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The 4 Strategies That Launched the Bikini to the Top

How to make your product an iconic success

The sun rising over a deserted beach
A beach made for bikini-wearing

Bikini Days

Let me be very clear. It’s been decades since I wore a bikini. When I was young, I fit into a size double zero, 00. (Yes, they really did make that size.) Petite and slender, I wore a modest two-piece, the only thing I could get away with under the watchful eye of my prim and proper mother. The infamous bikini was far more daring than my swimsuits which consisted of three times as much fabric and covered three times as much skin.

It wasn’t until I was a college girl away from Mother’s watchful eyes that I could flaunt a proper bikini.

That was eons ago.

Sadly, age has given me a belly. In a two-piece, I now look like an overripe apple. In a bikini, I’m a pumpkin in a string. Still, when I read that the iconic bikini was introduced on July 5th, my writer’s brain kicked into high gear, and I got curious about how such an “itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny” thing could climb to the top of the fashion world and still be there 74 years later.

The answer, of course, was brilliant marketing.

Bikini Wars and French Designers

Liberated from the German occupation, Parisians felt “free” and hopeful in 1946. Along with the rest of the world, they were interested in the big news of the day: Americans were testing nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands.

Two French designers wanted to play with the feeling of freedom that floated through the city that summer. Jacques Heim, a fashion designer, in a nod to the testing of atomic bombs, introduced a new two-piece swimsuit, L’Atome, “The Atom.” It was a modest (something my mother would have approved of) version that had high-waisted bottoms covering the naval.

Surprisingly, the conventions of the time thought that the belly-button was forbidden territory. It wasn’t the amount of leg or the heft of the cleavage that was bothersome; it was the display of the naval.

Heim advertised his “Atom” as “the smallest swimsuit in the world,” but it never took off. Modesty is not note-worthy. That’s when Louis Réard, a former automotive engineer familiar with the term “streamlining,” figured out how to take 30 scant inches of fabric and use it to gain the top spot in the swimwear world.

Louis Reard’s Savvy Techniques to Promote the Bikini Can Work for You Too

1. Use current events as a “hook” for your marketing efforts

Like his competitor, Heim, Louis Réard used the news-of-the-day to generate interest for his swimsuit. He called it the “bikini” because the atomic tests were being done in an area of coral reefs in the Marshall Island called “Bikini Atoll.” The name was edgy, specific, and got plenty of press. Calling his bathing suit “bikini” was like getting free advertisement. Even the sound of its name was more exotic than the word “Atome.”

2. Know what your competitor is doing, and use it

In debate class, I learned that knowing what the other side is going to argue is a powerful weapon. Louis Réard understood that principle. He knew his competition’s slogan promoted “L’Atome” as “the smallest swimsuit in the world.”

Never to be outdone, Louis Réard took Heim’s phrase and used it to his advantage. He even hired a skywriting plane to emblazon it in the air for all the world to see: Réard’s bikini was:

“Smaller than the smallest swimsuit in the world.”

3. Anticipate and play with the press

Louis Réard could have chosen any fabric at all for his bikini. Bright red would have made a statement. The ever-popular blue would suggest beaches and water and relaxation. The new suit could have incorporated the hues of the French flag.

But Louis Réard deliberately chose to appeal to the crowd of journalists that flocked to the premiere of the swimsuit.

His bikini was made of a newspaper-print fabric, complete with captions and cartoons.

4. Diminish objections by eluding them

The scandalous bikini was banned in many communities. Spain and Italy prohibited them. However, the swimsuit had debuted in Paris, the fashion capital of the world. From there, the rich and famous took it to the Riviera, and jet-setters who wore them on the Riviera then carried them home to their native countries.

The bikinis were so popular on beaches across Europe, that Spain and Italy had to roll back their prohibition of them.

The wealthy embraced the brevity of the bikini. The average citizen was appalled. They questioned the morals of any woman brazen enough to wear one. Surely they were loose women or nude dancers like the model who debuted the bikini.

Louis Réard’s brilliant tactic for overcoming those objections? He eluded the problem by working his way around it. He continued to market his bikini and its “smaller-than-the-smallest-swimsuit-in-the-world” status, but he lessened the objections by applying a conventional moral to his marketing:

Only a genuine bikini could be pulled through a wedding ring.

Set of silver wedding rings on rock
Bikini can be pulled through a wedding ring

Iconic Status

Who would have thought that a radical, scandalous, departure from the normal “two-piece” swimsuit would turn out to be an icon of the fashion world? Who would have dreamed that three tiny triangles of fabric would make such an impact on the swimwear industry?

Louis Réard did. He went from being an automotive engineer to being at the top of the swimsuit industry, a position he held for more than 40 years until his death at the age of 88. His bikini was worn all over the world by millions of women. If he hadn’t been so good at marketing, his swimwear might have fizzled like that of his competitor, Jacques Heim.

But he was brilliant. His smart marketing worked then, and it works now. Great ideas boost business in any era, any country, for any product. Use Réard’s remarkable strategies to make even your smallest product soar to the top of your industry.


Read more about the craft of writing, copywriting, and success in A Writer's Life.

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