When Linda Schlesinger-Wagner needed to reinvent her career at age 60, she went back to her roots as a knitwear designer and created skinnytees, a one-size-fits-most clothing company that began with a camisole designed to be worn under sweaters. Six years later, skinnytees is a $6 million company and has been featured on Good Morning America, The View, and QVC. DBusiness Daily News spoke with Schlesinger-Wagner about her business and the tank top that started it all.
1. DDN: What inspired you to start skinnytees?
LSW: It was late 2008 and my little house that I’d just bought was on an (adjustable rate) mortgage for 18 months. We all know what happened in metro Detroit, and my (monthly) mortgage (payment) more than doubled, so I was working a few jobs and knew I had to do something to save my house. For 35 years, I was a knitwear designer for children and adults, and in the middle of the night, I decided to create something that would appeal to all women and girls and be one-size-fits-most. I remembered we made a camisole that was meant to go under sweaters, so I decided to make it a little wider and four inches longer and see if I could get stores to invest in me. I went on GoDaddy at 2 a.m. and purchased skinnytees.com for $8.99 per year and called my children in Los Angeles and told them I’d set up an account. Once I got that, I went to a contractor I used to work with and went to a store in Brighton, who ended up being our first customer.
2. DDN: What would you say skinnytees’ turning point was?
LSW: At first, we only had 10 colors. I took the money we made from every sale, put it back in the business, and increased our inventory. I really hustled, and for a year and a half we stored all our inventory in my house. One day, I was running around trying to get 1,500 tanks together for an order and realized we needed to move, so we rented storage space, starting with about 800 square feet. Now our facility is about 8,000 square feet. QVC asked us to come on the show four and a half years ago and they loved it, it was all young girls looking at us, and they loved our product and how we presented. I was a nervous wreck the first time I presented, but we sold out in three minutes and that really put us on the map. Now we have 140 styles in 140 colors.
3. DDN: What do you think keeps people coming back to skinnytees?
LSW: We’re always coming up with new things. Our clothes are one-size-fits-most, so they’re not Spanx-tight, they’re a soft-tight and they really work for a lot of people. If you name a style: crew neck, v-neck, round neck, off the shoulder, we do it, or we will do it. Now we also do patterns and have just gotten samples of a whole cut-and-sew line of 14-16 types of lightweight shirts, like cardigans and vests to go over the tanks. We also have a new line called And A Little More for women who are a little bigger, who don’t want as tight of a fit. I also personally get on the phone with anyone that has a complaint and try to make it right, and I think that goes a long way with us. I direct messaged someone who didn’t like a product they bought, and offered to send them a goodie box, and she wrote back and said she loved it. I know that not everyone is going to love us, it’s just not going to happen, but we’re going to die trying.
4. DDN: Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
LSW: I just completed in April the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, so even when you think you know a lot there’s always more to learn. They taught me so much about business and our city and what’s available here. I think the main thing is just to never give up. It would have been easy for me to give up and not save my house, but I had the drive and ambition to do it. I was working for a party planner, coming home at 2 a.m. from a tear-down downtown, then being at a photographer’s house at 8 a.m. for a photo shoot, and watching dogs and whatever else I could do. Do whatever you have to do and never give up.
5. DDN: What’s next?
LSW: We’re looking to do a new line called Detroit with the outline of a building, where we had a photographer go around the city and take pictures of iconic Detroit landmarks, because it was really important for me to honor the city. As we speak, they’re being printed on fabric and they’re going to be made into leggings, and the waistband will say Detroit Has Legs. All the profits for the first six months will be donated back to the city. I’m also thinking about starting a women’s incubator. So many people in this city help each other, just talk to people, network, and see what’s going on. I feel like people don’t tap into that enough, but some people have such great ideas and they just don’t know where to go.