A tank top that fits everyone? Birmingham-based Skinnytees gives the skinnny

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Linda Schlesinger-Wagner didn't set out to create a multi-million dollar apparel company when she created her Skinnytees brand a decade ago. She just wanted to save her house in Huntington Woods.

Wide awake in the middle of the night, looking for a way to make money after going through a divorce and in the midst of the mortgage crisis, she had an idea: create a camisole that would fit every woman. It would be a little longer than other shirts, at least 26 inches long, she decided. And it had to be universally flattering.

Linda Schlesinger-Wagner, Founder/CEO of Skinnytees, started in the apparel business over 40 years ago. She talks about the changes in the apparel industry and the possibility of opening a local store front in Birmingham, Michigan.

"It had to appeal to every woman, every age, every size," remembers Schlesinger-Wagner, who had experience in the fashion industry, making children's knitwear. "I said 'Come on, Linda. You’re not stupid. You can figure this out.'"

Soon, Skinnytees was born. Ten years and thousands of shirts later, Skinnytees, based in Birmingham, didn't just save Schlesinger-Wagner's house; it's become an apparel juggernaut with roughly $6 million in annual sales. In 2017, the company was named to the Inc. 5000 List, a ranking by the magazine of the country’s 5,000 fastest growing private companies.

Schlesinger-Wagner believes the brand is a hit with a consumers because it's different.

"It will fit a 2 or 20," she said.

The brand is featured regularly on "Good Morning America," "Today," "The View," and QVC, offering a range of what's called "smooth wear" tank tops, shirts and turtlenecks designed to flatter every body type. Oprah Winfrey even once wore a Skinnytees shirt on the cover of her magazine.

The company, which makes most of its shirts in China, has four warehouses on Eton Street in Birmingham from which it distributes its clothing all over the world. And Schlesinger-Wagner is gearing up to launch a Skinnytees underwear line next spring.

Annie Schlesinger, Schlesinger-Wagner's daughter who now works for her mom's company as the head of marketing and creative development, said if anyone could create a company like Skinnytees, it's her mom.

"She's been a role model for me for my whole life," said Schlesinger.

Arleen Shina, an employee of Skinnytees, receives and processes an online order at the Skinnytees warehouse in Birmingham.

The business follows a long and interesting evolution for Schlesinger-Wagner who after getting out of the children's knitwear business years ago co-authored four books on Holocaust survivors with photographer Monni Must and even worked for a party planner at one point.

She said she's learned through the years and her career changes to always do what you'll say you'll do -- even if it costs you money -- and be kind to your vendors.

"The underlying theme for us – and anybody in business – is pay your bills," said Schlesinger-Wagner. "Your vendors are the best thing you have going for you."

Linda Schlesinger-Wagner, Founder/CEO of Skinnytees, adjusts a garment in her studio, while in the company of her rescue dogs at her shop in Birmingham Michigan.

QVC changed everything

Gail Sherman, owner of Impulse, a fashion boutique in downtown Brighton, has been a Skinnytees fan since the very beginning.

Schlesinger-Wagner came to her door in 2009, asking if she wanted to carry the line and she agreed. Sherman said today, Skinnytees continues to be one of her best sellers. She sells an average of 100 shirts and tanks a week.

The product, made of 94 percent nylon and designed to smooth out a woman's bulges, is life-changing, she said.

"It really is," said Sherman, who devotes nearly a quarter of her store's display space to the line. "Everything in our store can be worn better with a Skinnytee under it."

After starting with just tanks made in 10 colors, today Skinnytees makes 200 different pieces, including leggings and some sweaters, in 120 colors. Its bra-friendly tank is still one of its biggest sellers.

skinnytees' Detroit Has Legs leggings ($56) features images of 32 iconic Detroit buildings. A portion of each sale goes to Cass Community Social Services.

At its Birmingham warehouse on a recent Monday, racks lined the walls with tanks of every color. Plastic bins, meanwhile, were stacked four high holding merchandise for retailers such as macys.com and QVC. In the office, five King Cavalier Charles dogs -- which Schlesinger-Wagner rescues -- hang out.

Schlesinger-Wagner said before any Skinnytees segment airs on QVC or "Good Morning America," she's required to have in stock every item that she plans to sell. At her first QVC appearance in 2012, which she landed through a connection her son had, That meant she had to have 10,000 pieces ready to go.

She remembers going into a meeting with QVC executives, wearing nearly every item she made -- "I was layered up," she says -- to show Skinnytees' versatility. In the end, it worked. She appeared on air and her 10,000 shirts went fast.

"We sold out in three minutes of an 18-minute segment," she said. "Unheard of... QVC changed everything."

One size fits most

Schlesinger-Wagner believes the reason her product resonated so well with buyers from her first pitch on QVC -- and even now -- is because "it was something very different."

"And the fact that we said one size fits most," she said. 

Still, the business continues to evolve. Schlesinger-Wagner said tariffs have been a challenge, increasing the cost of business. But she feels change in the air, she. And she's contemplating opening her own retail space, though she's still deciding.

"I feel like we're changing it up," she said. "We always change it up."

In February, the brand will again appear on "Good Morning America" for its Deals & Steals segment. And in April, its underwear line will launch. 

Looking back on it at all, even when she wasn't sure she'd even be able to stay in her house, Schlesinger-Wagner has perspective.

"I've been so lucky," she said.