La Sape: The Bold Congolese Sartorial Movement Shifting The Socio-Political Narrative
Every year in June in the bustling streets of Brazzaville, Congo, an ostentatious group of men and women dressed in eye-catching suits (never exceeding three colours) exude a certain grandeur through their slow but grand steps, completing their theatrical performance with a dramatic tap of the heel and cane. The locals transform into elegant dandies and spectators become the judges, voting on who will be crowned ‘Sapeur of the Year’. This is La Sape.
La Sape – an abbreviation of the French translation of Society of Ambience Makers and Elegant People – was born during Congo’s colonial period when the ‘houseboys’ would adopt their master’s clothing as a socio-political statement to show that they too could be just as elegant and smart as them. “La Sape was a way of giving hope to a generation who didn’t have any,” says sapeur Monsieur Robby.
To be deemed a ‘sapeur’ (a person with creative flair reflected both in their style and demeanour) required a trip to Europe, hence this social movement trickled its way down to France and Belgium.
You were considered to have a certain stature if you returned to Congo with a lavish wardrobe filled with Guy Laroche or Versace suits, always accompanied by a pair of JM Westons. Christine Checinska, the curator of the V&A’s Africa Fashion exhibition, understands why some might deem this style ‘extreme’ but explains, “in Black culture, being well-dressed is bound up with self-respect.”
In response to the social inequality many of the migrants faced in France during the ’70s, underground clubs such as La Main Bleue in Paris (where Karl Lagerfeld hosted his infamous birthday bash in October 1977) were created to cater to minorities, and it eventually became a sapeur’s home away from home.
The musical influence of the late Papa Wemba placed La Sape on an international scale. Dubbed the King of Rumba Rock, who fused African sounds with Caribbean rhythm, the Congolese music legend and fashion icon was notable for spreading the word of this movement through his tours in the late ’80s and early ’90s around France and Japan.
Solange’s 2012 music video Losing You, spotlighting Cape Town’s sapeurs and, in more recent years, designer Ozwald Boateng’s fashion collections – inspired by his frequent jaunts to Congo – have also become key cultural moments growing this bold sartorial movement beyond the niche.
La Sape has always been seen as a way of existing beyond the socio-political upheaval and projecting a positive image of hope and of shifting the narrative. But beyond that, in the words of the female sapeur Arly La Liya, “La Sape is love, Sape yourself.”
Yelena Grelet is a London-based multimedia journalist and filmmaker