Former ASIO officer turned fashion consultant Sarah Kelly at her home in Deakin.

Former ASIO officer turned fashion consultant Sarah Kelly at her home in Deakin. Photo: Rohan Thomson

IF CANBERRA has a reputation for being a poorly dressed drab city, it could be because the style mandate for ASIO's intelligence officers is ''boring''.

For the army of 2000 intelligence, capability and assessments specialists about to set up their cubicles and offices behind the frosted glass windows of ASIO's brand new HQ on Parkes Way, the days of trenchcoat-wearing spies accessorising their outfits with fedoras and bifocal frames are long gone.

According to former ASIO operatives, today's spies and intelligence officers are going to such extreme plebeian lengths to maintain their covers they could be cleaning windscreens at traffic lights or delivering packages disguised as couriers.

There is also no uniform mandate for any level of the organisation, an ASIO spokesman said. ''Corporate is really the only way you could describe it, no one wears a uniform as such,'' he said.

According to fashion commentators and an anonymous former operative, a healthy portion of the clientele at Canberra's Zara store would most likely be intelligence officers.

These faceless men and women are not looking for the latest fashion trends though, they want exactly what every other civilian is having, like a sartorial and less saucy version of that infamous scene from When Harry Met Sally.

Momento Dezigns manager Mary Snowdon says while she can't pick which of her clients work for ASIO she can tell which customers work for a government agency when they browse the racks of the upscale boutique.

Once upon a time Sarah Kelly's security clearance was more enviable than her designer wardrobe. Before she became a local style maven and director of the Fashion Empire fashion consultancy she was entrenched within ASIO, the British Ministry, Defence Intelligence in London and the Prime Minister's office in Canberra in the late 1980s and early 1990s. ''Nondescript'' is how some of the most serious ASIO officers aim to loo, she says.

''While it was all very cloak-and-dagger I never recognised any corporate-wear trends as they all just wanted to fade in to background. It was very important for them to look like boring public servants. It was the Foreign Affairs office which always used to stand out like a sore thumb. They would always be wearing something exotic or interesting that they bought in Paris on a posting or something. Kenzo was big then,'' she said.

''When the intelligence officers would be on stakeouts it was imperative that they looked as normal as possible, so there wasn't really a lot of room for fashion, you couldn't really stand out. It was all about blending in.

''Nowdays they would look very corporate, because the trench coat and hat look has become so stereotypical they don't want to look like that any more. Back then though, when they were watching someone, which . could take weeks, obviously they would have been in unmarked cars but they looked so boring you wouldn't have been able to pick them as spies from a mile away.''