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 fulfill complete households of sapeurs, together with feminine “sapeuses” and mini “sapes” in coaching.
My purpose was to spotlight the vital position “La Sape” performs of their defiance of circumstance, by way of the stark distinction of the class of their costume towards 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 rare 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 persons are recognized for taking delight of their look, but La Sape takes the artwork of trying 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 have been “at all times properly put collectively, at all times trying 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 might sound frivolous in a rustic just like the DRC, the place greater than 70% of the inhabitants dwell in poverty, however La Sape goals to do greater than assist individuals neglect their troubles. It has grow to be a refined type of social activism — a method of turning the tables on energy and rebelling towards the financial situations they dwell 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 may be traced again to the Congolese resicstance of the 1920s, when younger males sought to undertake and imitate French and Belgian garments as a method of combating colonial superiority. Congolese houseboys spurned their masters’ second-hand garments and have become defiant customers, spending their meager month-to-month wages to accumulate the newest extravagant fashions from Paris.
After independence in 1960, each Kinshasa and Brazzaville turned 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 vogue face-offs to compete for recognition because the best-dressed sapeur. And they’re handled with respect — they’re seen as an important 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 conflict and poverty, sapeurs have discovered that shared sartorial ambitions — and their gentlemanly, civil code of conduct — may help to heal the infighting. “I do not see how anybody in La Sape may very well be violent or struggle. Peace means rather a lot 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 potential to place collectively a chic look distinctive to their character.
Although the custom is often handed down by way of the male line, many Congolese girls have just lately begun donning designer fits and turning into sapeuses. By difficult Congolese patriarchal society on this method, they’re returning to La Sape’s origins by reversing the facility dynamic.
La Sape is a motion that’s always evolving, as disenfranchised youths use vogue as a method of navigating their nations’ journeys from creating international locations right into a extra hopeful cosmopolitan future.