Congo's Sapeur Culture

Photos and Text by Per-Anders Pettersson

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Originating from the French slang word sape, a sapeur, as coined in Francophone Africa refers to one who dresses with the highest elegance, sophistication, and class. It also represents the acronym for the Société des Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants, which loosely translates as the Society of Entertainers and Elegant People. 

The Sapeur movement is thought to have originated during the 1920´s and 30´s after the first Congolese returned from Paris, adorned in a foreign but soon to be revered Parisian style of dress consisting of expensive and intricate suits, rather than the traditional African wardrobe of that time. 

This particular style was re-popularized during the 1960´s and 70´s after internationally famed Congolese musician, Papa Wemba, returned from his tour de Paris with a plethora of flamboyant European designer clothes. Wemba and other musicians such as King Kester Emeneya fueled the fever for French fashion, spending tens of thousands of dollars and modeling the likes of European designers such as Versace, Gaultier, Cavalli, J.M Weston, and many more. 

Many historians have claimed that during this period, the significance and popularity of such trends were as much a fashion statement as a political one. The fascination and following seemed to represent more than what many regard narrowly as a superficial, narcissistic, and materialistic obsession. At the time, such modes of dress symbolically and directly challenged, as art often does, the dominant social discourse and oppressive political climate of what was then the dictatorial regime of President Mobuto, who had among other things, banned all imported European styles of dress.  

Today those who identify as members of the prestigious fraternity and strive to embody the Sapeur philosophy of gentlemanly behavior and fashionable aesthetics are mostly young men who, much like the predicament of many Congolese, live below the poverty line in poor housing conditions and are formally unemployed and struggling to survive.  

The Sapeurs represent more than the will to survive, they yearn to make a life for themselves, and there is a strong symbol of resilience apparent amongst these men who are determined at all costs to maintain such a colorful joi de vivre.  Their obsession/pre-occupation with style is as much criticized, as it is commendable, being that in their dedication to self-expression and creativity, they often sacrifice other basic needs in order to practice their art form. Because, after all, what is life without art? 

“This is my job”.  We are artists -Papa Griffe
In early February every year, Sapeurs from Brazzaville, Kinshasa and even some from Europe gather at the Gombe graveyard in Kinshasa to pay their annual respect to Stervos Nyarcos, who is regarded as a Grand Sapeurs and late leader and founder of the “Kitendi Religion”( kitendi meaning clothing in the local language of Lingala). 

At the commemorative festival, hundreds of Sapeurs parade their branded clothing and accessories jumping from tombstone to tombstone, trying to impress each other. 
They then continue with a red carpet parade displaying and modeling their Versace, Cavalli, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Yamamoto, Gaultier, Issey Miyake, Gucci, Valentino, Georges Rech… designs.  You name it, everything is here. 

Afterwards they strut the streets and boulevards of Kinshasa, and end up in bars and clubs into the late night. 

Labels! Labels! "Show us the Versace: someone yells when they enter a bar. 

Despite the countries poverty, corruption and civil war, Democratic Republic of the Congo is also a scene for a cult of high fashion. 

The famous singer King Kester Emeneya resides in Paris and frequents Valentino, Mamoto, and other design shops, and while he is also inspired by French, American and Japanese fashion, ``Paris is the fashion capital of the world`` he says.  

“Its difficult for people in Congo to be Sapeurs. Because of the poverty it’s too expensive for many young artists to buy outfits.`` But as a wealthy famous musician King Kester’s favorite designer is Versace, but “if I go to his shop and I don’t have money, I cry,” he laughs.  

The sad thing is also that to be a real Sapeur you have to be rich. Only rich men can be Sapeurs, he says. 

Once having purchased a jacket for 50,000 dollars and a pair of shoes for 7,000, he explains, “When I see Michael Jackson and Elton John and they are dressed like this. I’m also a musician and I have to look good.``

But many of today´s Sapeurs spend most of their money gradually acquiring a small collection of designs, which are often sourced abroad by relatives or friends.  Once here, they are handed down and also locally traded, thus many young Sapeurs have turned to hustling money illegitimately in order to afford such exorbitant prices. 

Papa Griffe, president of the largest Kinshasa fraternity of Sapeurs is a local celebrity, owning several small businesses, and even hosting his own television show.  “If you want to be a Sapeur you need money. But do you see a Sapeur with a car except me?`` He says honest and proudly. 

The flamboyant lives of Papa Griffe and other members have had allegations of crime, tarnishing the image of the Sapeurs. It’s become a kind of mafia underworld with criminality and petty crime, unsurprising for many youth are unemployed, poor, struggling, and competing with each other to acquire expensive clothes. 

Griffe dresses up on a daily basis, but most Sapeurs only gather once a week or when they are called and hired to entertain. 

The Sapeurs also earn money through the companies that hire them for promotion. They are even hired to attend and entertain at lavish parties of ministers and aristocrats.

`We are like soldiers. We are called, we dress up and perform our duties“. 

Griffe mixes some African fashion and also uses traditional motives, hand painted on jackets and trousers. One outfit, or griffe, as it is called here, is a painted Congolese flag, worn with the accessory of a giant snakeskin shawl. 

Ultimately. being a Sapeur is more than a way of dressing, more than a hobby, more than a means of earning money and respect, more than a prestigious brotherhood with its own moral and social codes. Ultimately it is a way of life and survival for these men. Many use it as an escape to forget about the daily problems and hardships, explaining that that dressing up and parading in the streets makes them feel important, allowing them for a moment to forget about their daily struggles in a chaotic Kinshasa. While they are often treated as next-door celebrities, it is for the bit of glamour and reprieve their embodied art forms bring to the humble, bleak, and even destitute neighborhoods they have spent their entire lives in. 

Most will never experience the first hand sights of Paris or Brussels, but the movement should not be narrowly defined as a capitalistic, over-consuming, obsession and imitation of Western standards of beauty and success. It also functions as a medium for many young people to express and define their own agency, individuality, and identity.  These embodied performances of art, take on a nuanced meaning as they are creatively re-appropriated from one socio-cultural, political, and geographical space to another, rendering the art form unique to that of any other, and thus maintaining/rendering an authenticity that is African, and not paternalistically western.  

If someone who creates is an artist, Sape is undoubtedly a society of artists. 

It is apparent that for many Sapeurs it is better to be well dressed than well fed.  And while many outsiders have taken on the perspective that what these men do are shameful, spending money on clothes rather than electricity, as one Sapeur stated in a very sincere and serious tone, `I choose this lifestyle.’