The Sapeurs of Congo: Open Gutters and Gucci Loafers

The Sapeurs adhere to a subculture of high fashion, often against a backdrop of extreme poverty. Many live in shacks bordered by stinking sewers in the southern suburbs of Brazzaville. Those of them who can work double jobs; those who can’t must beg, borrow and occasionally steal; whatever it takes to strut in Versace, Prada and Gucci. Meet the Sapeurs of Congo.

In a country where many survive on 30 cents a day, Papy Mosengo is flashing $1,000 worth of designer clothing on his back, Dolce Gabbana cap and Versace stretch shirt to his spotless white Gucci loafers.

“It makes me feel so good to dress this way,” the 30-year-old said when asked about such conspicuous consumption in a city beset by unemployment, crime and homelessness. “It makes me feel special.”

But Mosengo can scarcely afford this passion for fashion. He worked eight months at his part-time job at a money-exchange shop to earn enough for the single outfit, one of 30 he owns, so he’ll never have to wear the same one twice in a month. He doesn’t own a car. He lets an ex-girlfriend support their 5-year-old son and still lives with his parents, sleeping in a dingy, blue-walled bedroom that is more aptly described as a closet with a mattress.

The word “Sapeur” is derived from SAPE, an acronym for the movement itself, Société des Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants. The word sape, perhaps not accidentally, also means “to dress with elegance and style” in French.

The roots of the movement can be traced back to 1920s and 30s when the first privileged Congolese who had spent time in France returned with wardrobes of dapper suits. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that the cult of style really took off, thanks to musician and singer Papa Wemba.

Multiple trips to Paris in the early 1980s only fueled his fever for French fashion, and Papa Wemba soon developed a flamboyant, exaggerated style that was in direct opposition to the Mobutu-approved uniform, the dreaded abacost (from the French “à bas le costume,” or “down with the suit”), a dull Zairean version of the three-piece suit. He called his new style Ungaru, and it was a throwback to the elegance of the 1930s—complete with tapered trousers, brogues, neatly trimmed hair and tweed hats worn at a rakish angle. For Congolese all over the world, the look was irresistible. SAPE was born.

Héctor Mediavilla Sabaté has been studying and photographing Sapeurs since 2003.

Sapeur, by definition is a non-violent person, despite the 3 civil wars that have taken place since the independence. They stand for an exquisite morality, but as they say “There can only be Sape when there is peace”. They represent an illusion that has been supported by the government itself, trying to normalize a post-war situation. The SAPE interrupted its activities when the civil war started in 1997, and did not reinitiate its activities until 2002. Their motto became “Let’s drop the weapons, let us work and dress elegantly.”

Old school Sapeurs often spent years saving up for outfits.They started out by renting or borrowing suits from their more established peers. However, many of the new generation don’t like to wait that long, and they’re not so fussy either when it comes to sources of income to fund their passion, as Edmund Sandars reports:

Indeed the great Papa Wemba himself needed more than concert fees and album royalties to pay for his stylish gear…

It is obvious that there is an inconsistency between the way they live and the way they dress.” Even wealthy Papa Wemba had to resort to tricks to keep himself in Cavalli—soliciting money for working the names of fellow sapeurs into his songs and, recently, charging upwards of US$4,000 for smuggling Congolese men and women into Europe disguised as members of his band, which led to his arrest in France in 2003 (whereupon there were riots in Kinshasa)

Within the SAPE movement there are rivalries and affiliations. Paris vs Brussels, Brazzaville vs Kinshasa, Bacongo vs Mungali. It is total fashion warfare. The rules of engagement also differ from gang to gang. The Brazzaville Sapeurs tend to follow the three colours only rule. Meanwhile in Kinshasa it’s all about going overboard. Sapeurs don’t dress up all the time either. “Fight days” are limited to once every week or so, and the combat arenas are the local outdoor bars on Avenue Matsoua.

Ironically Papa Wemba converted to Christianity whilst serving his prison sentence. He is no longer an advocate for 5,000 dollar suits. A number of his contemporaries now also express sadness at having spent so much money on SAPE. King Kester Emeneya lamented, “I really regret it. We set a bad example. If I had invested my money instead, I would own several houses. It was like a drug.”

However, judging by the amount of Paul Smith suits on display at club La Main Bleue on Sunday nights, the younger devotees have no intention of turning their backs on the “cult of the cloth”.

Photo credit: Colors Magazine

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