History of Fashion: Les Sapeurs Congolais
“Sapés comme jamais, sapés comme jamais…
…haut les mains, haut les mains, sauf les mecs sapés en Balmain…” –
--Maître Gims, Sapés comme Jamais
The Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes — La SAPE— (Society of Influencers and Elegant Persons) is a fashion phenomenon born in the streets of streets of Congo Brazzaville (and imminently exported to Congo Kinshasa) and characterized by elaborate “Dandyism” or ostentatiously elegant suits, often in colorful fabrics and patterns. Sapeurs, as men who dedicate time and effort to participating in this lifestyle are called, draw both praise and criticism for wearing their expensive three-piece suits in the streets of Congo Brazzaville, where the GDP per capita is slightly less than $1700 USD annually (World Bank). Controversy aside, they occupy a niche yet lasting role in international pop culture, and sapeurs are visible in many diaspora communities. Sapeurs inspire the work of artists from Maître Gims, whose hit club song “Sapés comme jamais” celebrates the fashion and nightlife of West African capitals from Bamako to Abidjan, to American indie pop goddess Solange, whose music video for “Losing You” is filmed in a Cape Town township and features her wearing an eye-catching orange suit and dancing with local swenkas—a South African Zulu tradition similar to that of the “Sape” in aesthetic—all of whom are impecabbly dressed in colorful suits with bow ties and pocket squares.
Nigerian-American rapper Jidenna, famous for his single “Classic Man”, dandy aesthetic and all-around eloquence, perhaps best translates the Sapeur ideology for modern American audiences in his song “Long Live the Chief”:
“Now they say ‘Jidenna why you looking so classic?’
I don’t want my best-dressed day in a casket!”
Jidenna calls his style “European and African combined” and cites the sapeurs and swenkas as inspiration: think monochrome primary colors, wax print bow ties with matching pocket squares and velvet loafers. Jidenna certainly did not invent this look, but he has succeeded in bringing attention to a fashion sub-culture mostly ignored by American audiences.
According to French anthropologist Remy Bazanquisa, la Sape is a consequence of cultural exchange between the Congo and France begun during the 15th century and perpetuated by colonialism. The violent exploitation of Africa by European imperialists is far beyond the scope of this article—yet, imposition of French currency and culture as the dominant lingua franca in West and Central Africa is important background for the evolution of la Sape. Under an institutionalized market structure, French money became a necessary commodity—but European settlers often paid their employees in cloth or used clothing. This wage exploitation prompted men from the Bakongo ethnic group to begin wearing—and re-styling in their own flamboyant way—European fashions. When Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko came to power in 1965, he outlawed the “occidental suit” naming the “abacost” (worn without a tie) the official national clothing. In political protest of Mobutu, young men began wearing even more outlandish “occidental suits”, accessorizing with bow ties, polished wing-tips and fedoras. The style was formalized as la Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes — La SAPE— (Society of influencers and elegant persons) by Papa Wemba, a Congolese singer whose group, “Viva La Musica” brought loud and colorful “dandy suits” into mainstream culture. Certain rules persist—a true sapeur should invest in designer items, wear no more than 3 colors at once, and most importantly always behave as a gentleman. The key here is visibility—sapeurs choose vibrant fabrics and contrasting pattern combinations to draw attention to themselves, turning their neighborhoods into catwalks to playfully compete with one another.
“To be a sapeur is a state of mind… un état d’esprit”
In a more ideological sense, la Sape is an expression of rebellion against the dictates of European culture imposed upon Congolese workers by colonialism, as sapeurs prove their superiority in both styling Western clothes and behaving with the utmost gentlemanliness, and against Mobutu’s autocracy. Rather than turn to violent opposition, the Sapeur leads by example—he shows his creativity on his body, his moral uprightness through his behavior, and his dedication to the movement (and by extension to the aforementioned themes) by saving in order to buy the expensive designer shoes expected of “un dieu de la sape” (god of the sape). Sapeurs insist that the subculture is not based on pricey footwear, but instead a “state of mind”—a sapeur must have the “eye” for pattern-mixing, color-coordinating, and the confidence to pull off a head to toe monochrome orange outfit. According to men who are proud participants in the sapeur tradition, it is an artform rooted in pride in oneself and presenting your best foot forward in all situations.
“This is our art: we all are artists. La Sape is our glory, and makes us proud to be Congolese.”
La Sape can be controversial. The style is difficult to maintain and requires both a financial and time commitment that makes sapeurs into well-known members of their communities. Alongside the freedom of expression and “dandyism” that make sapeurs celebrated is a very real contrast with their humble surroundings. Many sapeurs save for years to buy a coveted pair of JM Weston shoes, which retail for a minimum of $1000 (almost the entire annual wage of an average Congolese citizen). There seems to be a disconnect between living in an aluminum-roofed house and wearing handsewn designer loafers imported from Italy. But, to decry “la Sape” as a cult or think that their money should be spent elsewhere misses the point. Part of what makes la Sape so iconoclastic is that men from humble neighborhoods with poor infrastructure dare to aspire to the highest echelons of global fashion houses from Tokyo to Milan—why should we care if they want to spend their money on couture? It is not within our rights to judge; in fact, claiming that Congolese people should not aspire to own luxury because of their national economy is paternalistic and neo-colonial. Inherent in “la sape” is an expression of pride & rebellion against expectations of how poverty should manifest.
It’s hard to write about fashion without feeling somewhat frivolous, but fashion is an art form deeply engrained in human society and thus has meaning. I believe that the sapeur mentality comprises complex and contradictory forces: European couture, defiance against others’ definitions of how one should act, expectations of gentlemanly behavior… “La sape” is very interesting from an anthropological perspective as well, because the movement adapts principles of European dandyism and African concepts of leadership and nonviolent rebellion to modern Congolese and diaspora societies. In terms of couture, we see traditional European cuts in vibrant African wax print fabrics (most of which are actually produced in Holland and China, but that’s a story for another day).
We can all embody elements of “la sape” in our daily lives: to dress well—in a way that brings us pride, always put our best foot forward, be confident, take fashion risks, and most importantly, act with elegance.
Solange “Losing You”
Jidenna “Long Live the Chief”
Conde Nast Traveler:
NY Times: Papa Wemba’s Obituary:
Wall Street Journal: