Photographs of la sape, the Congolese sartorial subculture, often have a particular quality when appearing in Western media. They feature clothes the movement is known for: brightly coloured suits and ties, crisp patterned socks and pocket squares, occasionally, accessories like tobacco pipes, bowler hats and canes, which seem to parody colonisers of yore. But the outfits stick out not only because they are brilliantly assembled, but because of the contrasting surroundings: dirt roads, faded clothes lines, overflowing trash cans, barefoot children. They are almost always taken outdoors, usually the streets of Kinshasa or Brazzaville.1 ‘Living in Poverty and Spending a Fortune to Look Like a Million Dollars,’ summed up the title of a 2015 documentary by RT, the Russian English-language television network.2 Sapeurs, a 2014 documentary short sponsored by the beer company Guinness, gave the disparity between subject and surrounding an uplifting spin. ‘[Sapeurs] have a simple philosophy,’ a voice-over narrator explains. ‘To defy circumstance, and to live with joie de vivre.’3
Sapeurs produce their own media, too. It is different in style and tone from outsiders’ efforts. The French-language YouTube videos in which Ben Moukacha appears present the restauranteur and his fellow sapeurs, members of the Congolese diaspora in Paris, as celebrities. In one interview, he and a journalist dine in a restaurant, chatting as a bottle of champagne chills in an ice bucket.4 In another, by the Congolese web-TV series Ziana, Moukacha stands in the Brazzaville airport as a camera follows his every gesture, paparazzi style.5 Moukacha immigrated to Paris in the eighties, and this video captures his homecoming after thirty years in France. He recites a prayer: Glory to you, sapelogie. Beneficent be your science. You to whom I’ve given my body soul and spirit, protect me from bandits who want to harm my clothes!6
Moukacha delivers these lines with dead seriousness, only breaking character and grinning when his entourage applauds. Recently, I asked him what he thought of outside media coverage of la sape, both by journalists and documentarians and in culture at large. (Solange Knowles’ 2012 music video, ‘Losing You,’ featured Congolese sapeurs living in South Africa; Paul Smith’s spring/summer 2010 collection was inspired by the sapeurs photographed in the book Gentlemen of Bakongo, by Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni.) ‘I don’t think it’s bad,’ Moukacha said. ‘But it often passes over the phenomenon, speaking only about the festive parts, about the joy and the parties. La sape is not just about clothes.’
Moukacha’s online persona is akin to a movement intellectual; He’s fond of inventing new words and concepts to theorise la sape, and discussing them with pomp and circumstance.7 When we meet, our surroundings – his small, cosy restaurant on the rue de Clignancourt – do seem to belie his larger-than-life moniker: ‘billionaire in clothes.’8 But looks aren’t everything, he reminds me. ‘Behind every image is a discourse.’
I created the concept of ‘sapelogie,’ a neologism which means the science of la sape, after the two civil wars in the Republic of Congo. In 1998, people were speaking about peace. Thinking about my country, I had the idea: What can we do for the youth who bore arms? A new concept, a new ideology, was necessary. At the same time, it had to be something they knew already, which was innate. Which is la sape. La sape is an acronym: Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes.9 Sapelogie is a neologism to nourish the movement. We have the ten commandments of sapelogie. There’s no violence. There are no ethnic distinctions. When one is a sapelogue, you’re not on drugs. You’re not an alcoholic or a gigolo. You don’t who have mistresses all over the place. Because you are so anchored in clothing, you are straight. If you follow two rabbits at once, you’ll never catch one.
Where the politician can’t go is exactly where I am. Where people are wounded and fighting, the sapelogue separates them, saying make peace. We’re like people of the church. I consider myself an educator of the street. When young people see you, they come with a smile. You represent change.
La sape is very old. We can trace it to 1922, to Andre Matsoua [a critic of French colonial policy who lived between Paris and Brazzaville, known for his pinstriped suits]. And there were many other soldiers from the first and second world wars. When we attained independence, it continued, because of politicians and bureaucrats who were sapeurs. In the beginning it specifically was anchored in the neighbourhood of Bakongo in Brazzaville. Then it took over the city and the country; it’s like the riots in 2005 in France, spreading from quarter to quarter among the young.
Every Congolese child is a sapeur. You shouldn’t ask when I became one. The point is that I’m still one. Some practice a bit and others practice deeply. I’m very deep in it. It’s true that europeans do it well, too, especially the English, French and Italians. I don’t know if Americans are in it. They’re more about jeans.
There’s an education. You have to shower, cut your hair; When you get older, your parents buy your clothes. And the child sees his parents get dressed up, and he learns. We have a system that’s called ‘mine.’ That means, we borrow a piece of clothing from a cousin or a neighbour to make a reglage. Reglage is sapelogical jargon for an outfit whose components are in harmony. There are some which don’t have the money to practice this art; they do it because it’s inside them. You can wear something that’s €50, and be a sapelogue.
I came to Paris in 1983. I was in an orchestra that played Rumba, singing harmony. At the same time, I went to school, and I was a sapeur. In Paris, the goal was to perfect the vestimentary arts. So I had to connect the useful to the pleasurable, and attain a good scholarly level in order to get a good salary. I thought I’d be a civil engineer, or a university professor; there was a lot of capriciousness. In the end, I did something which wasn’t linked to my studies. I have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
When I first arrived in Paris, there was solidarity. There was a subculture. I wouldn’t ever leave another sapeur in distress. And this is in spite of certain exchanges, certain language that you might have noticed. To boude is part of la sape. It’s a kind of competition, where you exchange words with another sapeur to discourage him, for instance, saying that his outfit is worth less. It’s part of sapelogie, but it’s nothing like real disputes. There are never any actual fights.
I hope that la sape can become an industry in Congo. It’s a political question. Brazil didn’t create football, but it’s become the home of football, like the French and Camembert. But our leaders need to put structures in place to create new, modern fabrics. People at home ask us, why when you’re living in Paris would you wear clothes by European brands, instead of promoting African ones? There needs to be visibility. Whether it’s an African brand or another brand, you need to make an effort. African tissues haven’t evolved beyond being ancestral. We’re not going to continue with raffia forever.
La sape should be accessible to everyone. Descartes says that every philosophy should be a philosophy without fear. Which means that when you believe in something, you shouldn’t avoid it. The paths of sapelogie are impenetrable to all who don’t know the rule of three [which instructs sapeurs not to wear more than three hues at once].10 Colours transmit a message. For us, clothing speaks. Fashion in general is out of fashion. One day it’s enormous rings, the next day they’re gone. La sape is beyond fashion; it’s like the earth. You’re born dust and you die dust. You’re born and we lose you as well.
I have children. The oldest is eighteen; the youngest is three. The fact that my son is a sapeur means he respects others and institutions. He’s not going to bust up a telephone booth for his pleasure. One day he told me, Papa, thanks for making me a sapeur. I responded; I didn’t make you a sapeur. You’re born this way. You’re doing what the Congolese tradition has always asked of you.
If we wear nice clothes, it’s like everybody. When you have a gentlemen who buys a beautiful car that costs a million francs, no one criticises him. But when a sapeur buys a €5,000 suit it’s a problem? Everyone has his own tastes. Everyone has his own passions. You have people who spend all of their savings from the whole year on a vacation that lasts one month. I’m a sapeur, and I buy clothes instead of going on two months of vacation. While others dance, we buy clothes.
One day on television, there was a show about a lady who loved having sixty cats at her house. I was with my wife, who started to say she was crazy and needed to go to the hospital. I told my wife that she didn’t understand anything. That woman is like me.
Alice Hines is Vestoj’s online editor. In 2011, she spent the summer interviewing Parisian sapeurs as part of the Brown University research fellowship, Global Conversation.
See: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-25783245, https://sites.duke.edu/globalfrance/alain-mabanckou/le-contexte-politique-et-social-de-lecriture/la-culture-des-sapeurs/ and http://www.coolhunting.com/culture/gentlemen-of-ba ↩
All translations from the French by the author. ↩
The bravado hasn’t gone unchallenged. Moukacha is the target of several recent video critiques by Norbat de Paris, a younger sapeur who dresses in trendier styles – aviator glasses, slim-fit suits – and also fashions himself a movement intellectual (‘Je roucoule, je broie la langue de Molière, PUTAIN DE MERDE!’). See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcJgSeNT9zk. ↩
In French: Le milliardaire en vêtement. ↩
In English: Society of ambianceurs and elegant people. ↩
In French: la trilogie des couleurs achevees et inachevees. ↩