They have a long, very colourful history

By Daouda Coulibaly

You can spot them in the streets of Paris or at fashion events in London, Milan, Brussels or Dubai. Most are black African men with sharp outfits designed and chosen to get them noticed. Known as “Sapeurs” – the name comes from the Society for Ambience and Elegance (Sape) and from French slang “se saper”, “to dress up” – these figures stand out with their offbeat and baroque sartorial style.

Research by ethnologists and historians indicates that the movement was born in Central Africa, likely at the port of Bacongo, the river that separates the two Congos, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo Republic, North of the river) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo, South side).

The subculture got its start around 1919-1920, and by the 1950s, it gained momentum and took off. The first Congolese emigrants (including former infantrymen in Europe) returned home, bringing with them products perceived as luxurious or ceremonial – branded objects, accessories, clothes and shoes.

It was at this point that the first parades and competitions began in the neighbourhoods of the two Congos’ capitals, Brazzaville and Kinshasa. Based on the same principle as dance battles, Sapeurs show off, demonstrate and prove their skills and abilities – the gestures and voice, the walk and the look.

More than just dazzling clothes, verbal and visual communication is essential to stand out. So throughout the two cities, crowds formed to watch the jousting, and acclaim these “black aesthetes” – living works of art that were better dressed than the colonial authorities themselves.

In the 1970s, Congolese families began to send their children to France to study, and many brought their stylish clothes with them. In Europe, the Sape movement got a new lease of life through young people like singer and composer Aurlus Mabele, the jeweller Djo Ballard, Paris pioneer, Ricley Loubaky, or fashion designer, Jocelyn Armel, alias “The Bachelor”, Ben Moukacha, and musician Papa Wemba, also known as the “King of Rumba Rock”.

From 1984 to 1985, the movement became more established in France, and Paris’ Maison des Étudiants de Congolais (Congolese Students House) became the cradle of Sape. Pioneers such as Djo Balard, Ben Moukacha, Jocelyn Armel and Nono Ngando (all of whom we met during the course of this research) all pointed to the MEC as the official starting point for authentic Sape.

Almost everywhere in Africa and in major European capitals, people were talking about this new group of elegant and passionate Africans who frequented the best fashion boutiques. In just a few years, the Sape movement reached the world and was the talk of Europe, and particularly France.

In 2010, stylist and designer Paul Smith launched a Sape collection, paying tribute to the colourful and quirky style of African Sapeurs. During a 2011 visit to Paris, the English photographer Martin Parr visited the Sapeurs and presented a photo exhibition in the Goutte d’or district that was widely covered by the media. And in 2016, designer Christian Louboutin launched a collection of men’s shoes inspired by the kitendi model – a reference to the Sape movement in Lingala, a language spoken in much of Central Africa.

Sapeurs are not typical customers for luxury goods. Instead, they are in search of social recognition and actively make brands their own. With its varying degrees of appreciation, luxury is used as a reference point for the group to which they belong.

The movement’s distinctive style is based on a highly codified use of accoutrements, colours and patterns, creating an original outfit beyond the classic Western model. There’s an excess of accessories: shoes, scarves, belts, watches, glasses, hats, cosmetics and perfumes. This profusion exists to underline the Sapeur’s message: it’s all about “hitting hard” – in other words, making a strong impression in a competitive context. Personal creativity, a touch of humour and subtle provocation are all underlined.

The Sapeur seeks to signal his presence to others and be noticed through the wealth of colours and accessories, transforming himself into an actor in the social theatre. With his unique attire, he seized the right to please himself and also to be visible, to exist and to please.

Clothing fulfils a number of functions: practical, utilitarian, institutional, symbolic, and aesthetic. For the Sapeurs, it allows them to make a political statement – one that pleads for dignity. Sape is the polar opposite of the humiliation associated with poverty and customers who may be perceived as not having the right to step into a luxury clothing shop.

Finally, there’s a very important term in the world of the Sapeurs, and that’s ambiance. They put on a show and seek to crowds and thus encourage sociability. The colourful and luxurious clothes, the flow of words (like a kind of trance), the music and movements and the electric atmosphere provoke collective admiration. This inspires peers’ admiration and so validates the Sapeur’s status.

Daouda Coulibaly is an associate professor at the EDC Paris Business School. Reprinted from under a Creative commons licence