The Congolese are known to have a good reputation when it comes to style, but a group of men takes fashion to a whole different level and don’t shy away from treating it as their culture. These men are called Les sapeurs.
The sapeurs are men from all walks of life: from carpenters to taxi drivers, these gentlemen have one thing in common, and that is the need or passion to look colorful and, what they consider to be dapper. Their definition of “stylish” is definitely different than what most men would consider wearing when they want to look great, and therefore a small lesson of style. Maybe we should all get out of our comfort zones and put something on we don’t normally wear at least once in a while.
Les sapeurs actually exist as an organized institution called “Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes“ (meaning “the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People”) in both the Kinshasa and Brazzaville. It all began at the dawn of the 20th century, when the French arrived in Congo. Shortly after, the myth of the Parisian elegance appeared among the young people of the Bakongo, which is an ethnic group in the Congo. These Congolese men worked for the French colonizers or used to spend time in France, which lead to them adopting the European’s aristocratic affect and style. They adapted it and slowly made it into something of their own. Today, in Brazzaville, men continue to dress up in bright colors and well-tailored suits, accessorized with fancy shoes and hats.
Even though 46.5% of the people living in Congo live below or at the national poverty line, some men buy items that go for prices between 1 000 euros / $1,3000 to 3000 euros / $3900. According to the WHO, the country’s per capita gross national income is around $3,000, which is enough to buy a pair of crocodile leather shoes.
Even though the sapeurs aren’t rich, they save money for their outfits and to make sure that their looks are as good as they can get. Some sapeurs get their clothes made locally, but designer brand are very searched for. Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and Armani suits very much in demand, but so are Japanese labels such as Kenzo and Yamamoto. In terms of shoes, les sapeurs like to wear Weston or British label Church’s. Imitations are not tolerated, and one can actually lose his reputation if he wears an unauthentic piece.
The sapeurs claim that for them, dressing up is a way of life, a way of expressing individuality and their character. The reason why the sapeurs are so culturally fascinating is, first of all, because they have very special looks and share a valuable lesson about style, but also because they shine so bright in such a harsh environment.
We can’t help but wonder if the sapeurs defy their circumstances or (more or less consciously) ignore them. There have been cases where people steal money to buy clothes and it’s hard not to think that they could use the thousands of euros they spend on clothes on a better living.
Didier Gondola, author of “History of the Congo”, said about the culture of the Sapeurs that “It’s the fetishization of fashion—they are worshippers of fashion, it’s their god”.
In a way, the men of the Congo combat the stereotypical image of a poor Africa and they do it through their style. And nobody can argue that this is not a good thing.
However, studying this phenomenon we can’t not think that these men rely too much on their clothes and make out of dressing up a purpose in itself. We always say that men should use their looks as a way of expressing what they like and to convey messages about themselves and not to make looking dapper a goal in itself. One needs to rely on something else than his clothes, and only use clothing to support this.
It seems that some of the sapeurs truly express who they are through their clothes, while others use their clothes as a goal in itself, so there is no room for generalizations. The same happens with people in the Western culture, so once again, we can see how we are all the same.
We like these men because they believe in the redeeming and uplifting effect of dressing well, but don’t necessarily think that what they do is always organic and efficient. Papa Wemba, an icon of sapeur fashion and a famous Congolese musician, who was recently convicted to jail for some rather disturbing crimes, taught us a valuable lesson when it comes to fashion: he claimed that he is not a slave of clothing and that’s what we want everyone to take from this story: feeling great by looking great is highly important, but your clothes don’t need to wear you, you need to wear your clothes.
One sapeur said it best: “It’s not the value of the suit that counts, but the worth of the man inside”.
Fraquoh and Franchomme
P.S. What do you think of les sapeurs? Would you dress this way? Do you think they overspend or that they are on the right path?