to get Zilkha on board.
“There’s no streamlined place you can get all these brands,” Zilkha said. “You can go to the big-box technical stores, but they’re very male-oriented, or you can go to high-fashion stores. There’s no place for a community of women who want to be active.”
Thomas said that when the pandemic hit, she found herself shopping for her and her children from a slew of different sites. “I had 20 tabs open trying to get ready for summer and I wanted a one-stop shop.”
They brainstormed and came up with the name Salt + Snow, two words that represented the ethos of the business. “We knew we wanted something to do with skiing and surfing,” Thomas said. “Salt encompasses the ocean and sweat,” she said, and snow is intricately linked to skiing.
Once the mission and the name was established, it was time to staff up. In addition to Gerschel, whose husband was a ski racer and who has extensive knowledge of sports and fashion, Salt + Snow hired Ashley Bryan, a veteran of Net-a-porter and Moda Operandi, who first provided them with advice and then agreed to come on board as chief operating officer. Danielson, formerly of Vogue and Shape, who is an ultra-athlete, a guide for disabled runners and a skier, manages the site’s editorial content including the Wanderist, which she calls the company’s “key campaign driver.” She also organizes the company’s ambassador program where they partner with experts and athletes in a variety of sports, as well as its social media outreach.
The site includes a gear guide where they explore topics including What to Look for in a Surfboard and the benefits of a high-waisted swimsuit; Summit Stories where the founders share their journals and athletes such as a blind ice climber are featured; City Guides for destinations including Aspen and Vail; a Wellness section where they tackle the best post-ski yoga poses, skin hydration tips and recipes for trail mix and a tab to click on their favorite playlists. And with nine kids between them, it’s no surprise there’s also a Kids Korner which features snacks, fashion advice and even a chat with young adventurers.
If the business takes off, the founders said they’ll start talking seriously to venture capital firms about a seed round of financing. But for now, they’re just concentrating on the launch and developing a group of like-minded shoppers. “We want Salt + Snow to be a discovery and we think we’re filling a void.”