SLAM CEO Enrico Chieffi talks about how the Italian company’s partnership with Emirates Team New Zealand helps it make better products for sailors.
Enrico Chieffi, CEO of Italian sailing clothes brand SLAM, and Grant Dalton, CEO of Emirates Team New Zealand, have a relationship that goes way back. Both of them have a long track record as world class sailors and managers.
Through decades they have been both rivals and friends. Now they have a joint project: developing the best possible sailing clothes in a partnership that puts ENTZ in a better position to win their fifth America’s Cup title, and SLAM in a position where they can benefit from the feedback of the world’s best sailors.
Even before the deal, Dalton had noticed something happening to SLAM since Chieffi took over two years ago.
‘SLAM has demonstrated its clear, positive strategy in working towards becoming one of the world’s best high-performance sailing clothing brands’, says Dalton, ‘and all of us at Emirates Team New Zealand look forward to working alongside them on that mission.
‘We are a team of over 100 people across a diverse range of vital roles from engineering to boatbuilding to sailing and every single one of us is equally important and must work together if we are to win the America’s Cup. This philosophy extends to all our partners, and SLAM has already demonstrated its commitment to building quality apparel.’
Chieffi is a former world champion in the 470 and Star classes, a double Olympic sailor and held the vital role of tactician on Italy’s America’s Cup challenger Il Moro di Venezia in 1992.
After his career in the sport, he went on to be a business leader. After a period as MD of Nautor Swan in Finland, Chieffi moved back to Italy in 2021, into a position as CEO and shareholder of SLAM. This meant a complete reorganisation and a quite radical five-year plan.
‘SLAM is a very well-known brand’, says Chieffi, ‘but before we took over, the company had moved in a more lifestyle oriented direction. And this project failed. So, the new plan was very simple: Move back to what the company was originally – a company made for sailors.
‘I like to say that we are a brand new company with a 40 year history. The first thing we did was to cut drastically down on the number of items we were selling. We wanted to concentrate on the core of the brand, which is clothing for sailors. So, what is needed to go sailing? We started by reducing the number of items from 600 to 125. To have so many products is very inefficient and not very sustainable. The first point of sustainability is not to produce what is not needed. At the same time, we have increased the use of recycled materials.
‘The next step was to restructure and organise SLAM assets to start the repositioning to become the best sailing technical brand – SLAM had very good products for the price but was not known to be among the top premium brands. We have kept that position for our core business, but introduced a top-quality pro line, that had not existed in the past. This was to position ourselves among the very best players in the world.
‘We know this is a small niche market, but we also think it’s crucial to be credible at a certain level. And the partnership with ETNZ is the first example of what this has led to. They did not choose us for the money, we are a small company. They could choose any company in the world but they chose us because they were very positively surprised by the quality of the new collection. I can testify to that myself. Since we took over I have personally tested every single garment, especially the pro line. It’s very simple, use it and you know if it works or not.
‘Now, in partnership with ETNZ we are going deep into the development of high-performance clothing. And not only for the guys on the boat. The first thing Grant said to me was that on his team there were no A and B team members. Everyone, the shore team, the people on the chase boats, the design team, boatbuilders and of course the sailors, all are equally important.
‘That is the strength of the team. As a consequence, we developed clothing for all of these different functions. More specifically, we defined three groups: One was everyone on the water, not only the sailors but also the people helping out at sea. The second was the shore team, people helping with preparing the boats and so forth.
‘And the third was the office group: engineers, designers, people working with all the services needed for the team. All of these people are contributing to the success of the team and it was important to include everyone.
‘Another consideration in the development phase was the fact that Emirates Team New Zealand will only operate in summer seasons during this America’s Cup cycle. They spent the summer this year in Barcelona and for the upcoming winter they will move back to Auckland where they will work in the southern hemisphere summer season. Next year they will come back to Barcelona for another summer. These were the principles upon which we developed the full package of clothing.
‘We have received a lot of positive feedback from the team, they are already using our clothes. Clothing can be quite a complicated issue, there’s design, sizes, fitting, materials, timing. It’s a long process to plan, develop, produce, ship and deliver everything. In this case timing was very important and we are happy to say that everything was delivered as wanted on time. Kiwis are very direct people, it’s a raw culture and you have to gain their trust. But the moment you do that you are their best friend. Italians, we talk a lot but we don’t always deliver what we promise. We did deliver and that was very important.
‘Going back to the substance of the product, foiling has definitely opened a new frontier in sailing. The fast-sailing concept is much better for TV and has different parameters for winning. For me as a sailor, this is not to say that we have abandoned traditional, you could say slow sailing.
‘I’m still active in the Star class, a boat that sails at five knots, maybe six knots. I love this way of racing and consider it the most sophisticated form of the art. And we as a company are not neglecting that. This is still the majority of sailing and probably more than 90 per cent of the market.
‘But clearly, foiling is the new frontier. And it’s really worth exploring – it’s very cool, visually fascinating and there are a lot of new things to learn. This goes also for our clothing and we hope that this is only the beginning. The plan is that this is going to be a long term collaboration and that we can do several Cups together. Emirates Team New Zealand has survived for a very long time, they are good at continuity. And so are we.
‘America’s Cup boats sail inshore races only so the clothing series is not designed for offshore sailing. Protection from sun, wind pressure, rashes and minimum drag are the driving factors. Of course we have developed foul weather gear, SLAM has been working on that area for many years but for ETNZ that is for team members on support boats, not for the sailors.
‘There’s too much volume for the AC75 sailors. Instead we have brought technology from other fields into the maritime sphere. The line of products used on the AC75 is inspired by other sports: high-speed skiing, cycling, situations where aerodynamics play a role. It’s very tight so any drag is reduced as much as possible. Since they use bikes on the boats for power generation we have developed special bike pants for the crew members in those positions.
‘At the same time the races are very short and sailed in very hot conditions, which is unusual circumstances for sailors like you and me. It’s more like a dinghy environment. So what’s needed is something very breathable to stay fresh and at the same time something that provides protection. Something that dries out in minutes. Actually the sailors hose themselves with fresh water before going out on the water, to lower their body temperature. And within minutes the clothes are dry.
‘The SLAM sailing collection available for customers is an extraction of the package delivered to the AC sailors. Some items are the same, but for some products it would not make sense. We are offering clothes that are useful for the common user, but some items are very advanced and specialised and the numbers would be way too small to justify a production. It would simply be too expensive.
‘To be a partner with the number one Formula One team in sailing is an incredible opportunity to be connected to the pinnacle of the sport. We are partnering with the Italian Olympic Team, so we are also connected to the younger generation, as well as with top offshore sailors. Basically the top people from both sides are all helping us now to develop the best products. This is not only a sponsorship, it is a real partnership because everything we learn during this process will come back to us as a company and contribute to the development of our products,’ Chieffi concludes.