Between 2017 and 2019, I traveled to Brazzaville within the Republic of the Congo and Kinshasa within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to satisfy complete households of sapeurs, together with feminine “sapeuses” and mini “sapes” in coaching.
My goal was to spotlight the necessary function “La Sape” performs of their defiance of circumstance, by way of the stark distinction of the magnificence of their costume in opposition to the tough backdrop of their environment. The Congo is without doubt one of the poorest areas of the world and so, at first look, followers of the “Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes” (the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant Folks) — La Sape — are a unprecedented sight.
Natan Mahata, 8-year-old college pupil and sapeur for three years, in Kinshasa, 2019, captured by Tariq Zaidi Credit score: Tariq Zaidi
Congolese individuals are identified for taking pleasure of their look, but La Sape takes the artwork of wanting good to the following stage. Papa Wemba, the famously dapper Congolese rumba singer credited with popularizing the sapeur look, stated his inspiration got here from his dad and mom, who within the 1960s had been “at all times nicely put collectively, at all times wanting very sensible.”
Sapeur households are handled like celebrities. They carry hope and joie de vivre to communities which were ravaged by years of violence and battle. Spending cash on ornate pipes and silk socks may appear frivolous in a rustic just like the DRC, the place greater than 70% of the inhabitants stay in poverty, however La Sape goals to do greater than assist individuals neglect their troubles. It has develop into a delicate type of social activism — a approach of turning the tables on energy and rebelling in opposition to the financial situations they stay in.
Maxime Pivot Mabanza, 43-year-old trainer of La Sape and sapeur for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2017, captured by Tariq Zaidi Credit score: Tariq Zaidi
The motion could be traced again to the Congolese resicstance of the 1920s, when younger males sought to undertake and imitate French and Belgian garments as a approach of combating colonial superiority. Congolese houseboys spurned their masters’ second-hand garments and have become defiant shoppers, spending their meager month-to-month wages to amass the newest extravagant fashions from Paris.
After independence in 1960, each Kinshasa and Brazzaville grew to become facilities for a brand new francophone African elite. Many Congolese traveled to Paris and London and returned with designer garments. As Papa Wemba put it, “white individuals invented the garments, however we (Africans) make an artwork of it.”
Regardless of campaigns within the 1980s to ban sapeurs from public areas, Le Sape tradition has seen a resurgence lately. Sapeurs of all ages nonetheless collect to bounce, speak and have pleasant style face-offs to compete for recognition because the best-dressed sapeur. And they’re handled with respect — they’re seen as a significant and life-affirming a part of Congolese cultural heritage.
Elie Fontaine Nsassoni, 45-year-old taxi proprietor and sapeur for 35 years, in Brazzaville, 2017, captured by Tariq Zaidi Credit score: Tariq Zaidi
In international locations torn aside by colonialism, corruption, civil battle and poverty, sapeurs have discovered that shared sartorial ambitions — and their gentlemanly, civil code of conduct — will help to heal the infighting. “I do not see how anybody in La Sape could possibly be violent or battle. Peace means lots to us,” stated Severin, a 62-year-old whose father was additionally a sapeur.
Clementine Biniakoulou, 52-year-old housewife and sapeuse for 36 years, in Brazzaville, 2017, captured by Tariq Zaidi Credit score: Tariq Zaidi
True Sapologie is about greater than costly labels: the true artwork lies in a sapeur’s capacity to place collectively a chic look distinctive to their persona.
Although the custom is normally handed down by way of the male line, many Congolese ladies have not too long ago begun donning designer fits and changing into sapeuses. By difficult Congolese patriarchal society on this approach, they’re returning to La Sape’s origins by reversing the facility dynamic.
La Sape is a motion that’s consistently evolving, as disenfranchised youths use style as a approach of navigating their nations’ journeys from growing international locations right into a extra hopeful cosmopolitan future.