With over 30 years in fashion design and retail under her belt, Linda Schlesinger, owner and founder of the West Bloomfield Township-based clothing line Skinny Tees, is known for her insightful and creative designs, but her passion and drive reaches far beyond the fashion world. Over the last several years, she has collaborated on a book with her friend, photographer Monni Must, to produce “Living Witnesses: Faces of the Holocaust,” a book of portraits and life experiences capturing the emotional stories of metro Detroit area Holocaust survivors. Schlesinger takes on the subject so people are inspired by the courage and fortitude of these survivors and to ensure the atrocities of the past are not forgotten. Schlesinger’s time is devoted to philanthropic activities and her business, leaving little time left over. “I’m going through this life one time and I’m going to do it all,” Schlesinger said. For 37 years, Schlesinger lived and raised her family in West Bloomfield.
Tell us about Skinny Tees, your clothing line. Why is it unique and how and where do you market it?
LS: It’s marketed all over the United States, in Europe and Japan now. It’s unique because it really does fit almost all sizes. We call it a “one size fits most” form and (it) fits a (size) 2 to 20. Its made out of a fabrication of nylon and spandex and it allows your skin to breathe, but holds us all in a little bit, and we make them long now so you are never leaning over and seeing skin outside of your pants. It really makes our bodies streamlined and (it’s) very popular, and very good for us.
How did you come up with the concept?
LS: My background is children’s and adult retail, and then manufacturing knitwear. I did a very Japanese-influenced line one year and have a lot of holes in my garments, so I needed something to go under them. I found a contractor who made me tanks and camis, and I sold that as an extra piece so stores wouldn’t say, “What do I wear under it?” About three years ago, I decided I needed to reinvent myself — the economy was bad and I wanted something to appeal to all women that was very affordable. I just started doing this by selling to local stores with one bit of color and reinvented the whole thing again. It’s been fabulous for us, fabulous.
Before launching Skinny Tees, what, if any, other design work did you do?
LS: I work as a stylist. I still do it and as an assistant to Monni Must, a portrait photographer, very gifted, in Sylvan Lake. I became involved with her from a tragic circumstance working on a Holocaust project photographing and interviewing local Holocaust survivors which were then published in a book, “Living Witnesses.” From that, it now has become an international project and traveled to seven countries and 14 states photographing and interviewing survivors.
I started in the 1970s having a children’s-first (clothing store) in Birmingham, Rainbow Lollipop, and then moved to Somerset and was there a few years before they relocated six of us because they got approval to finally do the north Somerset. Then I moved to my hometown, West Bloomfield, where I was raising my children and had another retail store, Kidz Cloz, still doing children’s. At that same time, I had a design for a vest and manufactured it for my own store. A (representative) in California happened to get one as a gift and there launched Annie’s Antics and Annie line knitwear, which was very successful, very high-end beautiful knitwear line. Then it became Cut and Sew and then into adults’ and mother/daughter (apparel). I’ve done the whole gambit of wholesale/retail. I love it all. I miss the kids. I miss the children, I really do. That was so much fun having a children’s store.
Given the state of the economy, what is your secret for staying afloat?
LS: I have a product that appeals to everyone, and the price is right. I really believe we’re all about customer service. We’ll do anything for our customers. The customer is right. We stand behind our product. The stores and the department stores love to work with us because we make it happen. If they are forecasting (a product) they feel will be good for their store, we will manufacture it and make it for them. I’ve recently been hired by a consulting firm out in California getting products to the QVC Shopping network. It’s been a great journey.
What advice would you give budding or fellow entrepreneurs?
LS: Don’t give up. Be true to yourself. I work hard. I’m an old girl and I still work a lot of hours, but you have to be true to your dream. It’s not easy. There are many people, for whatever reason, who don’t like to help; I am friends with those who do like to help. We share knowledge, sources, and it really is interesting. There are all kinds of things I think that people don’t know about and I’m not involved with them, like the Angel Network, for venture capital money. There’s a lot of good things out there. Don’t give up — make it work.
What do you foresee as the popular trends in fashion for the spring and summer?
LS: The big color is orange. Everyone is buying orange. I think the fashion news said that 6 or 8 months ago that orange was going to be the big color, and it is. Everybody listens. If it’s retailing, it’s still a little early, it’s still winter. Orange and off-the-shoulder bodies and basic tanks, layering colors. I just got back from New York last night and for fall it’s a wonderful color palette. I call them the Renaissance jewel tones: Eggplant, dark teal, green, burgundy — a beautiful palette that looks good on everyone.
What are some other tips can you can give women on dressing for their body types?
LS: I think we have to be proud of who we are and where we’ve come from and how we look. That’s No. 1, whether we’re a little overweight, or have a little tummy. Be proud of who you are. Layering a piece or (an) underneath piece holds you in a little bit, but I think all of us should be proud of who we are, love ourselves, and dress accordingly. Hold your head up girls.
What three staples should every woman have in her closet?
LS: The little black dress for sure, a black cardigan, and Skinny Tees coordinating all under it.
How did you make the jump from fashion design to co-authoring a book on Holocaust survivors?
LS: I have a great background in fabrication. I know and love beautiful fabrics and have always worked with different fabrications and different companies making fabrics for draperies or selling them to the public for tablecloths. My friend Monni Must contacted me about seven years ago and I couldn’t do it because I was taking care of (my) invalid father, who lived with me. The following year he died. She caught me again (and) the time was (right) and she said, “Just come on, do fabrics and do great backdrops for me.”
We’re a great team and work really well together. She had a horrible tragedy four years ago and lost a daughter. This became a way of her healing by talking to Holocaust survivors who, really many of them lost their entire families and came to the U.S. literally with nothing, and they all have made significant lives for themselves. It was a lesson for her, a learning experience that has really helped her heal. She never talked about it at all. Probably about the 55th woman (we were interviewing) — I remember the exact day — a day like today, (it was) snowing. She finally opened up about it and has given the world a great legacy and I’m so honored to be part of it.
Two more books are in the works (for) being published this fall. People will hear about her — she will have a lot of TV and radio spots all over. We are doing art shows. She now has a traveling exhibit that will going to different venues starting in the U.S. and we’re excited about it.
Please explain how the book came together, what it encapsulates, and any new projects you’re working on currently.
LS: The book came together because of the death of Monni’s oldest daughter, a sudden, tragic, and shocking thing. She, the business, shut down for months. After 3 or 4 months, and I talked to her everyday. She really needed to give back and wanted to get something inside for herself about it. It’s been a journey.
Beaumont Hospital calls us often from the neonatal department. When a baby is lost, we at no charge — and many times we do this in the middle of the night — will go over there and take beautiful portraits of that little loved baby for the parents. We have a very good reputation over there and have really done a significant thing for parents. It’s not for everyone and everyone doesn’t understand that, but for those who do and those who want it, I always tell people and they say, “How can you do it?” I say, “How can you not?” I have two beautiful, healthy children and a healthy grandson. I’m really the last one to hold that baby before that funeral home and wrap it in beautiful fabrics. It’s a gift we have, I think, that we can help these people and do these things.
If I know Monni, once we’re done with this project, she’ll be onto something else and it will be a feel-good thing and I’ll be tagging right along with her.
From your vantage point, what was the most poignant story you encountered from a Holocaust survivor while working on the book?
LS: I remember 400-some, pretty much. I’m pretty old and I don’t remember all the names. The woman who made the most impact to me was someone Monni tried to track down for a year, even hired an investigator because she heard about her and she had a YouTube thing. Her name is Alice Herz Summer. We couldn’t find her. People who knew about her were very protective over her because she was over 100-years-old. We were in Prague last November and every night I would be Googling and finding things and getting ready for the next day. I never gave up on her and I found her just by luck. I picked up the phone and called her at 9 p.m. and it was her: “Is this really Alice, the concert pianist?” She spoke so well. She lived outside of London.
I asked if we could see her in two days and (we) extended our trip to see her. Oh my God, she was the best. She lost everything in the Holocaust. She said there’s good in everyone. If we all believe in three things — the love of a mother for her child, the nature around us, and music and art that fill the world for man — there would be no problems. As she told us that she was playing the piano. Two days later, she was celebrating her 108th birthday. We’re going back to see her March 10. She’s amazing. Everyone should see her YouTube video.
Why is telling the stories of Holocaust survivors a passion of yours?
LS: I always say, “What’s wrong with this? Why am I so involved?” Why, as a young girl who grew up in Livonia so passionate about reading about it, man’s inhumanities to man, I don’t understand it. Yet the survival, the strength of people, I’m passionate about reading about it. The stories, the great atrocities that were done to families and people, and they pick themselves up and move on. Maybe that’s the lesson for me in my life, because I’ve certainly had adversity — we all have — and when you get down and out and depressed or whiny or having a pity party to all this, no matter what happens in life, I pick myself up and slap myself because you know what? I have great friends and my family has lived a long time and are still alive. It’s a very moving thing and I’m very passionate about it.
Was it a difficult project to undertake emotionally, and why?
LS: I try never to cry in front of them and certainly I have had heard the most horrific things at times. One time, I had to excuse myself and leave the room. I didn’t want them to know how upset I was. I have to say, there have been times Monni and I have left the flat or the house and held each other and cried and said, “Oh my God, look how they lived through that and look how they are today.” Honestly, it’s been in excess of 400 people and their families we’ve talked to. They are strong. People are strong when they go (through) things. I just admire the courage. It’s such a lesson to me and my children. I have adult children who can’t believe sometimes the things I tell them. I worry it can really get you down, but I’m always trying to look at the other side of it. We’ve run across survivors who have had very tough lives. Now that Monni has gotten non-profit status for Dime and a Penny — because the goal is that we will raise grant money and will start having benefits because she has self-funded this — her dream is to then help other people with money we’ve raised. She has helped so many survivors in a very private and under-the-table way. We can all do a little bit that, on the other side of the receiver, is such a huge thing.
What have you learned from the experience?
LS: I decided, because I was also hurt from the economy in Detroit and recently got a divorce and had to recreate myself — all the lines of credit from the manufacturers and the garment industry were just taken away and I started doing this little business. Really it was a tub of clothes and hitting up some local stores who were friends of mine. I kept saying, “Come on girl, you can do it.” Well, look at what these people have done with not any of the wonderful credits I have in the bank, like the friends and the family, the stores, the local stores who stood by me and helped me sell my product and really helped mushroom this thing into something I really am proud of. We’re all about giving back now, even though it’s a relatively young company. We never can give up.