Historical manufacturer no. 5: Speedo

Speedo has become an iconic brand and image known all around the world, but its origins hark right back to the early days of clothing manufacturing in Sydney.

The brand’s founder, Scottish emigrant Alexander McRae, opened knitting and clothing factories around Sydney during the early 20th century.

He started with a Regent Street knitting mill in 1914, then moved to the larger McRae Knitting Mills in Camperdown four years later and established a much larger knitting mill and clothing factory in Newtown in 1922.

Originally McRae had been manufacturing underwear under the brand name Fortitude but when he expanded his business and changed the name to McRae Knitting Mills he also started creating sw

According to the official Speedo website, the now-famous Speedo brand wasn’t launched until the late 20s, but prior to this name it was becoming well-known in Sydney thanks to a boom in consumer demand for swimming costumes.

“During the 1920s the swimwear market grew rapidly, thanks to the acceptance of swimming as a sport and a liberal attitude towards mixed bathing,” the company explains.

The Speedo name came soon after – coined by a staff member who coined the slogan ‘Speed on in your Speedos’ – and by 1929 the first Speedo swimsuits were being made in Sydney.

“The newly-named brand soon established itself in the hearts and minds of swimmers and the general public, thanks in part to Swedish swimmer Arne Borg, who set a world record in Speedo swimwear.”

Speedo quickly became one of the top brands for both competitive and leisure-based swimmers, often pioneering new styles. In fact, during the 1950s and 60s, staff member Gloria Smythe combined both speed and fashion into Speedo swimwear designs.

As the Powerhouse Museum explains, Smythe researched the hydrodynamics of garments and introduced fashion to competitive swimming.

“She was the first to use nylon, lycra and ‘paper’ (lycra/nylon) fabrics, remove modesty skirts from men and women’s costumes, make men’s briefs briefer and raise the hipline and neckline of women’s swimwear,” the museum’s Speedo swimwear page says.

“She introduced fashion to competitive swimming by printing onto nylon and using patterns and colours on Olympic team swimwear.”

By the 1970s, Speedo had subsidiaries in Europe and distribution licenses for countries like Japan and South Africa, making it a truly global brand. More than half of all the Olympic swimmers that won medals at this time wore Speedo swimwear, increasing recognition and demand for the brand.

The success of Speedo helped it keep manufacturing in Australia for longer than many other local clothing companies but in the early 2000s the very last Sydney factory was closed in Windsor and production moved overseas.

Now owned by the British Pentland Group Speedo is only Australian in its history.

But the brand is still seen as synonymous with the Aussie beach lifestyle and the important contributions its made to both swimming and fashion show just how much influence local companies have as time goes by.

Featured image courtesy: www.speedo.com