London, UK – It’s half past midnight at a North London community centre and a group of men in flashy hats and shiny trousers are explaining what it means to be a sapeur: To be a sapeur is a state of mind, un état d’esprit. It’s not about the money you spend: you must have the “eye”, taste in coordinating clothes, sensibility in matching the colours. The outfit reveals the personality: thus, a man must be clean, presentable, and properly dressed. This is our art: we all are artists. La Sape is our glory, and makes us proud to be Congolese.
The men, who are aged between 25 and 49, are originally from inner-city Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They wear flamboyant clothing made by world-class fashion designers. Their clothes reinforce the message: enjoy life and show the world that you do.
Behind the clothes, however, la Sape (the Société des Ambianceurs et de Personnes Élegantes or The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) implies an entire life philosophy – that is, sapologie. It is both the ideology of the movement – about being happy and elegant even if you haven’t eaten enough; cosmopolitan, non-violent, mostly apolitical – and the colourful, exuberant manifestations of its members.
This compulsive obsession with fashion and elegance has its centre between Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo, and Kinshasa – two African capitals facing each other across the Congo River. But it has also followed the Congolese diaspora all over Africa, Europe and America.
With la Sape’s origins dating back to French and Belgian colonial times, the movement’s adherents were politically repressed by Central African governments, in particular by President Mobutu Sese Seko’s authenticité campaign in Zaire (now the DRC) during the 1970s and 1980s.
But la Sape is more than a subculture. It is a significant feature of Congolese culture which permeates mainstream politics, art, economy and communication. Politicians and musicians respect the movement; while the sapeurs in turn look to the outfits of public figures and performers for sartorial inspiration. And as a night out with London’s sapeurs reveals, Congo’s diaspora often debate what their fashion movement really stands for.
11pm at the barbershop
My journey with London-based ambience-makers begins at 11pm on a Saturday night in Tottenham, where the majority of the city’s Congolese community live.
The first stop is a local barbershop, which shares its premises with the atelier of a Congolese tailor.
The sapeurs stop here before embarking on the rest of their night, obeying the commandment to be impeccably groomed. They pay homage to Papa Wemba, the superstar of Congolese rumba and “king” of la Sape who died on April 24, when explaining the ritual. Papa Wemba taught us so, they say, quoting lyrics from the 1980s song Aisa Na Zoe, one of la Sape’s anthems in which Wemba describes the features of a perfect playboy: “Well-shaved, well-styled hair, nicely scented and well-dressed.” Wemba himself would often repeat this maxim in interviews.
Charlie Schengen, who is in his late 40s and a veteran of London’s Sape scene, welcomes us with a short défilé – the traditional way to display the elegance of an up-to-date outfit. He alternates slow, long strides with rapid sequences of heel-toe steps, loudly knocking his J.M. Weston triple sole shoes on the salon floor. He concludes by standing in the middle of the room with his arms wide open, taking in the admiration of the audience while a younger sapeur turns the lapel of his jacket to reveal the original Dolce & Gabbana label – in case there was any doubt.
“La Sape is not easy. There are only two options with it: if you feel it, you have to spend money on it, really big money. If you don’t feel it enough, you’d better give up, especially if you are responsible for your house and family. Otherwise, your life can be destroyed. It can drive you crazy,” says Charlie, who considers himself a retired sapeur but still dresses up.
The older ones warn the younger about the risks of fashion fanaticism, expressing a mixture of lust for luxury, pride for being able to make it, and regret for the shallowness of their société – as a waste of time and money. It’s this contradiction that baffles outsiders.
The sapeurs at the barbershop – always a good gauge of public opinion – are concerned with Congo’s political turmoil and poverty.
La Sape has its own part in this, with its focus on spending money on luxury clothing. Some of the men share their views on this as their beards are trimmed.
“I don’t want to say how expensive my clothes are. People in Congo are starving, someone could get mad at me,” Charlie says.
“When I go back to Kinshasa, it’s so sad to dress nicely among people who are suffering in poverty, and still admire me, and want to be like me. Sometimes I feel I don’t want to dress like that any more. But if I don’t, they would laugh at me, as someone who emigrated and failed,” says Aime Champagne, who is originally from Kinshasa. Aime and others still maintain ties with home, travelling for holidays or business.
“We, the Congolese, are exaggerated, we push things way too far. We should just eat as much as we can buy, and forget about competing among us and judging people for what they appear. Everyone has the right to be what he wants. To me, la Sape is just about being clean: I feel comfortable in my Ozwald Boateng suit, so I wear it,” Aime says.
What has la Sape done for Congolese society?
The sapeurs often refer to famous fashion designers by their first names – Yohji, Coco, Vivienne – as though they were old friends, but become critical when the conversation turns to what la Sape has brought to Congolese society.
“Zero, nothing but stupidity. No one wants to go to school, people just want to spend on clothes, even the shegey [a Lingala term to denote young men often belonging to gangs] who live in the streets. Plus, other African people don’t feel shy to dress in their traditional costumes, while in Congo this is still seen as ridiculous. We lost Congo to the foreigners because of la Sape,” Charlie says, referring to the movement’s political disengagement.
Congolese people who are sceptical about la Sape define it as an obsession – an addiction you can’t quit even if you feel it’s wrong.
Yet sapeur Cedrick Golden defends the ideology and sees it as empowering: “To me, clothes are like food. If you are elegant, people treat you on a different level. La Sape turns you into a strong person, gives you the courage to wake up in the morning and work hard to make yourself better.”
A christening party
The highlight of our Saturday night is, unexpectedly, a christening party.
The father is a grand sapeur, or a yaya (meaning “elder one” in the Lari language of Brazzaville) from Kinshasa, so the cream of England’s sapeurs has gathered for the occasion.
It’s past midnight when we get to the venue, and the aristocracy of Congolese elegance (both women and men) are solemnly eating dinner. Members of the company pose for the camera with an indifferent air – a sly look behind sunglasses – and then go back to sipping their dark lagers. They are used to the media, having been the subject of dozen of films, documentaries and photography shoots, from 1987 film La Vie est Belle starring Papa Wemba to a 2014 Guinness ad which fabricates Brazzaville but was filmed in South Africa.
When it comes to fashion, the Kinshasa or Kinois version of la Sape is wilder than the original one from Brazzaville: leather, jeans, reptile skin, metal inserts and men’s skirts are widely used, and the no-more-than-three-colours golden rule is gleefully infringed.
Among the guests there are the parlementaires, outstanding sapeurs chosen by Papa Wemba in every country where Congolese live to represent the international movement.
There are also important members of les Combattants, a radical movement which systematically boycotts Congolese musicians performing abroad. They have blocked venues and attacked musicians and have completely stopped them from performing in Europe, as punishment for many performers’ open support for the government of President Joseph Kabila and perceived indifference to the DRC’s hardships and brutalities. Yet, at the party, they dance to the hits of Papa Wemba and his Viva La Musica band, the same live music they have targeted in Europe. Party rules are different, I suppose.
The legacy of Papa Wemba
Many sapeurs remain emotional about Wemba’s recent death.
“Bokul [one of Wemba’s nicknames] is our icon, we are never going to have another one like him. He was our papa. We turned into sapeurs because of his music and his example. People focus on the bad side of la Sape, and of Papa as well. They say it’s about thug life but real sapeurs don’t steal. First of all, la Sape is an education, a code to manage family and friends’ relationships, and to improve yourself. It’s not just about clothes. In any case, we don’t have to copy every aspect of our model,” says sapeur Gauthier Mudiata.
“Now, we’ll keep up the work of Papa, may his soul rest in peace. He’s still with us. Look at how I’m dressed: this is thanks to Papa.”
Other sapeurs point to what the greater visibility of their fashion movement as a result of Papa Wemba has done for the Congolese people as a whole.
“We African people are still extraneous to the domains of media and fashion, so we still struggle to be in control of that,” Aime says.
“Thanks to la Sape and Papa Wemba’s music, Congo is today well-known worldwide for something else than war and poverty,” add two parlementaires at the party.
“When we go downtown London, people point at us saying: ‘Look how elegant they are, they must be Congolese.'”