The juxtaposition of dusty, poverty stricken setting and Les Sapeurs is truly a work of art!
‘Les Sapeurs’ or ‘Sapologists’ refer to a group of dapper looking Congolese gentlemen who dedicate their time and money to dressing strikingly, yet elegantly well.
a community of unskilled/manual labourers who devote themselves to collecting and wearing old-school European menswear. This obsession makes for an iconic spectacle, where fashion and self-styling reconfigure identities across histories and continents.
These well respected trendsetters have made it across Africa entering into fashion wars with one another in view of gaining the title of “The Best Sapeur in the world”.
The movement was said to either come from: colonialism back when the French would pay workers with second hand clothing rather than money or that domestic staff were given second hand clothes to fit in or that Congolese World War II soldiers brought fashion items from Paris after the war. Either way, with its vibrant patterns and colours, it is a Congolese twist in the face of colonial belittlement.
“A Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body.”
In their everyday lives, the Sapeurs are farmers, taxi drivers, carpenters and labourers – ordinary working men. But after their day’s work, they transform. Within their local communities, they are a source of inspiration and positivity. They convene and talk – about “life, their family, helping people get back on track” – and dance or engage in friendly competition.
One of the founders of Sapeur movement and a highly respected figure amongst the Sapeur community is Strevos Niarcos, who sadly died just over 9 years ago. Niarcos strongly promoted, and was deemed by many as the “Father of Sapology”.
To this day Sapeurs continue to gather at his graveside in Gombe cemetery in Kinshasa, sporting their most extreme outfits to mark the passing of a highly influential character.
Papa Wemba, first and foremost a talented musician (co-founder of orchestra Zaïko Langa Langa, along with his own group Viva La Musica) also played a vital role in popularising Sapology in the DRC. Having travelled to Europe on many occasions to promote his groups and to perform, Papa Wemba was particularly influenced by European fashion, culture and sense of style.
Those Sapeurs from Congo Brazzaville in particular tend to stick to wearing no more than three colours/tones at once, excluding white. For them, pocket handkerchiefs are not folded, however stuffed into the blazer pocket effortlessly. Brazzaville Sapeurs prefer to match and accessorise with canes, cigars, umbrellas, scarves, socks suspenders you name it!
On the contrary Kinshasa Sapeurs have a tendency to be more garish and daring. For them the more colour clashing there is the better. Sapeurs from the DRC are known for standing out from the crowd with one of the favourite designers being Yohji-Yamamoto, who is known for his bright costumes.
During fashion battles most Sapeurs often open their suit jackets abruptly and stomp in an authoritative manner in order to show which brand/label they are wearing. Sapeurs also like to show off their shoes, most of which are usually J.M. Weston, a high-priced French shoemaker.
Some condemn the Sapeur way of life believing it to be superficial and selfishly ostentatious questioning why men who cannot eat would choose to buy a vintage Yves Saint Laurent jacket instead of food…
However, other believe that if this very act and way of life can bring about some small glimmer of hope in a country where sometimes all can seem lost