How Wendy Levitt built buzzed-about tie-dye company Suki & Merk out of her Birmingham kitchen
By Leena Rao
Photography by Darrel Ellis
When Covid-19 shut down the world last March, Wendy Levitt, like many people, found herself with a lot of time on her hands at home. So the 40-year-old Birmingham resident — who’d recently left her job at online luxury consignment company TheReal-Real — started dabbling in activities that countless others found solace in during the pandemic, among them baking bread and tie-dyeing clothes.
Little did Levitt know, her hobby of making colorful shirts and socks for friends would turn into a full-fledged business. Today, her Suki & Merk pieces — named after pet parakeets her parents once owned — are in Detroit-area stores and splashed all over social media, worn by everyone from local influencers to superstar Peloton instructor Ally Love. “I had absolutely no idea that this would turn into a real business,” says Levitt, who produces up to 350 pieces a month for customers across the U.S. “It’s like a dream.”
It’s not all that surprising that Levitt became a fashion designer. “I grew up making runways in my bedroom to try on clothes for my mom,” she recalls. Her first job was at a menswear store in West Bloomfield, and she worked at Jacobson’s to earn money through college at Eastern Michigan University. She eventually moved to Los Angeles and New York to work in sales and merchandising for clothing companies, including Miss Sixty, True Religion, and Kenneth Cole, but returned to Michigan in 2019.
Her foray into tie-dye started shortly after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order went into effect. A friend of Levitt’s shared that she was tie-dyeing to pass the time, and with the help of how-to videos on Instagram and TikTok, Levitt decided to give it a try. She bought a $10 kit on Amazon and spent hours in her kitchen (which she says is a rainbow of different colors, thanks to splattering dye) making socks, sweatshirts and T-shirts for her friends. She also added personalized embroidery to her pieces.
Soon, friends started posting her creations on Facebook, and commenters asked where they could buy Levitt’s styles. “I thought it was the bee’s knees,” she says. “But I never thought this was going to be a job. It was almost a joke.” She began cranking out more pieces, which she’d send to Instagram influencers. Levitt says the “turning point” for her business came in April 2020, when Bloomfield Hills-based influencer Jennifer Fantich, whose Instagram, Spoonful of Flair, has more than 10,000 followers, posted a picture of herself wearing a Suki & Merk sweatshirt bearing her initials. “After that post, the business just sort of blew up,” Levitt says.
Fantich’s post caught the eye of Lennon Caruso, the owner of Birmingham shop Caruso Caruso. “Tie-dye was selling out like crazy during the pandemic,” Caruso says. “Birmingham has an affluence but a bohemian leaning style, so it makes sense why tie dye would be a hit here.” (It’s worth noting that Suki & Merk wasn’t the only local company taking advantage of the tie dye craze: Detroit-based Brightly Twisted, Quarantine Bleach Co. and Ink Detroit are all creating and selling tie-dye pieces.) Caruso and Levitt did a test run of about 70 different sweatshirts and shirts, and they sold out immediately.
Levitt says that the success was the validation she needed to take her business to the next level. She started offering online tie-dye classes, selling to stores in Chicago, and ramping up efforts to get influencers to wear her creations. (She sends free merchandise in hopes that they’ll post photos of themselves wearing her creations, which creates buzz and boosts sales.) The culmination of this push came recently, when Levitt — who, in another popular pandemic move, bought a Peloton bike — created custom embroidered tie-dye sweatshirts for her favorite instructors and sent them to Peloton headquarters in New York.
A few weeks later, she was riding her bike during one of Ally Love’s classes when she noticed a social media post of Love wearing her Suki & Merk creation. “It was surreal,” Levitt says. “I was freaking out during my workout.” Love ended up commissioning Levitt to create a custom line of Suki & Merk merchandise, which featured peach-colored tie-dye socks, sweatshirts, hats and bags embroidered with “Love Squad,” the name of Love’s fitness and lifestyle brand. The collaboration went on sale in April. “I was seeing people tag me and Ally Love in their tie-dye on Instagram and felt like this wasn’t happening to me,” Levitt says. The collaboration was such a success that Suki & Merk is doing a second one, set to launch this month.
Levitt, who now has a full-time job in marketing at Detroit-based merchandising company Helm, says that Suki & Merk is a “passion” that she nurtures outside of her 9-to-5 — and still from her kitchen. “It’s hard being a one woman show — in fact, it’s been the hardest job of my life,” she says. “But it’s been so rewarding.”