Culture

The incredible fashion of the ladies and gentlemen of the Congo

By Mona M. Ali

September 20, 2021

Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

In a new book Tariq Zaidi, explores the self-expression through fashion, style and art in the streets of Kinshasa and Brazzaville

Tariq Zaidi’s new book Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo gives us a fascinating inside look into Sapeurs. If you haven’t heard the term before, Sapeurs are those who are followers of a fashion culture in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, and are part of La Sape, ‘Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes’ (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People). Most are day labourers, taxi drivers or gardeners, but as Sapeurs they wear dapper designer suits and take great pride in their appearance.

Traditionally most Sapeurs have been men, but recently women and children have also adopted the lifestyle. These flamboyant personalities are treated like rock stars in their communities for the joy and colour that they bring. For this project, photographs were purposely taken in the Sapeurs’ own low-income communities, highlighting the juxtaposition between the Sapeurs’ environment and their aspirations.

Here Zaidi talks to Vogue Scandinavia about the history of the Sapeur and why he was drawn to this incredible culture.

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. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

Clementine Biniakoulou, 52-year-old housewife and sapeuse for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2017. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

How did this Sapeur concept come to be? When and how did this trend start?

The movement has its roots in the 1920s, when Congolese men started to wear European attire as a means of social mobility and for greater respect under colonialism. Many men would forego other necessities to dress above their class, and proto-Sapeurs were created. The movement as seen today only came about after independence in 1960, when both Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo became centres for a new African Francophone elite. Many Congolese travelled to Paris and London and returned with designer clothes. Congolese people are known for taking pride in their appearance - and La Sape takes the art of looking good to the next level. Papa Wemba, the famously dapper Congolese Rumba singer credited with popularising the Sapeur look, says inspiration for La Sape came from his parents who in the 1960s were, ‘Always well put together, always looking very smart’.

Yamea Bansimba Jean Claude, 58-year-old bricklayer and sapeur for 50 years, in Brazzaville, 2017. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

How did you find out about the place and the culture that you documented in the cities of Kinshasa, DRC, and Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo?

I saw my first Sapeur when I was travelling by land from Morocco to South Africa in 2013. I was fascinated by how he looked given his surroundings – I promised myself I would come back and find out more about him and other Sapeurs. I went back again in 2017 to start my work on Sapeurs and have been working on them since. At first, I only knew about male Sapeurs in Brazzaville, but later learned about women ‘Sapeuses’, who are about 15 per cent of Sapeurs and children Sapeurs, who are very hard to find, as well, and also about the different Sapeur culture in Kinshasa, which is more experimental and unique. What fascinated me about the Sapeurs was the contrast between how they look and their environment, and also the joy they bring to their communities. By photographing them I wanted to help spread the joy - anytime I showed my photographs to family or friends, they were amazed and full of wonderment at the aesthetic. I hope that as more people look at my images and learn about the Sapeurs I can spread that further.

Maxime Pivot Mabanza, 43-year-old teacher of La Sape and sapeur for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2017. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

What does it mean to be a Sapeur? Is there a message or political stand behind it?

Being a Sapeur is about clothes, but it’s also about an attitude and a way of being in the world. It’s telling the world that no matter what my environmental condition is, I am still human, and I still have dreams and aspirations. And I can still look amazing if I want to. Sapeurs are treated as rock stars in their community because they defy their material circumstances, so a lot of the thrill for them is the ‘celebrity’ aspect of it. But mainly it’s about asserting yourself boldly into the world.

Their ideas come from themselves. Of course they are aware of what the latest styles and trends are in Vogue, GQ and Esquire and global fashion in general, but as Papa Wemba (a Congolese singer and fashion icon who popularised Sape) once said, ‘White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it’.

Israell Mbona, 5-year-old school student and sapeur for 3 years, in Kinshasa, 2019. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

What are their motivations to dress this way?

It is true that it is like a religion for many. I heard from some Sapeurs also that it’s a lifestyle: some people like football, others like SAPE. There are Sapeur specific bars and clubs in each district, and there are groupings of Sapeurs in neighborhoods. There is also a friendly competitiveness to it, which pushes Sapeurs to come up with even more interesting and unique designs.

How does one become a ‘member’?

Though the Sapeur culture is traditionally passed down through the male line, many Congolese women have recently begun donning designer suits and becoming sapeuses. By challenging Congolese patriarchal society in this way, they are returning to La Sape’s origins by reversing the power dynamic. La Sape is a movement that is constantly evolving, as disenfranchised youths use fashion as a way of navigating their nations’ journeys from developing countries into a more hopeful cosmopolitan future.

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

Basile Gandzion, 51-year-old human resources manager and sapeur for 30 years, in Brazzaville, 2017. Photo: ©Tariq Zaidi

You say in your book that up to $US2,000 is spent on a suit, but how long can it take for a Congolese person to save that amount?

Generally, it is not considered good practice among the Sapeurs to have any fake labels. Most have day jobs and earn very little. They try to save a little here and there and it may take them years before they have enough to buy a suit. They would prefer to spend 100-200 USD on a shirt rather than save money to buy a house or a car or motorcycle. Their priority is to look amazing at any cost! Perhaps due to a mixture of passion, addiction and special ‘rock star’ status that Sapeurs are given by their local community. Sapeurs also swap clothes, so if one has a Chanel tie and the other a Dior shirt they may swap or borrow clothes between each other for free.

Nkodia Aurelie, 48-year-old businesswoman and sapeuse for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2019 . Photo: @Tariq Zaidi

You can follow more of Tariq's work on Instagram (@tariqzaidiphoto), Facebook (@tariqzaidiphotography) and his website.


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