Dandies of the Congo

Known as “La Sape“, stands for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (The Society for the Advancement of Elegant People),  these devoted dapper dressers turn the art of style into a cultural statement.  The clothing worn by the Sapeurs (adherents of La Sape) are often brightly coloured and very flamboyant, make them stand out among the surrounding poverty.

Willy Covary, one of Brazzaville’s best-known and most respected Sapeurs, struts in flamingo pink down a Bacongo street

La Sape can be traced  back to the early years of  the French colonisation of the Congo in the 1920s. The sub-cultural movement, as we know  it today, took off in the 1970s in Brazzaville, capital city of  Republic of the Congo, when “authenticity” was part of the states ideology in the country, a policy that prohibited the wearing of Western clothing. The Sapeurs, mostly unemployed men began to rebel against Mobutu Sese Sekoby’s policy by wearing non-conformist clothing, as a way to distinguish themselves from the deprived and unsettling society.  Papa Wemba a Congolese musician who had passion for French fashion, became the leader of the Sapeur, promoting high standards of cleanliness, hygiene and smart dress among youths regardless of societal differences.

Since, La Sape has spread beyond the Congos and inspired many artists and designers around the world.  In 2009, Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni published his pictorial book, Gentlemen of Bacongo with the preface written by the British designer, Paul Smith:

“Their style appeals to me because right from the beginning of my career I have always worked with classical shapes, and strived for beautiful quality, whilst the main emphasis of my work has come from the use of colour, and the unusual coordination of fabrics. As a designer, I have for years also played with the opposites and the unexpected in my work, a classical jacket with an unusual lining for example.”

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