Style it like a Sapeur
- On: April 10, 2017
The Sapeurs (members of the SAPE – Society for Elegant Persons) have been doing their thing in the Bacongo district of Brazzaville for generations. Now, thanks to the Guinness advertising machine, we’re all talking about their style and their story.
In case you haven’t seen it, the ad shows a group of ordinary working men returning home, washing off the mud and sweat from their day, and transforming themselves into fashion demigods. The men meet up at a club and enjoy a sort of sartorial stand-off, each trying to outdo the other in the style and posturing stakes.
Designer suits, gold watches, pocket squares, cufflinks and smart shoes make stark contrast with the poverty of the shanty towns in the background. And that makes for great TV. Their story is astonishing and intriguing. So just who are these dapper chaps?
Brazzaville men first got a taste for European style back in the late 19th century, when Congo was a French colony. House servants and clerks were given used clothing by their masters and European fashions would be shown off at church on a Sunday.
But the sharp style we see today harks back to the 20s and 30s when the Sapeurs no longer wanted to emulate their colonial masters, but to outdo them. These men (Sapeurs are mostly male) took elements of European dress and combined them in ways no European would dare.
The result? A very African version of European style – and one that the Sapeurs still practise today.
Sapeur style got a boost in the ‘60s, when independence allowed Congolese to travel to and from Paris, bringing fresh French styles to the Congo. Today there are expat Sapeurs living in Paris, London and Brussels, many of whom return home to Bacongo regularly, to participate in the friendly competition..
Fuelling their fashion
Sapeurs spend extraordinary sums of money on clothing. Often ordinary working men, they shun the things non-Sapeurs spend their cash on – cars, improved housing, private education for their children, sometimes even food. Every spare franc goes on clothing and accesories.
And there is a darker side to all of this – it’s claimed some Sapeurs resort to shoplifting to stock their wardrobes, or else buy from shoplifting gangs.
But many members borrow clothing from fellow Sapeurs, restyling friends’ outfits to their own particular taste. The Sapeurs are also masters at accessorising, bringing new life to old, familiar suits with the clever addition of cravats, patch pockets and flamboyant handkerchiefs.
A moral creed
The Brazzaville Sapeurs are much more than just a group of dandies. And the efforts they take over their dress display more than just vanity. These guys, who spend most of their waking lives scratching out a living, perform ‘la SAPE’ like a ritual – expressing their beauty, nobility and determination to rise above their circumstances.
The Sapeurs groom their souls as much as their bodies. They live by a strict gentlemanly code of conduct, comprising gentility, non-aggression and civility.
Unsurprisingly, then, sapeurism stopped during the Civil War. But now it’s back with a vengeance and many Congolese see its return as a symbol of new hope and optimism for the region.
Get the look
Being a Sapeur takes a lot of time, effort and thought. These guys have serious panache and look astonishingly sharp. So how can you get the look?
Suits are classic European cuts, worn with utter flamboyance. The Sapeurs think of themselves as artists, painting with their clothing. And their colour palette is vast and startling – pastel colours, bright blues, greens and reds all figure. But the cardinal rule is never to wear more than three tones at a time, not including white.
Pocket handkerchiefs are mandatory, but they must spill out of a jacket pocket rather than peek out politely. Ditch the belt, these mens trousers are held up with braces. Ties can take the form of cravats, bow ties or half-Windsor knots.
Shoes are eminently important – always leather, always French or British made. And to top it all off, choose a pipe, cigar (lit or unlit, it doesn’t seem to matter), monocle or pocket watch to finish off the look.
But most importantly – and this is something you can’t buy in any shop – if you want to style it like a Sapeur, you must dress, walk and perform with the exuberance, humour and flamboyance of these remarkable men.