Les Sapeurs of Congo

Fashion Meets Culture

Words by Adora Mba

“As long as heaven and earth exist, the rules of fashion will never end” – The opening line of the prayer of Les Sapeurs.

 

LA SAPE: Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People)

 

According to La Sape legend, in 1922 a man named Andre Grenard Matsoua, returned home to Congo from Paris dressed as a French ‘Monsieur’. In a context where Congo was colonised by the French, and many Congolese were still ‘naked’ and ‘uncouth’ servants to the elegant and well-dressed French expatriates, his appearance in a colourful suit in the ‘roaring twenties’ of jazz music and flappers must have looked surreal in Central Africa.

However, this story initiated a social-movement in Brazzaville where servants began to dress like their masters, and embraced this European style of fashion as a way of combating colonial superiority. Thus, ‘Les Sapeurs’ became a political symbol and ideology that can still be seen today.

The modern members of La Sape come from a much more artistic and serene place, although they still serve as an expression against a way of life; this time it is against poverty in the depressed and war-torn country of the Congo. Decked in designer gear from Louis Vuitton to Gianni Versace (Their “High Priests”) they take control of their lives and bring a cultural richness to an otherwise bleak existence.

There are currently at least 6000 Sapeurs across the Democratic of Congo but most reside in the country’s capital, Kinshasa, where they act as ambassadors not just for the country but the continent. When they walk down the streets, the city comes to a stand still. They are the nation’s celebrities.

And yet, the men themselves come from humble backgrounds, with many Sapeurs being plumbers, electricians, rubbish collectors, fishermen etc. They go about their day-to-day lives earning their living, no different from anyone else.

But it is when the job is done that these self-described ‘artists’ really come to life, as they become the canvas for their inspiration and expression. Bold coloured suits mix with unusual fabrics, designer prints and props, to bring about a composition that catches the eye – like a Kandinsky painting in a desert.

To Les Sapeurs their art is not just an expression, it is a way of life, a behaviour, a philosophy. Members have their own code of honour, codes of professional conduct and strict notions of morality that they live by such as:

  • 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.

  • When the Sapeur expresses himself through the harmony of his clothes, he is returning his admiration to God.

The juxtaposition of dusty, poverty stricken setting and Les Sapeurs is truly a work of art.

Artistic expression is not limited to a paintbrush after all! Through their colour and style palate, they ease the struggles of their daily lives as well as becoming symbols of happiness within their communities: butterflies among moths.

Some condemn the Sapeur way of life believing it to be superficial and selfishly ostentatious questioning why men who cannot eat would choose to buy a vintage Yves Saint Laurent jacket instead of food…

However, other believe that if this very act and way of life can bring about some small glimmer of hope in a country where sometimes all can seem lost – then why not? Why shouldn’t the man be a plumber by day but a dandy, bright hero by night? It is his ‘joie de vivre.’

Vive La Sape!

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