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Sapeurs, Dandies of Sub-Saharian Africa

Sapeurs, Dandies of Sub-Saharian Africa

Alfonso Licciardi

2009 chronicles: La Sape. Short for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or for we’re nowhere near to live in a fashion hub nation, but we still enjoy the art of well-dressing. Because that’s it: nobody should give up on fashion, even if in the midst of war and woeful poverty. These men dress in tailored suits, silk ties, and sparkling footwear. It’s a subculture, a club, centered in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, respectively capitals of the Republic of the Congo and the larger Democratic Republic of the Congo, that like any other has its own code of conduct.

center: Willy Covary, one of the best known and respected sapeurs.

History of La Sape can be traced back to the colonialism period in Africa, especially in Kinshasa and Brazaville, when France and Belgium took control over the Congo, at the the end of 1800s. Indeed, it has a strong link to 18th and 19th century Dandyism in France.

It was the Italian award-winning photographer Daniele Tamagni, who died in 2017 at the age of 42, who discovered the Sapeurism phenomenon and brought it to the world. He was capable of finding apparently nonsensical stories and wisely turn them into photographies, like among the others, the female wrestlers in Bolivia fighting with traditional dresses. His book named Gentlemen of Bacongo, released in 2009, gained him worldwide praise.

Tamagni’s photos tell a lot about the contrasts. What made the work so fascinating was the impropable correlation between dirty trashy streets, half-dressed children, poverty and colorful European high-end dresses. Many African cities are often, if not always depicted as urban slums where the improvement of living standards is prohibited by the always present conflicts and poverty. Paul Smith writes in the introduction to Gentlemen of Bacongo: “It is incredible enough today to see men dressed so elegantly in capital cities like Paris or London, let alone in the Congo. Their attention to detail, their use of colour, all set against the environment they live in, is just fantastic.”

“When you dress up, you really are the best, the king of colour”. “When I wear my bright suits I look splendid”. “People start shouting, The God of Clothes! The God of SAPE!“, tells Maxime Pivot. Yes, because real life moments of Sapeurs are depicted in several videos, and he’s in one of them, acclaimed as the “hero of their area”.

No one can deny what’s good behind the Sapeurism, althought maybe no humanitarian reason might be found, still it’s a work of artistry.

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