How Pia Muehlenbeck built an Instagram-friendly athleisure empire

Pia Muehlenbeck's ease in swimwear belies a keen legal mind and a commercial nous that has seen her build a label from an Instagram passion project. Meet the woman redefining business on her own terms

Pia Muehlenbeck’s considerable social media following (not to mention her ease in swimwear most would only dream of wearing) belies a commercial savvy well beyond her years. Along with her partner Kane Vato, Muehlenbeck lives and breathes the kind business acumen that has seen her turn a one-time passion project into a luxe sportswear label and a staggering international fanbase. Founded on simple sportswear and a sustainable ethos, their label SLINKII Athletic has evolved into a rapidly expanding business with even grander designs.

Born in Reutlingen, Germany, Muehlenbeck’s formative years were spent a world away – figuratively and literally – from the kind of scenarios you might have encountered her in before today.


 

A photo posted by Pia Muehlenbeck (@piamuehlenbeck) on



A self-professed tomboy more inclined toward catching tadpoles and collecting snails than wearing dresses, Muehlenbeck and her family relocated to the Gold Coast, Australia, where she was quickly forced to learn a new language after being thrust into a new school at only eight years old. Demonstrating astute early adopter tendencies, Muehlenbeck not only mastered her second language within months but went on to become the exemplary academic (and touch football captain). Eventually graduating at the top of her class in high school, Muehlenbeck earned a scholarship to Bond University to study law and communications.

But it was a fortuitous email exchange concerning a prospective modelling job that would not only introduce Muehlenbeck to her now partner – in business as in life – Kane Vato, but also change the course of her life. As Muehlenbeck tells it, “At the time I was doing some TV presenting and he needed a presenter. We had this amazing banter over email for two weeks until one day he asked me to breakfast. The next day he flew to Queensland to have breakfast with me on the beach before flying back at midday."

What followed was a year of “insanity” spent balancing work, study and long distance. It was the relationship, however, that eventually won out over a job in real estate sales and studying at Bond. Muehlenbeck eventually moved interstate, transferring to Sydney’s University of Technology to complete what would become a first class honors thesis on advocate’s immunity laws. Encourage by Vato to pursue a creative outlet whilst working as a junior lawyer at Kardos Scanlanto, Muehlenbeck began writing a blog called Slinkii. Originally a destination for content like homemade salt scrub recipes, Slinkii soon evolved into both a full-time preoccupation for Muehlenbeck and inspired the catalyst for her initial business venture. Whilst researching for an article on the best yoga mats, Muehlenbeck discovered that most were made from PVC - a non-biodegradable substance - and set about creating a prototype that emulated the best qualities of a traditional foam mat but was made with none of the environmentally unsustainable practices that are involved in their manufacturing.




In October 2014, within six months of formulating their initial idea, together Vato and Muehlenbeck turned Slinkii into an ecommerce operation to sell an initial order of three hundred mats woven from jute and natural tree rubber. As an identifiable gap in the market became apparent, a small range of sportswear soon followed, as did the audience Muehlenbeck had begun to cultivate through her blog. Having pooled her savings to finance that first run, Muehlenbeck began investing even more of herself into her new venture.

“I would work a 12-hour day at the firm, and then come home to pack each individual order until 2am, while responding to customer enquiries. I did that for a month, and set myself a goal to sell a certain amount of yoga mats a week. Eventually I just took the plunge.”

Muehlenbeck quit her job soon after SLINKII began operating – a risk she considers the greatest taken thus far, considering the years invested she into both her studies and her nascent career in a notoriously competitive industry. With the stakes raised considerably, Muehlenbeck had no choice but to “back myself and just go hard because [there was] no other option.”

 

A photo posted by Pia Muehlenbeck (@piamuehlenbeck) on


When time came to market their products, which now included a range of apparel made from organic cotton grown and spun in Melbourne and cut and printed in Sydney, Muehlenbeck and Vato overcame another blindspot in their knowledge using the considerable weapons already available at their disposal. Says Muehlenbeck, “Kane has a photography background and I’d done modeling in the past so he was like, ‘Listen, lay on this mat, we need to do this.’ So we started taking photos all the time, and set a goal for ourselves to post one great shot a day. It just went from there.”

Today, SLINKII has grown into a large enough operation that the pair can no longer run every facet of the business from the apartment their share with their mini schnoodle, Muesli.

“We’ve been a two-man band for a while but it’s now getting to the point where we need to outsource tasks, but to get it to this point we literally had to do everything ourselves,” says Muehlenbeck.

“I have three full-time staff now and a warehouse that automatically dispatches everything. Up until late last year I was still running everything out of our apartment. I still run the business from home, which is great, as we’ve also built the company to exist entirely within the cloud, meaning I can run the company from anywhere in the world.”


Pia packages
Muehlenbeck packaging individual orders from her Surry Hills apartment at the outset of SLINKII's humble beginnings
CREDIT: Supplied
Considering both Muehlenbeck and SLINKII's growing global fanbase – it now boasts 50 stockists in five countries across both bricks and mortar retailers and online – and ever-growing travel itinerary for her publishing side project, Finding The Finer, a cloud-based business model only makes sense. It’s where her customer lives and, perhaps more importantly, where they ‘like’.

“We want to be doing things that we’re proud of. We’ve planted thousands of trees while using sustainable fabrics and ethical manufacturing. I think there has been a big shift in the way people think [and] I’ve seen that common thread through since the beginning of our SLINKII audience.”

“We have quite a large audience now on social media, so if I can promote some positive message through that, then that’s much more important to me than just my own gain.”

Muehlenbeck and Vato work with environmental conservation non-profit One Tree Planted to combat deforestation through donations made from each piece of SLINKII that's sold. That’s no mean feat when you consider that bestsellers like the pair’s marble print range have completely sold out over four production runs, equating to thousands of trees planted and thousands of pieces of marbled sportswear walking our streets.


 

A photo posted by Pia Muehlenbeck (@piamuehlenbeck) on



“It’s very strange to me when I see people out wearing Slinkii. I always approach them. It’s so embarrassing, I go and introduce myself and squeal and hug them. It’s so important to get personal with people, and get their feedback." 

With an audience now in excess of some 1,291,000 followers across their channels, the next role Vato and Muehlenbeck hire for is surely going to require a lot of third-party hugging on their behalf.


Images courtesy of @piamuehlenbeck