It’s the dead of the night—2AM on the 20th meridian, yet the midnight sun emanates a heavy golden hue against the horizon. Julien Salles, no longer bound by the darkness of after hours, pulls his neoprene front-zip over his head and tucks the cuffs of his gloves under his sleeves. In the distance, wild horses pasture along the black sand beach while towering volcanoes play foreground to an expansive, mist-laden landscape. Patiently watching, Julien and the rest of the Manera watermen admire the amber rays bouncing off the tapered lines as they enter the bay. Two years in the making, this is the ultimate test and the moment of truth for this young Frenchman. Together, Julien, along with team riders Mallory de la Villemarqué and Etienne Lhôte, wade slowly into the icebox of an ocean. At 40°F there’s a quiet hiatus, a communal attentiveness awaiting the first daggers of arctic water to reach the skin’s naked receptors. Julien settles into equal buoyancy, chest submerged and pauses, but the wait will be long because the cold never finds its way in.
For the past 20 years, Julien has watched his father Rafael Salles successfully build one of the windsport industry’s top kitesurfing brands. Born and raised in Mt. Pellier, France, at a time when F-One hadn’t yet started making kites, an 11-year-old Julien learned on a Wipika Classic and a board his father designed. Calm and temperate like his father, Julien is confident in his convictions. Now 28, with the medium build of a routine surfer with unruly, just rolled out of bed hair and three day’s worth of beard shadow, his demeanor screams easygoing, yet under the hood Julien’s got the intensity of a true leader. With the passion and drive instilled by his parents but shaped by his own undertakings, he’s doing things his own way.
Julien grew up kitesurfing and observing F-One from the backseat. Frequent travels with his dad took him around the world—dealer meetings, photoshoots, and R&D trips, however, for Julien, joining the family business was never a foregone conclusion. “It had always been a big question,” but young Julien thought more broadly; he didn’t know what, but his calling felt as if it should be something different. “All my life my parents told me of their hope that I would take over someday… but I didn’t want to be the son that slips into a company through the back door, that’s too easy.” Growing up engrossed in all things kiteboarding, as somewhat of a counter measure, Julien found escape through mountain bike racing, and while he kitesurfed for fun, he knew early on “I had to find my own thing.”
Julien’s path led him into a five year program and a semester abroad in Providence, Rhode Island, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Marketing with an emphasis on small company management. During his senior year he worked for surf megabrand Quicksilver in their Biarritz office. Scoring some of France’s best beach breaks, he also helped to organize the Roxy and Quicksilver Pro tour events. Strangely enough, as much as he was trying to avoid the family business, he was drawn to the very essence of his parents lifestyle at F-One; working hard but with the freedom of living and playing in close proximity to the water. Upon graduation, in a bid for concrete business experience, Julien bit the bullet and signed up for an internship with F-One. “I was always worried that I’d feel trapped,” but after six months working in the marketing department under Fabien, “it felt natural . . . all my perspectives on a career at F-One changed and I wanted to stay in the company.”
Looking for his niche within the F-One family, Julien gravitated towards Manera, a board bag and travel accessory offshoot thought up by Rafael a few years prior. At the time, Manera had been all but forgotten with little attempt to broaden the product line. Julien saw this new project as “a good opportunity; it was a leftover” and dove in as product manager. Finding an alcove within the expansive F-One brand, Julien is quick to point out that “it’s not F-One, it has its own products,” it’s its own thing.
Growing up behind the scenes of his dad’s company certainly gave him an upper hand. ‘Un père est plus d’une centaine de maîtres d’écol’—a father is more than a hundred schoolmasters, so the French say, and while Julien learned a great deal from his father, his new endeavor brought questions even Rafael couldn’t answer—
“When I started we didn’t know a thing about neoprene.”
Fast forward two years and Julien and the Manera crew are jumping off icebergs and testing Manera’s state-of-the-art wetsuits in the frigid waters along Iceland’s jagged coastline. “It’s a strange feeling to see snow before getting on the water,” but Julien knows better than anyone that the cold is a prerequisite and a testament for the warmth and durability of their suits. Kiting amidst the snow-covered icecaps of Vatnajökull, they could have chosen a much more temperate location, but the bitter cold is essential to their R&D. “In terms of water entry or leakage, it’s always better to have cold water. You can feel exactly where it comes in,” explains Julien.
When it was time to expand Manera’s accessory range past their already established travel bags and signature Exo harness, wetsuits were next in line. Realizing that most wetsuits are specifically designed for doing what he does best, which is surf, Julien recognized a market opportunity: wetsuits designed specifically for kitesurfing. Surfers lie ‘ventre à terre,’ French for ‘belly to the ground.’ They paddle prone with their backs arched, heads up and require lots of shoulder maneuverability, whereas kiters spend their time in the opposite position.
For most companies, when it comes to designing wetsuits, the process is relatively standardized—product manager approaches one of Asia’s two well-established wetsuit factories and it’s a matter of pick and choose—this design, those colors, then slap on the logo—wetsuits are shipped straight to the warehouse ready for distribution within a matter of weeks. Like the thought of taking over the family business, for Julien, taking the easy way out wasn’t an option.
As opposed to producing something similar to the pick and choose surf suits already on the market, with a sense of quality and pride inherent from his father, Julien sought out the resources to make a high quality, kite-specific wetsuit.
Hiring a designer who had developed cutting edge 3D shaping software originally conceived to design compression and technical apparel, Manera diverged from the conventional to design their own kitesurf-specific wetsuit. With this advanced software, the designer works with a virtual 3D model and designs the suit around the body of a kiter in the kiting position: upright, knees bent, arms out with a slightly rounded back. Panels are created that take into account the natural curves of the human body and create a more natural feel while riding. They’re then exported into a 2D file and sent to the factory where they’re cut and sewn. By pre-prototyping with this software, they can identify friction zones, recognize areas that need more flex and distinguish those panels that can accommodate greater thickness for added warmth. The result: a no compromise, kitesurf-specific second skin (made of the highest quality materials that the industry has to offer) that’s up to both Julien and his father’s standards.
With the undertaking of Manera, Julien stepped into a place of his own. He’s focusing on keeping it small and in the family, and like any close-knit family unit, he’s held accountable for it’s success—and, contrary to popular belief, that means long days behind the desk. However, hours in the office are well compensated with a sense of ownership, the perks of travel and the support of his family. And while not all family businesses are blessed with smooth dynamics, Julien and Rafael seem to have it dialed. Aligning principles and maintaining F-One’s product driven and quality-focused philosophy ties research and development to some valuable father/son time. “It’s good to be on the beach testing samples with my father. We may not always agree, but it’s never a fight.” Finding his balance within the business, “It’s good for me not doing the exact same as my father. I enjoy working with him, but not doing the exact same job.”
Like his travels through Iceland, taking ownership of Manera, a once abandoned accessory brand, is akin to exploring what often feels like the other end of the world, a mysterious place where the temperatures linger in the single digits and the sun never sets. Doubts and quandaries aside, going full circle while stepping out from under his father’s shadow and finding his own place within the greater F-One family, Julien is making his own mark on the watersports industry. With a bright and opportunistic future at Manera, Julien basks in Iceland’s 22 hours of daylight. “You can do anything at anytime. It’s an incredible feeling of freedom.”