“As long as heaven and earth exist, the rules of fashion will never end” – the opening line of the prayer of Les Sapeurs.
Armani, Gucci, Louis Vuitton – any fashion fan will have no trouble adding to this list. They are all well-known luxury brands, which are primarily associated with glitz and glamour. Their roots lie in the dazzling fashion metropolises of Paris, Milan or New York. The extravagant pieces of clothing made by the labels in question do not just stand out for their design, but also for their high price tags, which tend to determine who they will buy them. At the end of the day, it is the more affluent shoppers who are likely to purchase these pieces. Collections from past international fashion shows on the poor streets of the Congo? Pretty hard to imagine, right?...But in fact, it is true.
Have you heard of Les Sapeurs? They are a group of extremely colorfully and elegantly dressed men, who regularly transform the streets of their home city of Brazzaville into a catwalk.
An image that is rich in contrast: Home to around 1.8 million people, the capital of the Republic of the Congo still has a weak economy to this day and is battling against inadequate infrastructure. Many of its residents have very few savings and have to spend their income on the bare essentials. Only the very few are able to treat themselves to anything beyond that. Although it means they have to do without more comfortable living arrangements or resources like a car, the Sapeurs prefer to invest their hard-earned money in famous luxury brands from Italy and France. Sounds unusual – and it is.
And yet the roots of this movement lie in the past. The story goes that a man by the name of André Grenard Matsoua returned to Africa from Paris back in the 1920s – dressed in the attire of a “French monsieur”. This was a time when his home was a colony of France and many of its residents lived in even poorer circumstances than today. And the returnee garnered even more attention for his appearance. Following the motto “Clothes maketh the man”, his aim was to stand out from the crowd and carve a new role for himself. He hoped that this would bring him closer to the status of his former landlords and show the wider world that he had evolved in his absence while his fellow Africans were stuck in their old, miserable living conditions.
While most of the current Sapeurs inherited the tradition from their fathers, they see the movement as one that has a lighter, joyful background. Following this way of life is supposed to keep them from falling into “dark corners” and committing any crimes. The idea is simple: If you dress stylishly, you’ll act stylishly, too. So, Congo’s fashionistas follow the conviction that their elegant attire will keep them away from the negative, thereby creating space for the positive.
According to a current definition, the group is described as a “Society of Revelers and Elegant People”. Every Sunday, they sashay proudly through the dusty alleyways of the Congo, turning every head along the way. Residents pop their heads over walls and watch the group of men with delight, amusement but definitely a good dose of astonishment, too. The Sapeurs leave nothing to chance; everything is carefully orchestrated: They tear open their jackets and pull up the legs of their trousers. This pulls the focus of the attention onto Europe’s luxury labels – in the company of colorful socks.
There is no doubt that this is a group keen to stand out and polarize. With their Sunday cat walks, they put themselves out there, warts and all. For many of the onlookers, it is and still remains a mystery how their fellow citizens – a large number of whom have the same jobs as themselves – have access to this kind of expensive clothing. There is no question of the dedicated followers of the Congolese movement going in for cheap rip-offs. Instead they rely on second-hand goods and support the movement by swapping clothes between one another. By constantly coming up with new combinations in this way, a single collection can last for a very long time. And even though they are intentionally trying to stand out from their surroundings with their choice of bold colors and almost ironic elegance, their upholding of this tradition is now about much more than attracting awe-struck or even jealous glances.
This is how the Sapeurs have evolved into a symbol of hope for many inhabitants of the Republic of the Congo. The movement underlines the fact that true style comes from the wearer themselves and is not determined by their environment. As such, the men encourage others that each individual has the power within them to influence how others perceive them – no matter where they come from. For the Sapeurs, their elegant attire is more than clothing, it’s a conviction. Their exterior blends with their inner demeanor and attitude: Haute Couture becomes a philosophy for life.