Down but not out, Linda Schlesinger-Wagner scores and soars with skinnytees

“Divorce at 58 brought me to my knees,” Linda says. Now, 10 years later, she considers that blow a “godsend.” Divorce forced Linda to reinvent herself. This once devastated mom of 2 has become a successful entrepreneur. And happily married the second time around.

For 2 years, 2007-2009, Linda “floundered.” She did what she could to stay alive and support her kids. She worked as a photo assistant and event organizer. She bought a small yellow house in Huntington Woods, MI, and took out an ARM mortgage. A year later, the interest doubled. She couldn’t afford it. She recalls sitting on a beach sobbing, unable to get through on the phone to Countrywide. What money she had from her divorce, she’d already spent on her son’s drug addiction program.

One sleepless night Linda realized she needed to make money. She had to “do something.”

In the 70s, Linda had run children’s shops and designed knitwear (Annie’s Antics and Annie M Knitwear). With that background, in 2010 she decided to start a small line of women’s accessories. Son David, an internet expert, claimed a product’s name was “most important.” Linda came up with skinnytees. David loved it.

Together, they launched the skinnytees website.

Linda borrowed $1000 on a friend’s credit card. “I charged a little each month and paid it back each month.” She rolled over the income back into the business. She created a camisole and a tank top set which she first sold at Impulse, a shop in Brighton, MI, several miles away. “I didn’t want my friends to feel obligated,” she says. The tops proved a hit. Closer to home, 2 more shops—Rear Ends and Guys & Dolls–began carrying them. (All 3 stores still do.)

A sales rep from Philly (same name, Linda, same age, and also someone who recreated her life) accompanied Linda to QVC. “8 young women pushing buttons on calculators listened to me. After 30 minutes, they said they loved the name, loved the concept, BUT.” The price was too high. Linda heard herself agree to produce the garments at QVC’s price in 5 months.

“I stumbled out of there shocked—Wow! I did it! Only also knowing if it didn’t sell, I’d get all the product back.” (QVC introduces new products on consignment.) Although skinnytees were and are made in America, Linda could only afford QVC’s price if those tops were made overseas.

Through networking, Linda found a contractor in China. 3½ years later, she still works with them. This past December, Linda and her manager Nancy travelled to China. They met their contractor, who held a banquet in their honor. “We tried 20 new dishes and were treated like royalty. We made everlasting friends.”

Looking back, Linda says, “Those first months, I hustled my butt off. I put all the money back in the business. I didn’t even hire a bookkeeper. I never owed a dime or borrowed a dime.”

Today skinnytees produces 206 styles, some in 120 colors. The garments are longer than most and stay put when pulled down.

On May 5, 2012, Linda went on “the only blind date ever in my life” with Paul Wagner, a real estate agent and investor. “His wife had died of Alzheimer’s dementia 2 years before. He grew up on a farm and was self-taught. He was handsome and kind.” Once they met, “neither of us ever went out with anyone else.” They married on August 15, 2013, after 3 months and many dates and “hours of talking and drinking tea.” They live in a house Paul built 11 years earlier on Pine Lake in West Bloomfield, MI.

Skinnytees is a family affair. Son David, who owns a digital ad agency in LA (Corner 12) is Linda’s partner. Like his irrepressible Mom, David has also come a long way. He was apprehended for sleeping in his car in Beverly Hills and arrested when drugs were found. “The eye opening moment for him was staying in LA County jail.”

“Standard” recovery programs didn’t work. Linda says her son was “finally strong enough” to kick his addiction at a 4-week “wonderful” residential facility, Beit T’Shuvah in Venice, CA. David’s been “clean” for 8 years.

Linda says, “Every family has problems. We’re honest about ours.”

David, 43, built skinnytees’ website and drives users to it via Facebook and blogging. Skinnytees just opened an office In LA, and David will come on board full time. Sister Annie, 36, will soon do likewise.

The recent movie “Joy” featured Jennifer Lawrence as single mom Joy Mangano, who invented the Miracle Mop and, despite enormous obstacles, created her own business empire. Linda’s story is similar. Just as QVC played a big part in Joy’s success, so it has with Linda’s. Recently skinnytees were featured as “today’s special value” on QVC and plugged for 24 hours. Result? 132,000 sets sold at $29.95. Even with my limited math skills, I figure that’s about $3.7 million!

Of her success, Linda says, “I used to say I had a Ph. D. in how to lose money. These days I go: Wow! This is fun!”

Part of the fun is giving back. At Christmas the last 2 years she drove a van of skinnytees staffers along Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s central artery, detouring down random streets, and handing out money. They didn’t tell recipients who they were. “Such fun,” she says. “We gave one 5 year old boy a $50 bill. He told his mother, ‘Mom, I’m going back in the store to buy you a Christmas present.’” They went to the V.A. and “thanked veterans for serving our country.”

Linda had a landlord who “let me off the hook when I was going through my divorce. Now I help her. Giving back feels good.”

Personal note: Linda’s former husband is a cousin to my husband Burton. I’d see Linda occasionally on Passover but was too busy preventing my boys from flinging matzoh shards to get to know this talented dynamo. I’m glad to rectify that omission. (Now grown son David monitors his own matzoh flingers.)

Thanks, Linda, for all the good you do. And for sharing your own version of “Joy.”

(And thanks, Carol Ziecik, for reconnecting me with our once kinda cousin.)

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10 thoughts on “Down but not out, Linda Schlesinger-Wagner scores and soars with skinnytees

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      Totally my pleasure! Love your story and your energy and your spirit. (AND your skinnytees!)

  1. Marilyn Connor

    Wonderful story with my kind of ending “success and love”
    Bravo ? To Linda.
    Thanks Suzy♥️

  2. Rodney Curtis

    Inspiring story, as usual, Suzy. Nice tale.

    And, as usual, your fun phraseology pops up in the coolest of ways, “… preventing my boys from flinging matzoh shards …”

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