Walking Pieces of Art: Sapeurism and its Evolution

They turn unravelled earth roads into catwalks, strutting and preening in the streets as the public cheers them on. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s dandified aesthetes, Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, have never really stepped off the global fashion radar screen.

Described oftentimes as walking pieces of art, Sapeurs cut quite a scene in cities like Kinshasa and Bukavu, in the impoverished Democratic Republic of Congo. As social media connectivity shortens the length of the globe, the best-dressed gentlemen on the planet are increasingly visible on the screen.

When did Sapology begin? In the 1960s, Sapeurology was at the zenith of its global influence. Stervos Niarcos Ngashie, who died in 1995, was the godfather of Sapology, and a fountainhead of the movement during that tumultuous decade. “Ngashie was revered and held in high esteem and widely acknowledged as the leader of the La Sape movement and the founder of the ‘Kitendi’ religion, which means clothing in local Lingala language,” says his obituary in The Daily Nation. Before the 60s, the history of Sapology gets murky.

There have been many competing theories concerning the origins of the sapeurs. The Fader believes that Sapism began a generation earlier. “The story of the Sapeurs begins in the 1950s, when Congolese students in Paris came back to their home country, and began to hold philosophical meetings clad stylishly —triggering fashion envy on the other shore of the Congo River.” Others believe it started in the 70s. "SAPE is a social movement of young people born in Congo-Brazzaville in the 1970s, whose true creators were young students returning to the Congo," writes Instagrammer Sape1920.

Many theories go back a little further even than the ‘50s, to returning east African soldiers from World War II. A recent RT documentary on the subject begins with the premise that Congolese fighters in the European theater came back to the Congo with an all-consuming passion for French and Italian clothing.

Sapeurism actually arose out of colonialism – that brutal first encounter with Belgians in 1885. There is mention in scholarly writing as early as the aughts of the 20th century. Belgian Baron, anthropologist/archaeologist Jean Joseph Antoine Marie de Witte wrote condescendingly in Les deux Congo, as early as 1913, that the people of Brazzaville were frankly overdressed:

"[…] on Sunday, those that have several pairs of pants, several cardigans, put these clothes on one layer over the other, to flaunt their wealth. Many pride themselves on following Parisian fashion. …" He further notes, rather icily, that in these first encounters with European modernity, people wore layers of pants, wholly inappropriate to the Congolese weather. Charmed, I’m sure (Averted Gaze).

Yet as Baron de Witte lies serenely among his beloved archaeological artifacts, sapeurism continues undeterred. Papa Wemba, the country's foremost sapeur, was cocky. “I am first an artist or a singer, I am not a sapeur first. My job as a singer comes first and people have adopted my look and frankly, I am the happiest man in the world. Not everyone can dress as I dress.” Not everyone indeed, sweet Papa!

Papa Wemba brought about the resurgence of Sapology in the 1970s. Wemba’s overwhelming influence in that decade was so strong many amateur sap historians think the movement began then.

Dandy Sapeur by label  IKIRÉ JONES . Photo by David Evan McDowell

Dandy Sapeur by label IKIRÉ JONES. Photo by David Evan McDowell

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s poverty notwithstanding, sapeurs place a priority on dress rather than property. "In sapology, you need multiple things," utters one sapeur in the video How To Be A Good Sapeur. "I have ten suits." And though Sapology preaches gentlemanliness and extreme manners to a fault, there is an attitude, a subtle cockiness that comes across. “If you are not elegant, forget it!” shouts dismissively an anonymous sap in the Ghetto Millionaire doc trailer.

Sapeur influencers have taken to social media, Instagramming like Nicolas-Patience Basàbôsé and Style Divine Polyvalant. The aforementioned Sape1920’s Instagram is a salon of sorts, featuring sapists like Alain Mabanckou, Ben Mukasha, Ikiré Jones as well as Congolese stylist Jocelyn “the Bachelor.”

In 2014, Guinness put out a short documentary on the men, doing more to further their influence than anyone since Papa Wemba. The campaign for Guinness, created by London-based ad agency AMV BBDO, aimed to show people around the world who are inspirational. And, to be sure, there is something inspirational (also, quite frankly, a little heartbreaking), at taking fashion and style so seriously. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ranks in as one of the poorest countries in the world based on its GDP per capita over 2009-2013. DRC citizens earning on average $394.25 a year. For the amount that it costs to buy an Armani suit and Westons, a sapeur could easily have purchased a plot of land in Kinshasa.

"They have a simple philosophy," the Guinness narrator intones, gravely. "To defy circumstance, and live with joie de vivre." The short, like any good doc, is not without some absurdities. In one scene, a gentleman is seen sitting in his ramshackle living room in the Congo wearing – of all things -- a kilt. “For this outfit,” he idly chatters, smiling, “I took inspiration from Prince Charles.” Again, so charmed.

Is saving up for a designer suit for months while living in extreme poverty – as many saps do -- a wise governing philosophy? In 2016, the GDP of the Congo was $35 billion, ten billion less than the net worth of Walmart heiress Alice Walton. And yet: "If two people have the same suit, it's awkward,” says one sap. “You must own a pair of Westons,” said Maxime Pivot in The Congo Dandies. “For my dignity and my self-esteem, I had to buy a pair.” Such are the rules of Sapism. The accessories of sapeurism also include canes (always detachable), cigars (Cuban, preferably), perfect pocket squares, umbrellas and the like, with a distinct inclination for all things colorful. 

Photo: Death before dishevelment: Enter into Congo's Cult of Elegance - Source CNN

Photo: Death before dishevelment: Enter into Congo's Cult of Elegance - Source CNN

“I think the most important point made here is that these men are choosing fashion over violence in a country riddled with hate, anger and bloodshed,” writes Benjamin Bruntmyer on Africafeed. “They're choosing a path of rejecting the normal, defining themselves and doing good things. I think the idealism represented by this movement is striking to say the least, albeit that the practical application of it is lacking.”

What began clearly as an emulation of colonial masters has morphed gradually into something altogether African. Sapeurism, as the generations progressed, has gone beyond the colonial complex. There is no longer a sense of wholly emulating the fashion of the colonial masters, but in being the best dressed men in the world. No one on the planet looks quite like the proper Congolese sapeur. Further, sapeurism, as an aesthetic decision has gone beyond the borders of the Congo. And with social media watching, the sky is the limit for sapeurs. 

Cover Photo: Solange music video "Losing You"