If you are to live in Congo or to move there for a temporary period, you are likely to find a unique group of fashionistas on the streets of Kinshasa or Brazzaville who wear expensive designer clothes despite the stark poverty around them.
From carpenters to taxi drivers, these men have the passion of looking colourful and dapper, often dressed up in well-tailored suits with fancy shoes, hats and other accessories.
Known as the Sapeurs, which stands for the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), these men have been turning the art of dressing into a cultural statement for over a century now and through this style, they have been fighting against the stereotypical image of a poor Africa.
“The Sapeurs sense of style is one of joyous exuberance, flamboyant colour, polished tailoring and impeccable attention to detail; suits in periwinkle pink, buttercup yellow and poison green, fat regatta stripes, Jeeves-esque bowler hats, handsome canes, plump bow-ties, polished brogues and jaunty evening scarves, draped just so,” a report by the Telegraph described these groups of fashionistas.
Many have been wondering how this fashion trend is possible or should even be accepted in an environment where scores of people struggle to make a living.
But the fascinating movement has a cultural significance beyond what is seen on the surface, as it has roots in the French colonization of the Congo in the early part of the 20th century.
After the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and its neighbour, the Republic of Congo gained their independence from Belgium and France respectively in 1960, their capital cities, Kinshasa and Brazzaville became hubs for a new African francophone elite.
These elites visited France and often returned to display their classy clothing and people gradually followed suit.
Famous singer, Papa Wemba, is noted to have popularized the Sapeur look with his group Viva La Musica.
Things changed in the DRC after Joseph Mobutu assumed power and enforced a strict non-Western dress code but Papa Wemba challenged the system.
He devised the acronym SAPE (the Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People) and dressed up his band in the SAPE style. Soon, this style spread to many areas in Central Africa.
Till date, the unconventional look of the Sapeur is still in existence, as you will find Congolese gentlemen in their Gucci and Christian Dior clothing which they often buy from fashion boutiques in Brazzaville or have local tailors design their own pieces.
The interesting thing is they don’t always have to spend that much to look good as they tend to borrow pieces from one another.
Initiation into the Sapeur society comes in several ways.
“Sometimes it’s a father showing his son how it’s done; sometimes it’s through friends. Sometimes it’s a personal choice. The Sapeurs like to say that it passes through generations, from grandfather to father to son,” according to Hector Mediavilla, who first encountered the Sapeurs in 2003 while working on a project about showing the less familiar facets of African life.
But there are strict behavioural customs that come with being a Sapeur, he said.
“The Sapeur is a model of gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; it’s also the language he uses, the way he walks.”
“How you treat people is very important. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, he must not be aggressive, he must be against war, he must be calm tempered.”
Critics may find their sense of fashion as pointless, but as Didier Gondola, author of “History of the Congo”, said about their culture: “It’s the fetishization of fashion—they are worshippers of fashion, it’s their god”.
Check out some of their performances: