A new look for Customs

Fashion designer Mart Visser recently designed a brand-new uniform for Customs. Why did the wardrobe need a breath of fresh air?

At the end of April, our organization caught the attention of the media. The reason: Customs took on a new look. The old uniform was almost 20 years old and it no longer fitted the requirements. It was time to revamp the wardrobe. The designer Mart Visser and Director General of Dutch Customs, Nanette van Schelven, are both taking pride in the new uniform.

Problems with tenders, Brexit and the corona crisis: it was a project that needed staying power. But the result is great: a contemporary, easy-to-wear and durable uniform, which complies with the multifaceted work of customs officers. It is a comprehensive package of 10 different items of clothing which can be combined in different ways suited to different positions and seasons. The uniform has style, it is cool and sturdy, it encapsulates authority and reliability. It is visible and recognizable; it is new but it also has a familiar blue.

Dealing with limitations
The designer of the new look: Mart Visser. “The instructions were simple: there are complaints about the old uniform so we have to find something new”, says Visser. “I did have understanding for the complaints. In your free time, you wear light and stretchy materials, but when you come to work you have to wear clothing of a very stiff material. It does not make sense. If you have to wear it during a full working day, a uniform has to be comfortable. There have been many developments in the last few years where materials are concerned. The choice of material can make a huge difference.”

“I initially did a lot of research. Some of the existing clothing was very good, were it not for the material. Such as the ‘worker’ and the polo shirt. And I continued my research. If a job has to be done mainly by men, it has a relevance to the clothing that is used. There are many aspects to consider to finally come to a collection that is ‘complete’. The common theme slowly developed, very intuitively. Designing working clothes is a very interesting job to take on. In haute couture there is complete freedom, but in the case of a uniform, you must take account of many things, especially practical matters. My creativity is especially focused on dealing with those limitations.”

Visser focused on the ‘world of Customs’ for his assignment. “The cooperation with the organization was good. They trusted me and it made me happy. What I really noticed in the people I spoke to, is that they exuded strength. You feel it, that energy. You cannot just go and work with Customs. You have to be able to convince people, you have to really be able to get through to people. They are flawless people. If you see them, you see character. And that is exactly what radiates from the new clothing which enhances this image.”

The woman is a central point
Visser’s preference for blue was initially a bit of an issue. Van Schelven: “Green is the colour of Customs. We have a green logo and green stripes on the cars. Customs officers have ‘a green heart’. To remove that colour evoked emotions and resistance as a result. However, to make the step from green to blue is not as large a step as many people may think. We were the only customs organization in the world that had green-coloured clothing together with the Germans. All the other services are wearing blue or black. In the Netherlands, we used to as well, but it changed after the war. The only material that could be delivered at the time was green because of all the shortages. It was in fact purely coincidental. I am glad that blue has returned, it is my favourite colour. It stands for reliability and authority. And it looks good on anyone. People have had five years to get used to the idea, and we are especially happy about the change.”

Another innovation: the uniform has also been designed for women. Van Schelven: “The old uniform was a male uniform, which women also wore. Up to 1978, there were hardly any women working for Customs. Mart considered what looked good on women and he designed a collection for women. He even designed a dress and a ‘robe manteau’. My personal favourite is a beautiful white slim-fit shirt. After that, he designed a fitting male shirt. It says something about the changing times. It is good that women are now a focus of the services in which women did not work for a long time. And now, many women work there.”

Fit for the job
“Customs is the oldest governmental service in the Netherlands, but it is also a modern organization”, Van Schelven continues. “It is how we are known in the world. That old uniform gives an eighties feeling: the clothing has a large and wide fit without stretch. Really old-school. It was the time for something new for us. The new clothing is practical, and tailor-made for our different work activities. It is possible to always dress being ‘fit for the job’. Everyone looks immaculate and much more professional. It is a good image of the organization. We are recognizable. At a meeting, I used to have to explain which organization I was coming from. The situation is certainly different now, it shows Customs (Douane) in big letters. It is relevant as we provide a service. People have to be able to find us, especially at Schiphol or other airports. I hear the same from our staff members who feel that they are more visible. They say: ‘People know what I stand for and it fits to the work I do’. At airports, we are there together with the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee. We are both in blue but the uniform is quite different. It is clear that we are both enforcement authorities, but different services.”

Van Schelven: “We have deliberately sought publicity when we started wearing the new uniform. We did so because we did not simply change a few details but because it is totally different. Citizens and companies need to know, with a view to our recognisability. If I go anywhere now, to companies or ministries, I always get compliments. No one ever said that the old uniform was better. On social media, someone wrote: ‘I would almost just like to work for Customs because of the uniform’.  That’s something, isn’t it?”

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