A while ago my friend asked me to join him to go to The Battle of Les Sapeurs. I didn’t know what to expect and he had to convince me to come. I am so glad he did, because it was a fantastic spectacle.
The battle was between dressed up and overdressed flamboyant black man showing of their outfits. They didn’t even bother to take of the price tags, or rather show of the price tags and the labels inside the clothes. Lots of Dries van Noten, like the man in the pink suit, Gucci, Cavalli, Yohji Yamamoto and Prada. One of the Sapeurs must have been inspired by John Galliano’s look… It was a hysterical and funny event. I wanted to know more about this phenomenon.
In 1922, G.A. Matsoua returned from Paris to Congo with a suitcase filled with French clothes and became the first known Sapeur. But the SAPE cult of style movement, Société des Ambianceurs et Personal Élégants, got really popular in the 1960s and 70s thanks to musician and singer Papa Wemba, who traveled multiple times to Paris to buy French fashion and developed an exaggerated and flamboyant style of dressing.Papa Wemba, Papi de Sapeurs .
A Sapeur is a non-violent person and stands for an exquisite morality. They represent an illusion, supported by the government itself, trying to normalize a post-war situation. The SAPE interrupted its activities from 1997 till 2002, because of the civil war.
Sapeurs hold to European Haute Couture as religion, which is practised in absolute serious. Old school Sapeurs saved up years to be able to afford outfits. They often started out renting or borrowing suits. The younger generation doesn’t want to wait that long and aren’t fussy when it comes to a source of income.
Being a Sapeur is very expensive, so the dark side of this movement is the length some Sapeurs go to get their expansive clothes. Some have resorted to illegal means to obtain their suits and even have spent time in jail. Papa Wemba himself has spent time in jail, because he illegally smuggled Congolese man and women into Europe for a shopping spree, disguised as members of his band.
Within the SAPE movement are rivalries and affiliations, Paris versus Brussels, Brazzaville versus Kinshasa and Bacongo versus Mungali. This expresses into total fashion warfare… The Brazzaville Sapeurs follow a three colours rule and in Kinshasa it’s all about going overboard. It was at one of these battles, I got introduced to Les Sapeurs.
Sapeurs consider themselves artists and are respected and admired. They get invited to events such as weddings to add a touch of elegance. Being a sapeur is not only about dressing impeccable, it is about style and gestures too. The cigar is the ultimate symbol for the Sapeur, although some Sapeurs never smoke their cigars.
Ofcourse there is a contradiction between the poverty in Congo and the eccentricity and extravagance of the Sapeurs, but in this post I look at the SAPE movement from a fashion point of view. To read more about the political and cultural background go to
‘Gentlemen of Bacongo’ ,with a introduction written by Paul Smith.
Most pictures are by Daniele Tamagni and published in the book