Sapeurs: the self-confessed dandies of Congo-Brazzaville

Sapeurs are Congo-Brazzaville’s self-confessed modern day dandies commonly referred to by a phrase, coined by Sapeur godfather Papa Wemba, “White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it.” Sapeurs, French slang for “dressing with class,” take their name from the acronym SAPE, for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. (An ambienceur is a local neologism for “one who creates ambience.”)  

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 3.34.40 PMGentlemen’s club for the dapper –a sartorial subculture consciously emulating its colonizer– they declare “La Sape” is an “art for ‘real’ gentlemen”. Living by an agreed aesthetical rule, their savior faire and modish use of the body and expensive dress with meticulously matched colors is an expression and radical yet subtle form of protest, which in recent years has received international attention. Seemingly, the symbol of the Sapeur par excellence receives more notice on its aesthetics and less on meaning.

In this buzz of extravagance, the Sape’s avant-garde fashion statement and bold flair is producing a post-modern phenomenon of the “African-urban-man” style and elegance.  Sapologists, gentlemen who live by a creed with a strict code of honor and morality, contesting circumstances poised through the beautification effect of chic dressing. A belief that “it’s not the cost of the suit that counts, it’s the worth of the man inside it.” A performance and embodiment of sophistication, Sapeurs are prototypes of vibrant icons, consciously portraying not just through performance but the embracement of a subcultural lifestyle.

Fascinated by this culture, the western world, beyond its ahistorical representation of Africa, has taken on the Sape as its new ‘western’ media phenomenon. In 2011, though an oddly placed feature, the Sapeurs stole the spotlight in Solange Knowles’ “Losing You” video, shot in South Africa. But discovered long before Solange’s video, they have been introduced to the world colorfully as a ‘society of tastemakers and fashionably elegant’ –a stylistic inspiration to photographers.

The latest is the Guinness advertisement campaign; a break from the prototypical brand marketer’s portrayal of Africa its approach takes on the exposé of the urban-debonair-man. A post-modernism embodiment of style and sophistication, and a commitment to the “Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo” (La Sape) yet again, have added style, charm and vivid color to a campaign that would otherwise be ordinary. These gentlemen referred to by Stephen O’Kelly, Guinness’ marketing director for Western Europe, as a “truly inspiring and unique group of men” are the featured ‘stars’ of Guinness’ latest advertising campaign, “Made of More.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 3.47.56 PMA fashionable depiction, the Guinness ad artistically captures the extravagance of the everyday working Sapeurs as they transform from their day job to a cigar-wielding,  European-three-piece suit, silk socks, and fedora wearing men. Aesthically well-crafted, a fine image is displayed of the urban-elegant-expensive-looking of gentlemen. Yet, on the far side of this captivating documentation and splendid dress there is another side to the story of the Sapeurs living in Bakongo. These men are not wealthy, and in fact, some are said to rent items of clothing in the name of ‘ambianceur’ and fashion ‘worshipping’ or even take small fee(s) in exchange for a photographer’s glory –a snapshot of their dapper image. So, besides the undoubtedly rich spirit, it may be a wonder, “what of what of the image we see of the Sapeurs is ‘true to life’?” A contrast of ‘their’ real-life far removed from our sight, the world, nonetheless, is left to experience the Sapeurs through the lens of photographers and cinematographers who bring out their mode par excellence alive. And perhaps, such depictions can be a representational (re)construction attached to an African cultural movement that permeates the western mainstream landscape.

All photos by: Ruddy Roye – a Brooklyn (New York) based photographer specializing in editorial and environmental portraits, and photojournalism. You can find more of his work here.

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