Paula Stafford, the legendary Gold Coast designer who brought the bikini to Australia, has died aged 102

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Legendary Gold Coast fashion designer Paula Stafford, who introduced the bikini to Australia, has died aged 102.

Stafford’s fashion empire included swimwear, day and evening wear and menswear and in 1964 was the second largest industry on the Gold Coast after sand mining.

But when she cut her first one-piece swimsuit in half, Stafford said she hadn’t even “heard the name ‘bikini’.”

“I called mine a two-piece,” she said in a 2014 interview with ABC.

Paula Stafford with a model at Surfers Paradise in the 1960s wearing one of her bikinis.(Supplied: Alan A. Richards, City of Gold Coast Libraries Local Studies Collection)

While the bikini was invented by Frenchman Louis Réard in 1946, Stafford popularized the then-controversial swimwear design and popularized the Gold Coast in the process.

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While making her first two-piece suit for personal use, Stafford said “people kept wanting what I wear.”

“So I decided maybe it would be a good idea to have some extra income,” she said.

Black and white photo of a woman in a fabric roll shop holding fabric up to a woman in a bikini in front of a mirror
Miss Teenage Victoria was one of many contest winners in the 1950’s to enjoy a Surfers Paradise holiday and visit to Stafford as part of her award.(Supplied: Alexander McRobbie, City of Gold Coast Libraries Local Studies Collection)

The bikini rose to prominence in 1952 when a woman wearing a Stafford design was ordered off a beach for indecency.

Stafford responded by sending five women onto the beach in their bikinis, in what became an infamous PR stunt.

“It was pretty incredible.”

More than a brand

Stafford said swimwear had become “an industry” for her as her company exported bikinis to London and New York and employed at least 50 women and their family members.

“It grew so fast that we had to build a special factory to house the machines,” Stafford said.

While their business started with just four machines, it ended with more than 40.

The Stafford bikini became synonymous with the Gold Coast when the city was more of a beach town.

“It was a lot of work and time, but I enjoyed doing it,” she said.

Paula Stafford
Paula Stafford, credited with introducing the bikini to Australia, poses with a design on Queensland’s Gold Coast in 2008.(ABC News: Sara Hicks)

Lydia Pearson of famed Queensland fashion label Easton Pearson told the ABC in 2020 that Stafford is a pioneer in the Australian industry.

“You can’t regret it”

Born in 1920, Stafford studied mathematics, chemistry and physics at Melbourne Girls Grammar.

While she wanted to be an architect, Stafford said the headmistress advised her to pursue a “more feminine” career.

“That’s where dress design came in,” she said.

Elderly woman with white hair smiles as she sits in front of a brightly colored dress, with a brightly colored jacket draped over her legs.
Australian bikini designer Paula Stafford is celebrating her 100th birthday.(Supplied: Stafford family)

Stafford said she went out of business in the 1990s before it eventually died down.

“There’s no use 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 regret it, can you?”

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