How did one humble and dedicated Brisbane mother turn 50 cm of fluoro yellow lycra into an international business at the forefront of its industry? With hard work, blood/sweat/tears, backflips and some Swarovski crystals – that’s how!

If you have a young daughter and she’s into gymnastics, chances are you’ll have personally contributed to the inspiring and uplifting story that belongs to Brisbane local and leotard queen, Sylvia Pichler of Sylvia P Sportswear.

Let’s rewind the tape back to 1992 when Sylvia and husband Anton made the huge decision to move their young family from their homeland in Austria, across the world to Australia. At the time, the Pichlers’ youngest child, Thomas, suffered ongoing dermatological issues. Medical professionals treating Thomas suggested his condition would improve in warmer weather. Sylvia and Anton pretty much threw a dart at a map and Brisbane was the lucky target – Redland City to be exact. While it was a somewhat random decision to move themselves, Thomas and his older sisters Daniela and Sandra to Australia, this country would prove to be the land of opportunity. And it all started with one homemade gymnastics leotard for Sylvia’s eldest, Sandra.

“I found it difficult to purchase leotards for Sandra apart from the usual ballet-style leotards – so I decided to make them myself,” Sylvia recalls. “I used 50cm of fluoro yellow fabric purchased from a small store in Mt Gravatt. I borrowed an overlocker and zigzag sewing machine from the real estate agent who sold us our house and pieced it together in our living room.”

Sandra’s fellow tween-aged gymnastics friends thought the leo was pretty cool and soon Sandra was the trendiest gymnast at training. It was not long before the other girls started asking Sylvia to make them some leotards too. 

“Later in 1994, I sold my first leotard to a member of Sandra training group at the then Chandler Comets Gymnastics Club,” Sylvia recalls. “Following that, I was asked to make the gymnastics club’s uniform.”

But don’t think this devoted mum was any kind of expert machinist at the time. Sylvia’s career to that point had seen her working as a nanny and even a taxi driver in Austria! She took night dressmaking courses to hone her sewing and pattern-making skills.

“I had no business background before starting Sylvia P Sportswear,” Sylvia admits.

Just like most start-ups, the company began in the family home in Cleveland. They moved to Capalaba in 2007 to Sylvia P’s first warehouse, which they quickly out grew. They moved to their current larger premises in Capalaba in 2012. When asked what Sylvia’s one big break was, she says there was not one.

“It’s all come about through hard work, persistence and striving to be better,” she says. “We believe that creating innovative designs of premium quality can empower our customers to achieve their goals, whoever they are and whatever they pursue. The label is dedicated to creating products that respond as our customers’ physical pursuits demand and give them confidence through exceptional athletic function and aesthetic style.”

Interestingly, as Sylvia P Sportswear started to make its mark on the gymnastics fashion scene, so too were Sylvia’s children making their own mark on the same sport. Sandra was a state representative in both artistic gymnastics and later in rhythmic gymnastics. Thomas was an Australian representative gymnast, competing at five World Championships and winning two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. Sandra and Daniela were also gymnastics coaches.

“Having gymnasts in the family allowed me to understand the fit and comfort of the garments,” Sylvia explains. “If my kids weren’t comfortable wearing Sylvia P garments then others wouldn’t be either.”

Fast forward to today and Sylvia P Sportswear is a leader in the design and manufacture of gymnastics garments for women’s artistic, men’s artistic, trampolining, aerobics and acrobatics gymnastics. Sylvia P fits out the majority of Australia’s gymnastics clubs. With stockists of their practice wear throughout the country, they also have distributors in the USA, Japan and Europe. The range has also been extended in recent years to also include activewear, dancewear and even men’s and women’s weightlifting suits. Customised Sylvia P garments, with the gymnast’s name written in tiny Swarovski crystals or their club logo featured via sublimation printing technology, for example, are also hot property among cartwheeling kids.

“In my first month, I made 57 garments. Today Sylvia P produces approximately 2500 garments per month,” Sylvia says. And while the numbers look great, Sylvia says the most rewarding part of the whole story “has been seeing the business turn into a family business with all of my children now part of it”.

“This past five years, the business has changed dramatically with the injection of the next generation,” she says. “With my children taking on more pivotal roles in the business, the front end of the business has changed significantly with the design and marketing personal helping to improve the face and structure of the business. I have been able to focus on my strength in back-end production to ensure products are made to the highest standards. As the largest part of our business, my role consists of managing jobs and personnel to meet deadlines. A large part of my role is mentoring and teaching staff our unique trade.”

And it is truly a family affair. Daughter Daniela (39) heads up the accounts department, Sandra (32) is Head of Design, Thomas (30) is Head of Operations and Thomas’s wife Andrea is also in the business as production manager. Anton runs his own separate successful IT business from offices above the Sylvia P warehouse.

“I love being able to work with creative people who share my passion. I feel very proud to be able to pass this opportunity onto my family and let them continue what I have started,” Sylvia says. “We all work hard to always improve our quality and strive for innovation.”

With the third highest female membership base of organised sport within Australia, gymnastics continues to provide children of all ages the opportunity to learn to move. From KinderGym programs that teach children to master fundamental movement skills through to high-performance programs and Olympic medal goals, gymnastics stretches the entire sporting landscape. Gymnastics programs are delivered in more than 530 clubs across Australia by 5000 registered coaches and judges. Gymnastics Australia has more than 156,000 registered athlete members with 93 per cent of athlete members under the age of 12 (42 per cent are under the age of five). Some 75 per cent of the membership is female. So you can see how the Sylvia P label has flourished with thanks to all those fashion-conscious tween gymnasts hungry for bright and fabulous training leotards, their parents looking for quality, functionality and affordability, and their coaches looking for eye catching, stylish and technical lycra garments to enhance competitive performance.

And if you think Sylvia has left all the sporting ability to her once-world-class gymnast children, think again. Besides lycra and crystals, this grandmother’s hobbies are “fitness and health”. She enjoys CrossFit daily as well as long-distance running.

“CrossFit is part of my life. I enjoy the early-morning classes before heading to work. It’s the one hour a day I get to focus on my wellbeing. I also enjoy running on the weekends and spending time with my grandkids.”

With all her business success, the ever-humble Sylvia reflects on the early days with pride. Remember, she was juggling a start-up business with three young children, their hectic gymnastics training schedules, general motherhood and life.

“Yes, that period of life was busy – my working hours were early morning, during school hours and late nights. However, it gave me the opportunity to support my family in their pursuits,” she recalls.

Sylvia implored other entrepreneurial mums to simply “start small, focus on their customers’ needs and work hard”.

“In five years’ time, I envision that Sylvia P will have continued growth in Australia and internationally. In 20 years’ time, who know where we could be?!”

One thing is for sure, Sylvia P Sportwear will continue to be the bright and coveted label of choice for tens of thousands of Australian gymnastics-obsessed girls. If you aren’t lucky enough to live with the energy of a gymnastics-obessed tween, then you will definitely at least know one. And they’ll all be well aware of the Austrian taxi driver-come-gymnastics fashion maven, Sylvia P.

Try it on
Sylvia P Sportswear has recently opened its first public shopfront at 8 Veronica St, Capalaba.
Check the Sylvia P website for trading hours.

Visit www.sylviap.com.au

Belinda Glindemann

Belinda Glindemann  

Belinda knew she was destined for a career in communications and publishing from the age of 11 when her Year 6 teacher introduced her to poster projects and glitter pens. She completed her journalism cadetship in the Whitsundays and went on to hold various newspaper and magazine editor roles across Brisbane in a media career spanning more than a decade. When Belinda's not writing for haven, she runs her own PR agency, kid-wrangles two young daughters and drinks way too much sweet tea.