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TOUCH OF VANITY - STYLE

La Sape: The evolution of a sartorial subculture

Elie Fontaine Nsassoni, 45-year-old taxi owner and sapeur for 35 years, in Brazzaville, 2017 © Tariq Zaidi

La Sape is a historically rich fashion phenomenon that began during a dark time in the heart of Africa in the early 20th century and has grown into a global style subculture of dedicated debonair dandies.

They seek him here, they seek him there
His clothes are loud, but never square
It will make or break him so he’s got to buy the best
’Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion

The 1966 hit Dedicated Follower of Fashion by English rock band The Kinks was written to lampoon the contemporary British fashion scene and “mod” culture. However, it could not make for a more relevant description of a sartorial movement that continues to hold the fashion world’s attention and to inspire interpretations of the style phenomenon beyond its origins in the Congo.

La Sape, short for “Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes” (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) began as a “transaction” between the Belgium-French colonialists at the beginning of the 20th century where Congolese slaves worked for second-hand suits.

Off the clock, Congolese men began to dress like “French gentlemen” admired by their fellow countrymen and characterised by colourful, sometimes over-the-top haute couture, luxury loafers, accessories like bowler hats, canes, and sunglasses, and a cool, slick walk that oozed charisma, energy and joy.

They became known as sapeurs (sapeuses for women) and were class and elegance personified. At the time, La Sape was a social commentary on taking control of their – once thought to be colonised – destinies. Sapeurs used this movement as an escape from their misery, which became inspiring and uplifting not only to the sapeurs themselves, but also to their respective communities.

La Sape only developed legs as a “fashion movement” in the 1970s after the independence of the Republic of Congo when now notable names in the movement, including Stervos Niarcos; the former president of the DRC Joseph Mobutu; and legendary musician and style icon Papa Wemba influenced the development of the movement. Papa Wemba especially made La Sape very popular through his music in the Congo, Europe and many African countries.

“White people invented the clothes, but we [Africans] make an art of it,” he said.

Most Congolese dandies or sapeurs come from middle-class or sometimes very poor families and have ordinary day jobs as policemen, taxi-drivers, tailors and gardeners, but by night, a sapeur can look like a millionaire.

Over the last four decades La Sape has spread to other corners of the African continent and beyond, and relatively recently includes women and children, evolving a once curious sartorial subculture exclusive to men in the heart of Africa, into a way of life.

Photojournalist Tariq Zaidi has captured this in his latest photo essay, SAPEURS: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo. In 2017 Zaidi began photographing and documenting les sapeurs of the streets of the Congos’ two capital cities, Kinshasa and Brazzaville. The series is part of a larger body of work, to be published at the end of September 2020, about people who are part of La Sape in the Congo and how the fashion subculture has evolved.

Ntsimba Marie Jeanne, 52-year-old businesswoman and sapeuse for 20 years, Okili Nkoressa, 10-year-old school student and sapeur for 5 years, and Judith Nkoressa, 39-year-old policewoman and sapeuse for 18 years, in Brazzaville, 2017 © Tariq Zaidi
Natan Mahata, 8-year-old school student and sapeur for 3 years, in Kinshasa, 2019 © Tariq Zaidi
Maxime Pivot Mabanza, 43-year-old teacher of La Sape and sapeur for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2017 © Tariq Zaidi
Yamea Bansimba Jean Claude, 58-year-old bricklayer and sapeur for 50 years, in Brazzaville, 2017 © Tariq Zaidi
Clementine Biniakoulou, 52-year-old housewife and sapeuse for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2017 © Tariq Zaidi
Ella Kiadi, 44-year-old businesswoman and sapeuse for 8 years, in Brazzaville, 2019 © Tariq Zaidi
Basile Gandzion, 51-year-old human resources manager and sapeur for 30 years, in Brazzaville, 2017 © Tariq Zaidi
Israell Mbona, 5-year-old school student and sapeur for 3 years, in Kinshasa, 2019 © Tariq Zaidi
Nkodia Aurelie, 48-year-old businesswoman and sapeuse for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2019 © Tariq Zaidi
Francis Okiemi, 14-year-old school student and sapeur for 3 years, Steven Okiemi, 9-year-old school student and sapeur for 1 year, in Brazzaville, 2019 © Tariq Zaidi
Six Lokoto, 28-year-old model and sapeur for 20 years, in Kinshasa, 2019 © Tariq Zaidi

Dilens Dilenga, a 75-year-old Congolese musician and original sapeur from Mbuji-Mayi in DRC, has been a sapeur for more than 50 years. Dilenga likes to dress in white and navy-blue suits from Turkey and says that a sapeur will always be defined as “a star of highest nobility who everyone looks at with admiration”.

However, Dilenga adds that the way sapeurs dress today is not the same way sapeurs dressed 50 years ago when his journey as a sapeur began. Everything from silhouettes, cuts, colours and labels has changed.

“There have been changes and there must be changes. A sapeur always tries to remain relevant and attract people with the way he looks, walks and speaks and adapts to the social and political conditions of the times, places and trends within which he lives,” says Dilenga.

It is perhaps for this reason that the movement still resonates with, and inspires so many people today – particularly the younger generations like 21-year-old student Dorcas Mutombo from Mbuji-Mayi, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mutombo is completing her third year in fashion at the Elizabeth Galloway Academy of Fashion Design in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. Her final research project, La Sape: Congolese Dandy, is a “self-expressive” fashion range inspired by the elegant men she watched sashay down the streets wrapped in Armani suits and dripping in Cartier jewellery as a child.

“They [les sapeurs] were always doing something cool, appreciating themselves and doing the ‘slick’ walk. As I got a little older, I learnt that these men were called ‘sapeurs’ and they are always the centre of attention. They are admired by everyone who sees them so it made sense to me to write about La Sape and interpret my thesis into visually beautiful, meaningful and culturally sustainable colourful garments. La Sape has inspired my range, but I also wanted to tell the story, my story, as a Congolese girl in South Africa.”

It’s worth noting, however, the excessive and often financially crippling spending which can turn sapeurs into slaves of fashion. Traditionally, sapeurs from the Congo would wear expensive haute couture brands from Europe, like Kenzo, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Givenchy and JM Weston for shoes.

In a symbolic defiance of his socioeconomic circumstances, Severin Muengo from Brazzaville, also known as “The Badass of La Sape”, is a middle-class man who boasts a rich collection of bags and accessories to go with his looks. He was interviewed by Mutombo as part of her thesis and explained that he takes out bank loans when he is unable to afford clothes to keep up appearances/lifestyle. Muengo estimates he has borrowed more than $23,100 (R395,000) from the bank to buy clothes.

While designer labels might have been important for creating the synergies between European and African dress at first, there has been a shift to purchase made-to-measure (MTM), or even ready-to-wear labels that focus specifically on Sapology.

Maxime from Brazzaville in 2010 started a project called “Sapeur in Danger” to help sapeurs learn La Sape without spending and sacrificing too much. Maxime encourages sapeurs to make use of local tailors for clothes instead of waiting for European fashion. Not only will this hopefully decrease the amount of fashion waste but it will create jobs and decrease poverty in the community.

Peter Moelans, 33, from Antwerp, Belgium builds on Maxime’s vision. Moelans dresses like a sapeur inspired by the La Sape movement in 2014 after watching a documentary called Un Dimanche à Brazzaville (A Sunday in Brazzaville).

Peter Moelans (Image supplied)

“I loved the styles worn and most of all the lust for life radiating from the sapeurs shown in it [the documentary].”

However, for a style-conscious Moelans, finding off-the-rack suits that transcended the fashion of the moment proved tricky.

“Sapeurs are never afraid of being noticed. They see it as a duty, by way of dressing and behaviour, to first incorporate and then show elegance to everyone”.

“I started at first by panic buying every piece I liked, which resulted in a wardrobe with a lot of items that were hard to combine and didn’t always fit properly.”

Together with a colleague, Moelans decided to start his own MTM label, called Petrus Suits, and practically only wears clothing (blazers, trousers, shirts, suits) from his label. Moelans’ shoes are from the Spanish brand Magnanni because they offer a wide and affordable range of shoes with original designs. Moelans buys ties and accessories from Amidé Hadelin, a fast growing Dutch brand that offers limited runs of Italian-made ties.

“We visit our customers, measure them and advise them on what fabrics, styles and fits to order. Our mission is to dress them as bright and conspicuous as their personality allows, in order for them to receive compliments and inspire the people around them. And thus, we come very close to the mission of La Sape.”

According to Moelans, the most important thing is the colourful flamboyance both in patterns and traditional suits which creates joy.

“Sapeurs are never afraid of being noticed. They see it as a duty, by way of dressing and behaviour, to first incorporate and then show elegance to everyone. Even if the world doesn’t seem to be open to it at first. But apart from that, a sapeur must not only know certain rules on how to combine colours and patterns, for example, but also how to break them within limits of the aesthetic,” says Moelans.

A generation of young South Africans has begun to embrace La Sape as an extension of the formal style of dress Xhosa boys adopt when they become men during umgidi.

In 2017, photographer and entrepreneur Tony Maake, aka Tony Mac, co-founded an Afrodandy fraternity called the Afrodandy Social Club, in Cape Town, along with his fellow dandies, Omphile Sedumedi, Menzi Mcunu and Zola Msizi, to further the Afrodandy movement in South Africa and create entrepreneurial networks.

Tony Mac (Image Martijn Roos Photography)
Tony Mac (Image Martijn Roos Photography)
Tony Mac (Image Martijn Roos Photography)

Tony Mac believes dandyism has always been within him, but says it only manifested in his physical appearance in 2011 through fashion, art, photography and videography.

“Our elders were dandies during apartheid, therefore I feel honoured to be part of the generation to continue the legacy of who we are and what we strive to be. To be a dandy is another fortunate platform to change how we want to be seen and to express ourselves, because dressing up is part of who we are as black people. We were born with it and it is in our blood.”

Tony Mac’s personal style is inspired by his mood and TV shows like Peaky Blinders. His favourite dandy accessory is a hat as he says it is a “symbolic honour to oneself” and he almost never leaves the house without one.

La Sape has evolved to represent more than just expensive labels. La Sape has become a way of life steeped in colonial history using the bright colours and bold patterns of traditional African dress on clothing deemed European.

“It is a reminder to myself and to the people around me that life is beautiful and that you can choose who you are,” says Molans.

“In my opinion, a man is defined not only by going to traditional initiation school but by how a man carries himself in every inch of themselves. Black boys will turn into black men that are actually concerned about how they look, how they present themselves, how they step into a space and own it without saying anything, simply by the way they put their suit together,” adds Tony Mac. DM/ML

Tariq Zaidi is a freelance photographer based out of London, UK. “In 2014, he gave up an executive management position to pursue his passion of capturing the dignity, strength and soul of people, within their environment”. You can follow more of Zaidi’s work on Instagram (@tariqzaidiphoto), Facebook (@tariqzaidiphotography) and on his website www.tariqzaidi.com.

To buy SAPEURS: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo, click here.

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