Paula and customer in the ‘70s.
Aussie bikini designer Paula Stafford celebrating her 100th birthday. (Supplied: The Stafford family)
Gold Coast, 1963, with Paula’s boutique in the background – “Machinists Wanted”
23 June 22
Iconic Gold Coast fashion designer Paula Stafford, who introduced the bikini to Australia, has died peacefully at the age of 102.
Stafford's fashion empire included swimwear, day and evening wear, and men's wear, and by 1964 it was the second largest industry on the Gold Coast behind sand mining.
But when she cut her first one-piece swimsuit in half, Stafford said she had not even "heard the name 'bikini".
"I called mine a two-piece," she said in a 2014 interview with the ABC.
"Eventually I learned to call them bikinis. It seemed to be a good marketing idea."
While the bikini was invented in 1946 by Frenchman Louis Réard, Stafford popularised the then-controversial swimwear design and put the Gold Coast on the map in the process.
No need to pay for publicity
While she made her first two-piece for personal use, Stafford said "people kept wanting what I was wearing".
"So I decided it might be a good idea to have an extra income," she said.
"I just thought I was doing something normal that I enjoyed doing, and I was so fortunate that all the family came into the business with me." The bikini surged to prominence in 1952 when a women wearing a Stafford design was ordered to leave a beach for being immodest.
Stafford responded by sending five women wearing her bikinis to the beach in what became an infamous PR stunt.
"I never paid for publicity, the media came to me," she said. "It was quite incredible."
More than a brand
Stafford said swimwear became "an industry" for her, with her business exporting bikinis to London and New York employing at least 50 women and her family members.
"It grew so rapidly that we had to build a special factory in which to put the machines," Stafford said.
While her business started with just four machines, it ended with more than 40.
The Stafford bikini became synonymous with the Gold Coast at a time the city was considered more of a beachside town.
"It was a lot of work, and time involved in it, but I was happy to do it," she said.
"I knew it was going to be a city. I knew it needed promotion. And Australia needed to know about the Gold Coast."
Lydia Pearson from famed Queensland fashion label Easton Pearson told the ABC in 2020 that Stafford was a pioneer in the Australia industry.
"Australia's always been cutting edge for beachwear because our lives revolve around the beach, and so there she was — making the perfect product in the perfect place at the perfect time," she said.
Stafford was born in 1920 and studied maths, chemistry, and physics at Melbourne Girls Grammar.
While she wanted to become an architect, Stafford said the headmistress advised her to pursue a "more feminine" career.
"Hence dress design came into the picture," she said.
Stafford said she gave up the business in the 1990s before it eventually diminished.
"By then I was a bit laissez-faire," she said. "It's no good looking back and saying 'I should have done this, I should have done that'. I did what I did and that was it.
"You can't have regrets, can you."
- AUTHORS: DOMINIC CANSDALE & BERN YOUNG
- SOURCE: ABC GOLD COAST