For Linda Schlesinger-Wagner, the only thing constant in the world is change.
Change motivated the creator of the Birmingham-based clothing line skinnytees to flesh out a middle-of-the-night idea in 2009. She redesigned a camisole she created 10 years prior to a one-size-fits-most format in about 10 colors, in a fabric that gives the body a soft hug. She spells the brand name with all lowercase letters as a way to stand out.
Newly divorced at age 60, Schlesinger-Wagner found herself needing more money than she was earning at the four odd jobs she held: party planner helper, baby sitter, dog walker and stylist for a photographer. She had purchased a Huntington Woods house using an adjustable rate mortgage, and when the economy collapsed, her mortgage payment doubled.
“I had to do something to make more money,” she says.
Schlesinger-Wagner wasn’t new to fashion, an industry she entered in a roundabout way earlier in life.
She dropped out of The Ohio State University at age 20 because she missed her boyfriend, who later became her first husband. Wanting a job, she overheard her parents discussing a need for a bookkeeper at her father’s tool shop, so she asked for it.
“I had no experience, so my dad paid his accountant to teach me how to keep a general ledger,” she says. “Really, my dad gave me a master’s in business because I saw the economy impact the business, and they lost everything, and six months later, he started again. Maybe that’s where I get it from.”
While a bookkeeper, she opened a high-end children’s apparel store in Birmingham in 1977 called Rainbow Lollipop because she loved children. Eventually, she would have two children of her own, David and Annie Schlesinger, both of whom now work for skinnytees.
After closing Rainbow Lollipop in 1985, she began manufacturing women’s clothing full time. These experiences all led to her most successful business yet.
Schlesinger-Wagner started skinnytees by investing $1,000 to manufacture camisoles that she sold out of her house. Skinnytees has since become a multi-million dollar business with more than 100 colors and 200 styles that include leggings, cardigans and a plus-sized option. They’re sold across the globe, helped by exposure on QVC, Amazon and Good Morning America.
“Women love how comfortable each piece is,” she says. And so does she, dressing in a black high-neck tank, cardigan and leggings almost every day.
No longer operating solo out of her home, Schlesinger-Wagner employs a staff of eight and occupies 10,000 square feet of warehouse space on Eton Street in Birmingham. It’s where she stores her 92 percent nylon and 8 percent Spandex-mix apparel made by vendors she’s hired in California, Italy and China.
And even with skinnytees thriving, Schlesinger-Wagner senses change is in the air. She’s exploring opening a storefront so shoppers can come in and try on the clothing, experience its soft hug and see its versatility firsthand, she says.
“You have to keep moving and changing or you — your brand — becomes stagnant,” she says.
That’s the smart way to look at it, says Jae Kang, Ph.D., associate professor of entrepreneurship at Oakland University’s School of Business Administration.
“The business evolvement is like a natural selection,” Kang says. “If the entrepreneurs clearly understand their core competencies and the market needs, they can service in the short run. If they have a strong capability to address the changing market demands based on the technological changes, they can survive in the long run. I believe that the success of entrepreneurial journey can be measured by the sustainability.”
Paying It Forward
As an ode to those who helped her on her journey and because she considers it the right thing to do, Schlesinger-Wagner gives back with her time and product. In fact, one of her favorite methods of outreach is to help mentor fellow entrepreneurs.
She was quick to say yes to helping Karen MacDonald, founder of Wrapped in Love. MacDonald’s Michigan-based company specializes in clothing and accessories designed to provide comfort, style and dignity for women with cancer or those who are convalescing.
“I had read about her and how she started her successful company later in life, and asked her if we could meet since I was starting a new business later in life as well,” MacDonald says. “She was gracious enough to meet with me, and we hit it off instantly. She provided me with many thoughts and ideas based upon what she had learned with her business. I learned that Linda is all about helping others and wanting other women to succeed as she has.”
Philanthropy is also among the pillars ofSchlesinger-Wagner’s company. In October, she hosts the “Breast Sale Ever,” with sales for the month matched by skinnytees and given to one woman undergoing breast cancer treatment to aid her recovery process.
She donated 12,000 shirts after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, launched leggings depicting Motown hot spots to raise money for Cass Community Social Services and sponsored Pictures of Hope by Michigan photographer Linda Solomon, who helps homeless children realize their dreams through photography, along with many other causes.
“That’s why we are here,” she says. “We are here to make a difference.”