by Vincent Edwards in

Sapeurs, comes from the French slang se saper, meaning to dress with class, but also from the acronym of their social group : La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (the Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant People.  A unique movement based in Congo that unites fashion-conscious men who are ready to splurge money as they pose in their Sunday best.  An ethos centered around respect, peace, integrity and honor accompanies the wardrobe of la Sape. This holds that a Sapeur has to be non-violent, well mannered and an inspiration through their attitude and behavior. La Sape derive true joy from showing off their attire on the streets of Brazzaville, peacocking through sewage-lined streets, crumbling concrete homes and jagged sheets of metal are in stark contrast to the formally dressed man standing proudly asthey turn heads and feel like kings.

Despite their expensive attire, they are not rich men. The Sapeurs are the ordinary, democratic, working men cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, through their conspicuous dress, as part of a complex political and cultural maneuver. For its adherents, it’s all about style and elegance, the right combination of colors and textures, brand-names and the highest quality materials. Papa Wemba wanted to challenge the status quo -- not vocally, but visually. So he devised the acronym SAPE, and it gave birth to a wave of popular resistance to President Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime of “authenticity”, which prescribed a condemnation of symbolic ties with the colonizer and a return to traditionalism, following the recently regained independence. Wemba made use of La Sape’s culture of extravagant dress to challenge the strict dress codes which outlawed European and Western styles, imposed by the government. They are in constant competition with each other and investing in their image is more important to them than improving their living conditions. Dressing smartly becomes a true addiction that is very hard to conquer. It seems that elegance and pride brings a nice dose of optimism to the region.