The rainwear scene in The Netherlands was very straight forward the years after the Second World War. For both men and women there were long raincoats available made from tightly woven fabrics in mostly basic and boring colours. Even before the war there was rainwear available in clear plastic, rubberized materials, and later vinyl, but their popularity was limited under the Dutch population who pride themselves to keep a low profile in their daily life. A screenshot of a newsreel (Polygoon journaal from around 1960) showing rainwear in the streets post-war is shown below.
It was the 1973 oil crisis that shocked the country and highlighted its dependence on oil imports. The Netherlands was hit like any other European country when the government rationed gasoline and banned cars on certain Sundays to limit consumption. The bicycle had always been popular for travelling shorter distance in The Netherlands, but now the government took serious note to promote cycling as an alternative to using the car. A major problem was the weather though, as rain regularly swept through the country making cycling an unpleasant experience. Long raincoats gave limited protection to the legs and only recently PVC rainwear became more popular for cyclists as it had a separate raincoat and rainpants giving more protection. But the current range of PVC rainwear was barely suitable for cycling as the material was stiff, limited your movement, heavy to wear, and lacked it ventilation. The common perception was that with wearing your PVC rainsuit you would still end up soaked at your destination; not from the rain but from the sweat building up under the rainsuit. Below a screenshot from a newsreel showing 2 youngsters cycling in the rain in an uncomfortable raincape while holding an umbrella.
To tackle this problem the Dutch Ministry of Roads and Waterways came with a tongue-in-cheek approach to solve this rainsuit problem: they wrote out the competition “Who can design the best rainsuit?” in 1976. From a total of 87 submissions it was the Agu company that won the competition with their now iconic rainsuit. The heading on the picture below reads: “This Agu rainsuit has just been named best rainsuit in our country by the Ministry of Roads and Waterways”.
The Agu Company was a relative newcomer to the cycling and rainwear market. The company was established only 10 years earlier when 3 bicycle wholesalers merged and set up shop a few kilometres north of Amsterdam (the first letter in the brand name references the city the company started out – Alkmaar). Agu mainly bought products from different producers and resold them around the region. In 1974 they started producing light-weight bike bags which were produced in Japan, and this business relationship played a crucial role in the development of the rainsuit that would win the competition 2 years later.
On a business trip to Japan they come across a new material that is not only flexible, light, and pleasant to the eye, it is also completely waterproof with a nylon outer layer with rubber backing. This “rubberized nylon”, combined with approaching the design of the rainsuit from a blank slate, resulted in the Agu rainsuit that won the competition.
The jury indicated that while the rainsuit looked pretty regular at first sight, it were the smaller details and interesting innovations that made it stand out. In total 7 criteria were used to judge all submissions, ranging from obvious demands like being waterproof, easy to take on and off, giving enough freedom of movement for the wearer and possible to produce on large scale, to criteria like having enough ventilation, increasing visibility in traffic, and being fashionable.
Looking back, the Commercial Director indicated that a large part of the innovative design of the rainsuit was due to the fact that the company had no experience in fashion. Most of the other submissions entering the competition came from fashion designers that approached their design on what was done so far instead of what the wearer would want and needed. Innovative design choices include a large ventilation opening covering the whole back to avoid overheating, smaller ventilation holes under the armpits, reflective bands around the arms to increase visibility in traffic, a detachable hood, a couple zipper system to keep rain ut even in the strongest of headwinds, and many more things that we take for granted now.
Winning the competition gave a modest windfall of 5,000 guilders in prize money, which is about 8,000 euro’s in today’s money. The most important part was the exposure the company got and the government seal of approval though. The production of the rainsuit was immediately ramped up and even at a sales price of just below 80 guilders, compared to regular rainsuits going for 50-60 guilders back in those days, the rainsuits could not be produced quick enough for the demand there was. Over a million rainsuits were sold in only a couple of years, something that was quite the accomplishment when keeping in mind that the total population of The Netherlands was only just over 14 million people back then.
Not only the material came from Japan, the total production of the rainwear took place there. In an interview in 1991 the Commercial Director explained that the production of the rainwear was relatively labour intensive due to the material used. The rubberized nylon was cut into patterns and stitched together manually. The problem was that stitching resulted in tiny holes in the rubber jeopardizing the waterproofness of the rainwear, so each stitching had to be sealed with waterproof tape, all by hand. The company estimated that producing the rainwear in The Netherlands would result in a sales price of around 140 guilders, which is more than double the price of competitive rainsuits, so they produced everything in Japan which was still a country with relatively low-labour costs back then. Once the rainwear arrived in The Netherlands the workers in Alkmaar would go over all the packaging material to remove everything that would indicate it was made in Japan, as products from Japan had a bad reputation back in those days.
Every time the weather changed for the worst the street scene in The Netherlands would change to the Agu rainsuit. This was further exacerbated by competitors copying the overall design of the Agu rainwear. Unfortunately for Agu they were too late with registering a patent on their design features and competitors took advantage of this. Below a rainsuit produced by Adidas which is one of the most striking copies of the Agu design, from the shiny material, the white rubberized backing, to the stripes around the sleeves and the elastic bands around the bottom of the pants to keep the pants from creeping up during cycling.
With the Agu rainwear reaching record-breaking sales numbers it was not uncommon for complaints reaching the company on a regular basis. Not complaints about the quality or price of the current range of raingear, but complaints from women that they wanted similar rainwear they could use when wearing a skirt. Back in those days many women wore skirts and especially uniforms often had skirts for women. It was the complaint from a group of nurses from the centre of the country that broke the camel’s back, and the Agu company introduced a long raincoat, in the same material as the rainsuits, for females. The novelty of this raincoat was a system of zippers that could be closed keeping a skirt dry during a bike ride. The general design matches the rainsuits closely with reflective stripes on the arms, a ventilation opening covering the whole back, and a detachable hood now with small visor to keep the rain away from your face.
This time the company learned from its previous mistake, and the design of the long raincoat was patented to avoid competitors copying the looks. In total the company sued 6 different competitors, including the fashion retail giant C&A, for patent infringement, and in every case they won their court cases.
Over time more colours, sizes, and variations of the rainwear were introduced, including the Yotolon long raincoat for men and rainsuits in 2-tone colors. But it was only a matter of time for competitors to come with a better design, to use better materials, and for fashion styles to change. And while the iconic Agu rainsuit was of tremendous importance for the Agu company, they had to stop production at some time and switched their focus on more breathable materials and rainsuit designs that were a better fit with the ever changing fashion.
Over time the iconic rainwear slowly disappeared from the street scene in The Netherlands. People who held on to their Agu rainwear experienced problems with the materials used, as the rubber lining of the rainsuit tended to dry out slowly resulting in flaking. Or the taping used to cover the stitches let lose over time. Both problems gave the same results: leakages.
At the 25 year celebrations of winning the competition that gave the Agu company its kick-start, they introduced the Agu Jubilee rainsuit which was loosely based on the original design. Of course it had newer materials, more fashionable colours, and more innovative design features, but it never gained much popularity with the people longing for the original rainwear from decades earlier. Picture below is of the original 2-colour rainsuits, not the Jubilee rainsuit.
A second try of bringing an ode to the original rainsuit was done more recently with the introduction of the “Agu Original” rainsuit. Again the design was based on the iconic rainsuit of the seventies but this time the company used breathable materials and hit the right mark regarding design adjustments. The best known Dutch independent review agency awarded this updated rainsuit first prize in the “rainsuit test” making it a worthy successor of this little part of Dutch rainwear history.
While Agu has continued making more modern suits ever since, made out of breathable materials and with more trendy designs, the original rainsuits from the seventies and eighties still fetch high prices on second-hand online markets. I reckon this is mostly due to nostalgia although the overall design has a lovely vintage look to it. Even today these 40-year old raincoats can be combined into a fashionable outfit without much effort, given you stick to the more neutral colors like my favorite: the blue one.
While the original rainsuit of Agu was introduced well before my time it was interesting to get a request from a reader to write about this older raingear and find out more about Dutch rainwear history. If you have any similar requests about old or new brands please let me know, although keep in mind that I need to be able to research the brand a bit which might be hard in case there is little information available in Dutch or English.
- Agu company website in Dutch
- Agu company website in English
- Reformatorisch Dagblad August 26, 1991
- Kampioen – ANWB magazine April 1988
- Wielersport Math Salden website
- Tweewielier.nl Juni 16, 2016
- Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland – Agu lawsuit outcome
- Contact – Nieuws en advertentieblad Vorden, Wichmond en omgeving
- ANWB Regenpaktest 2018