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October 18, 2017
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Dandies of the Congo

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Mouanda photographed the Brazzaville sapeurs in 2008 and exhibited the work at the Biennial Exhibition of African Photography in 2009 (Source: Baudouin Mouanda).

When Daniele Tamagni, a young Italian photographer, went  on an assignment to Congo in 2006, he encountered a surreal sight that he did not expect to see. Against the backdrop of a Brazzaville shantytown, in a country ravaged by civil wars, bombings and suffering, he saw groups of spectacularly dressed men (and few women) on the streets.

Sapeurs1
Photo by Baudouin Mouanda.
(Source: The Leica Camera blog, 2011)

As Daniele later found out by meeting one, then another one, and another one, they were members of a fascinating Congolese subculture, le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or le Sape for short. At a first glance, one thinks it is the cult of the cloth, but further research reveals it to be a revolutionary movement of sorts, which once defied political leaders. For some, dressing up in such glamorous attire is a way to escape and forget poverty. Sapeur Michel comments: "a Congolese Sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body."

A Congolese Sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body.

These men and women, who have often saved money for long periods of time, hustled and made sacrifices to acquire coveted suits made in France or Italy, represent an eclectic bunch. Dignified by their community, Sapeurs are local celebrities in their garbage-strewn towns, often being paid to appear at weddings, funerals and anniversaries to bestow a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that is largely absent from today. Politicians and government officials have been known to seek out dressing tips and style lessons from this elegant group of dandies. 

What can we see on the catwalk of Brazzaville? Perfectly tailored suits (particularly Dior, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Armani and Yamamoto), preferably no more than three colours per outfit, and most exquisite accessories like bowler hats, briar pipes, white gloves, ascots and particularly cigars (that symbol par excellence for these dandies). For starters. 

* * *

The movement, which so admires Parisian fashions, has deep colonial roots. When the Republic of Congo was a French colony, many people were fascinated with French sophistication, and decided to emulate that mode. Soldiers who fought for France in the Great War brought back French clothes upon their return. Greater seeds were planted when Andre Grenard Matsoua, a Congolese intellectual, human rights and freedom fighter, returned to Congo in 1922 after working for the French army and living in Paris. Considered the Grand Sapeur, Matsoua was fully dressed in French wear instead of traditional African attire. He caused a tremendous uproar and subsequent admiration.

In Belgian Congo, the development of the Sapeur subculture sprung slightly differently after the country gained independence. In Kinshasa, it is generally agreed that, when power of the former Belgian Congo fell into dictatorial hands of President Mobutu, the Sape's interests in European attire was a direct reaction to his decree that everyone should enjoy indigenous culture and wear only traditional African garb. Sapeurs rebelled with their appearance, combining it with gentlemanly manners and a non-violent approach, and managed to cleverly avoid dictator's wrath. While many believe they are a certain kind of a revolutionary, in order to maintain their autonomy, Sapeurs do not want to associate with any political party.

Sapeur Article Image 2
Photo by Héctor Mediavilla Sabaté,
COLORS magazine, 2006.

In the latter part of the last century, one encountered le Sape through a passion for Congolese music. One name stands out: Papa Wemba, the king of Rhumba Rock, who charmed audiences in Kinshasa, and later in Paris, with passionate sounds. Wemba also charmed them with his signature individual style that combined baggy but tailored pants, big jackets and designer suits.

There is the personal refusal to adhere to the arguably dull rules of society in which the Sapeurs live. Today there is much individuality in the type of costumes that prevail among this group. Each Sapeur finds his inimitable voice, demonstrated by the cloth, and creates something entirely his own, as different as the city in which he lives: Paris, Brussels, Kinshasa, Brazzaville. Some Sapeurs enjoy Eton collared shirts, while others prefer full Scottish evening dress and others develop their unique Sape DNA by combining particular labels with canes, white bowties and high socks in catchy colors. 

It is not all about the visual excess and fancy tailoring. "The Sape is the art of creating beautiful harmonies from the combination of colours and styles to highlight the elegance of a suit and the manner of the Sapeur," says Dany, one of the Sapeurs featured in Tamagni's book. Sapeurs are gentlemen who know the concept of good manners, are expected to speak fluent French (it is the ultimate dream of a Sapeur to visit Paris!) and to possess a solid moral ethic. To be a Sapeur is an art. Which is why established members of the group show the ropes to young'uns, advising them on how to dress, talk, walk, maintain propriety and behave in a social context. For them, it is more significant to know the rules to chic than to tout a designer label without knowing how to dress.  As mentions Hassan Salvador, a catalyst for the Gentlemen of Bacongo book: "Fashion is frenetic, it changes all the time, but the Sape does not present frenzy, but gentleness, refinement."

* * *

Back in Brazzaville, Sapeurs enjoy meeting for music shows on Sunday evenings, participating in annual Sape competitions and generally congregating and posing together, presenting a very tempting opportunity for photographers like Tamagni. After Tamagni's initial assignment in 2006, he returned to Congo to document this subculture, which culminated in the publication of the photo book Gentlemen of Bacongo (Trolley Books, 2009). Besides showcasing a colourful, vibrant and fascinating collection of photographs, for which Tamagni won the first prize as best portfolio in the 2007 Young Photographers Canon Award, the book includes a series of interviews with local Sapeurs who shed more light on this discipline.

Sapeur Article Image 3
Photo by Daniele Tamagni.
(Source: Gentlemen of Bacongo, 2008)

Most Sapeurs are Catholic and attend church regularly. Hassan Salvador tells Tamagni: "...in the sermons they preach non-violence, good education, the dialogue of generous spirit and a passion for all the values that must be integral to be a true Sapeur." A true Sapeur will always try to be diplomatic and resolve conflicts through dialogue and not violence, especially because many have seen death and violence in their lives. "The Sape is a pacifist movement, in this way we have contributed to the peace and to the reconciliation of the country." 

* * *

Sapeurs were a subject of several other photographers besides Tamagni. Baudouin Mouanda, a Brazzaville native who now lives in Paris, produced a body of Sape work that made quite a splash in African photography exhibits in recent years. The Spanish Héctor Mediavilla Sabaté has been studying Sapeurs since 2003. Recently, another Italian photographer, Francesco Giusti, ventured to Congo to document the colorful and unique style of the Sapeurs. Of his series, he says: "The members of the Sape take a touch of glamor into their humble environment with their refined style and faultless clothes."

Nowadays, many Sapeurs live outside of the Congo in places like Paris, London and Brussels, adhering to the ten commandments of the Sape. Some call their discipline "Sapologie", like a science, religion and culture, which strengthen with time and experience. There even exists a blog with discussions, theories and videos. "Sapologie is ready to evolve with the times and not close itself off…" mentions Monama le Mbouela in Tamagni's book. "When the Sapeur dresses up, he expresses his interior through exterior… the taste of the Sapeur follows the rhythm of the seasons, supporting the fading of colours."

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