Paula Stafford (b1920)
Full transcript of an interview with Paula Stafford
Conducted on the 20 October 2008 by Janet Campbell
Paula Stafford, Australia’s best known bikini designer still lives at the Gold Coast. At nearly ninety, she retains all the vigour and wit that underpinned her highly successful fashion business which operated in Surfers Paradise from the late 1940s until she handed over the reigns to her daughters in the 1990s.
She recently spoke to Brisbane Modern about some aspects of a distinguished career which evolved from sewing bright swimsuits for her own children to employing more than 60 people and selling her designs to stores around Australia and overseas.
Your grew up in country Victoria in the 1920s. Did you have any exposure to beach culture in those years?
Yes, my family used to holiday at Point Lonsdale. I cut my own one-piece swimsuit in half when I was 16 in 1936!
Is it true you taught yourself to weave at the age of 10?
Yes. My mother bought me a hand loom when I was 10 and I taught myself to weave. I made squares, then scarves and eventually a jacket with the woven fabric. I’d also been making dolls clothes since a young age.
Where did you learn about fashion design?
After school in 1937 I did a three year dress design course at the Emily McPherson School of Domestic Economy which was part of the Melbourne Technical College. At ‘Emily Mac’ they taught design but they weren’t particularly inspirational. I think they were past it.
Where you known to be fashionable in those days?
My friends thought I was a bit ahead of my time.
During the war years you worked as an army nurse in Toowoomba.
I joined up for the adventure and to go overseas. Then the Japanese war started and they sent everyone back from the Middle East and I didn’t get to travel.
You met your husband Beverly ‘Bev’ Stafford in Toowoomba?
He was a commando in the war and had been sent to Toowoomba to be rehabilitated after being hospitalised. He had been living at Southport before the war. His uncle developed the Rankine and Stafford Estate at Main Beach.
In 1944 you and Beverly moved to the South Coast as it was then known. Where did you live?
In an old kiosk near Main Beach Bathing Pavilion. It still had a kiosk sign on the roof! I can’t tell you how terrible it was. My mother cried all night when she saw it. But I was as happy as Larry. There we were right on the beach. Beverly had a beach hire and massage business. I didn’t have to dress up except to go Southport to buy food. I just lived in a swimsuit. The four children were born there.
Did you have a sewing machine then?
I bought a little hand machine. I started making beachwear for the children. I’d always sewn for myself. People saw us on the beach and asked me to make for them but I said I was too busy. Then one day Mrs Gross came along. She wanted a beach coat. She was a good client of my husband’s and I couldn’t say no to her. I gave her mine. Then people saw hers and wanted one. It was similar to the one I made for Beverly.
Your beach coats were unisex?
No, for Beverly I made a shirt and for me I made a collarless shirt.
And so your business had its start at the beach.
Yes it all happened on the beach until we built the shop. I would take down my little order book and a box of materials. I didn’t use patterns.
When did you first get the shop?
In 1949 we bought land on Cavill Avenue at Surfers Paradise and built a house and apartments which we called Fiesta. I had a workroom there. Eventually we built a shop front. We rented the apartments to tourists and locals. We had 17 staff from the Surfers Paradise Hotel as tenants in the west wing.
What was a typical customer of your business in those early years?
Wealthy southerners from Melbourne and Sydney. It was rare to see a Brisbaneite. They didn’t come to the coast except in midsummer unless they had a beach cottage. It was Sydney and Melbourne people who put me on the map. Also the graziers from the west who would come in March after the summer heat.
In the beginning the bikini and other beachwear styles were the essence of your business but you were soon designing a leisurewear range. Was that because of demand or were you experimenting to see what would sell?
Yes it was demand. People would say ‘I’ve got the bikini and now I need a jacket to match’. Then I would suggest a skirt and I made hats because you had to protect your face from the sun. So it just naturally evolved. Then if someone wanted an evening gown, I’d make an evening gown. I made wedding dresses as well. You name it I made it!
As this was just after the war fabric must have been scarce?
Absolutely. When I first began I had to use materials such as tea towels and table cloths. Then I started to use furnishing fabrics from a store at Southport. Then three Swiss textile agents came to see me and showed me their excellent European ranges. I said I would be only ordering small amounts, five yards at a time but they didn’t mind. I said I must have variety as I can’t repeat myself too often. They had lovely stories to tell and they would come to dinner on Monday nights. They were all friends even though they worked for different companies. Of course in the end I finished up buying thirty yards at a time because I was supplying shops. Shops would want a range of sizes in one fabric from 32 to 40. I was also the first clothing manufacturer in Australia to use Thai silk and I used it in a big way.
Describe the interior of your Cavill Avenue shop.
There were hundreds of bolts of fabric on display. I offered a 24 hour made-to-order service. To do this I had to have a huge staff. The staff knew if there was a lull they were to pick up something to make but we never did have enough stock to satisfy the needs of the walk-in customer. Whole families would want matching outfits. That was popular then. I didn’t have time to make much ready-to-wear stock. We’d get 50 or 60 people in the shop at once. It was just absurd. I had five fitting rooms going. Staff from the finishing department would have to come out to the fitting rooms. One year my 70 something mother came up to help. I heard her in a fitting room with a client saying ‘I do think you should have it a bit briefer’. It made me laugh. She had heard me say that to other customers!
In this photograph of the Cavill Avenue business I can see signs saying Bikini Bar and Tog Shop.
Oh, Beverly had a passion for putting up new signs.
The well-known incident of 1952 when model Ann Ferguson was asked by a Surfers Paradise beach inspector to leave the beach because her Paula Stafford bikini was too brief was huge publicity for your business. Was there ever any negative publicity from the conservative coast community?
(laughs) I don’t think so. Any publicity is good publicity. There was one thing we sent our daughter Sybil to boarding school in Sydney to St Vincent’s. One of the nuns found out I made bikinis and Sybil was asked to leave!
How did you define your style? Can you put it into a sentence?
I can put it into a word, ‘elemental’. I had an elementary style with a simplicity of line. I loved bright colour and always avoided anything fussy.
Can you talk about the bikini?
I loved the bikini. I liked it much more than the two-piece. I couldn’t wait to get rid of the two-piece as it was in the 1940s - up to the waist. I loved the nappy-wrap bikinis. In the early days people started calling the two-piece a bikini and I said you can’t call it a bikini unless it’s three inches at the sides. Later I changed my definition to one inch!
Was the bikini your most successful design?
Actually I consider my leisure wear ranges to have been more important that the bikinis. The leisure wear was the real business and was what stimulated me as a designer. Particularly slack suits. I made a lot of slack suits. Pants and jackets and three-piece outfits. Even four-piece outfits – jacket, pants, skirt and an under top. They were very popular. I started the fashion of tight three-quarter pants in the late 1950s. I called them Matador pants.
When did you get a chance to actually design. You were obviously frantic.
I worked till 12 o’clock at night. I learnt to stay awake at night because I had to. Although I was employing three cutters at one stage I still had to do a lot of cutting myself. It was unbelievably busy. But I had good staff and I had my family. I don’t think I could have done it if my offspring hadn’t come into the business one after the other. Once a client ordered six gowns at 11am and said she was flying out at 3pm. I said you shall have them.
That is unheard of today.
It was unheard of then!
I read that you didn’t need to take measurements.
Yes I would look at people and measure them mentally. I could look at a girl and even if she was fully dressed I could usually tell her measurements. I just had an eye for it.
What was the first shop you sold to?
Georges in Melbourne. Remember Georges? They were my first store client. They got in touch with me through the textile agents. One of the agents said you should be supplying to Georges they would love your stuff. I flew to Melbourne and had a look at what sort of jackets they were selling and I picked a range of fabrics I thought Georges clients would like. I had been a client of Georges when I lived in Melbourne before the war. My Aunt Francis used to take me there to get me equipped for boarding school. She was such a Georges devotee I don’t think she went anywhere else!
Can you talk about your fashion parades.
I had all sorts of requests to do fashion shows and they’d want me to fly down to Sydney and Melbourne. In 1956 I organised Australia’s first bikini parade at Sydney Town Hall to promote the Gold Coast. The fashion parade was great entertainment in those days. Of course at every fashion show I would get new clients. I did many parades poolside at the Chevron Hotel. The music was usually a tape or someone would play the piano. Sometimes the Ski Gardens would do a water ballet performance during the parade. I started my own modelling agency, Golden Girls because I was getting many requests for photographs so instead of using one of my staff I would use a model.
Did your menswear range sell well?
Oh yes. I did a lot of menswear. I was making boardshorts from the very early days. I sold a lot of stock to menswear stores in Melbourne. In the mid 1950s Sammy Davis Junior came into the Cavill Avenue shop and bought 15 bags of clothes to take home for his friends.
Did you continue to do children’s clothes?
Yes I did a lot of kids clothes. People continued to want what my children were wearing.
Was there much competition between you and the other fashion outlets in Surfers Paradise, eg: Ivy Hazzard.
Absolutely no competition whatsoever. They didn’t do made-to-order and were only in a very small way.
You had an association with Brisbane fabric designer Olive Ashworth. Can you talk about that?
She used to design some fabrics for me. I sometimes gave her a motif I liked and she’d turn it into fabric. I once gave her an aboriginal-style motif that my daughter Frances and I designed. She made it up in five colour ways.
Did you also use the hand-screened fabrics of Douglas Ram Samuj?
Yes. He was remarkable. I once had an exhibition of his fabrics upstairs at our art gallery above the shop.
Did you ever make any fabrics yourself?
Yes. Right from the start I saved all the off-cuts of Thai silk and cottons and got a factory to weave them into cloth. You can imagine the variety of off-cuts I had. Then I would make jackets out of it.
Did you get inspiration from overseas fashion magazines?
I don’t think I did really because I didn’t have time and they weren’t been imported into the country in those days. You’d be lucky to get an overseas Vogue once in awhile.
What were your influences?
My biggest influence was the fact that I loved fabric and what I could do with it and the coordination of colours.
Making reversible outfits became one if your signatures. How did this come about?
I made a lot of garments fully-lined with a fabric that would really set off the outfit. People used to say it would look good inside-out. So they didn’t start of being reversible they started off being beautifully lined and stitched and they evolved into the ‘reversible’. I had to sew the label into a pocket.
When did you get labels?
In the 1950s and I had Paula Stafford bags from early on too. Salesmen used to come in and offer to manufacture them.
What was your target age? Did you aim at the youth market?
All ages really. I had many mature-aged clients. Melbourne and Sydney people. They found me and they loved me and they told their friends.
Were you involved in Bernie Elsey’s Pyjama Parties?
Quite often I would do a fashion show at Bernie’s Pyjama Parties. They were great fun.
You also had a restaurant?
Yes under the apartments became a restaurant. An Italian, Johnny Bianci ran it for us. He liked to drink more than he cooked. He had a very good wife who did all the work. Beverly ran a barbecue on weekends outside the shop and all the boys from the pub would come down for that. Then El-Rancho started up across the road with the Daltons from Melbourne. Bev gave them a lot of help. They had no idea how to cook a steak in the beginning.
When you look back on your career now what do you think?
I think I was very lucky. I did the right thing, in the right place at the right time. Looking back I don’t know how I did it. My whole aim was to make people happy and I think I succeeded. So there is a certain sense of satisfaction.
(For images of Paula Stafford’s fashion refer to page 19 Brisbane Modern Issue 3)