A three-piece pastel hued suit finished off with a pocket square and bow tie is a typical get up for the fashion worshipping men of the Congo, yet they contrast strongly with the general landscape of the country. Within a war-torn, impoverished Africa, high fashion still reigns supreme for some. Les Sapeurs, also known as The Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People, are a group of men who hold style above all else. Rooted in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, two capital cities in the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo, Les Sapeurs can be seen clad in designer suits from Yves Saint Laurent to Yohji Yamamoto.
Solange paid homage to the Sapeurs in her latest music video “Losing You”, but they came to prominence in the 1970s by musician Papa Wemba and his band Viva La Musica. Papa Wemba not only dressed himself and his band in daring styles, he elevated the admiration of fashion to the point of religious worship. Taking head from his lyrics praising luxury brands, young congolese men not only strove to dress well, but to travel to Europe and return home with an acquired sense of personal style and higher social standing. Reminiscent of early 19th century European dandies, the men of Le Sape strive to emulate an aristocratic lifestyle and garner public acknowledgement as quintessential gentlemen.
Though stylish, these men are not wealthy and renting items of clothing is common as long as they are authentic. A seasoned Sapeur will be able to spot knock off labels in a heartbeat. While it is in bad taste to disclose the cost of one’s outfit, many of these men get paid to attend weddings and social events. Outdoor walk-offs are a weekly occurrence in which Sapeurs go head to head in showing off their style.
However, the way in which one wears their clothes is far more important and revered than how high class the brand is and as a result, some Sapeurs are beginning to design their own clothes.
Africa has not been a major player in the world of haute couture, but that’s beginning to change. New York began hosting Africa Fashion Week in the summer of 2011, and has brought elegant and ambitious designs to the masses, though primarily for women.
One may argue that the culture of Le Sape is selfish, frivolous and counter productive to advancement of the Congo, yet they are more than just fancy jackets and bowler hats. Many men of Le Sape consider their dress a political statement, thus challenging the general western perception of Africans. Aside from the influence of Papa Wemba, much of the Sapeurs lifestyle stems from proclamations of individuality in a post colonial society. When Congo was still a French colony, many French masters would pay their help in used clothes. Instead of rejecting these gestures, young men searching for a sense of self embraced the style. Taking pride in their appearance is just a fraction of the overall effect; Les Sapeurs are walkable art among otherwise dilapidated streets of the Congo.