Sussing out “La Sape”: fashion, science or religion?
“La Sape is like a giraffe. It’s difficult to describe what it is, but you recognise it immediately”. Suffice it to say that this quote from Chardel reassured and worried me in equal measure about my investigation. Chardel is a Congolese national of great distinction, and the brand new president of the Association Culture et SAPE (ACS). For the uninitiated, SAPE (pronounced ‘sap’) is the acronym of the “Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes” – literally the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People”. Photos of this famous group of dressed-to-kill Congolese trendsetters can often be seen on Facebook pages and TV screens.
To what extent should this fashion be taken seriously? That is what I set out to find out.
Today, on Easter Sunday, the SAPE enthusiasts – or “Sapeurs” of the Paris region will take any opportunity to meet up. A child’s christening or birthday party – any occasion will suffice for the snappiest dressers to come together in Pontoise, 25 km north-west of the French capital, in a flurry of brightly coloured fabrics.
Chardel has whipped out a metallic blue pipe to match his blue and white suit. Attention is paid to the smallest details, such as his dice-shaped cuff links, or the cane of his friend, “Sapeologist” Ben Moukacha, the co-founder, along with his partner Max Toundé, of the “Science of Sape“.
Above: President Chardel
“Sapeology is the study of La Sape. All Sapeologists are Sapeurs, but the opposite is not true,” explains Chardel. “Sapeologists are ahead of their time. They are Sapeurs 2.0, who use connected objects and have a strong presence on social networks,” Moukacha adds.
All these beautiful people (in every sense of the term) greet each other with deference as they share traditional dishes and cans of beer. They are certainly not camera-shy! Indeed, they ask for more photos to be taken, and queue up to appear before the cameras of Congo Show, the TV station for ex-pats. All, without exception, display the same solemn air. There is no question of taking clothes lightly. They are the tools of their trade, a trade which they say they have all practised from an early age, since before they were born, even.
An ancient art
So, I asked: how long has La Sape existed? The reply came from Elvis Makouezi, author of the Dictionary of La Sape, whose name is well known in Paris and Brazzaville:
“La Sape in its modern form appeared in Congo-Brazzaville after the Second World War veterans returned. But as a culture and art of elegance, it stems from the princely habits of the Kingdom of Kongo, where, for instance, the Ntanga – known in Europe as the kilt – was part of the official dress code long before and long after the first Europeans arrived. The difference between the Ntanga and the kilt resided not in the quality of the fabrics but in the patterns, accessories and decorations.”
So did La Sape have European influences?
Without a doubt, but all Sapeurs, without exception, stress the African-ness of their elegance. “Although it came partly from France, Congolese Sape has been so inventive that the student has now surpassed the teacher,” explains Max Toundé.
A true combination of traditional Central African elegance and European style, La Sape has boomed thanks to Congo’s European diaspora. “Paris and Brazzaville are the capitals of La Sape!” exclaims Ben Moukacha as he readjusts his black hat, which matches his olive green tie. Paris-based clubs, starting with Club Rex, where the Senegalese expat Mamadou is said to have invented the name ‘SAPE’, have done much to help institutionalise the concept, with the culture making its way across the Mediterranean at the same time as haute-couture suitcases.
Much more than just fabric
La Sape is a world unto itself. It even has its own language – Lari – a mixture of French neologisms and words from the Kongo language. Sapeurs stand out not only because of their clothes, but also due to their diatances, the word used to describe their rolling gait, as well as their peculiar forehead-to-forehead greeting.
Above: a demonstration of diatances.
In 2000, Ben Moukacha took the ritual element even further by writing the 10 Commandments of Sapeology, which he lists to us with great fervour:
1- Thou shalt practise La Sape on Earth with humans and in heaven with God thy creator.
2- Thou shalt bring to heel ngayas (non-connoisseurs), nbéndés (the ignorant), and tindongos (badmouthers) on land, under the earth, at sea and in the skies.
3- Thou shalt honour Sapeology wherever thou goest.
4- The ways of Sapeology are impenetrable for any Sapeologist who does not know the rule of 3: a trilogy of finished and unfinished colours.
5- Thou shalt not give in.
6- Thou shalt demonstrate stringent standards of hygiene in thy body and clothes.
7- Thou shalt not be tribalistic, nationalist, racist or discriminatory.
8- Thou shalt not be violent or insolent.
9- Thou shalt abide by the Sapelogists’ rules of civility and respect thy elders.
10- Through prayer and these 10 commandments, thou, as a Sapeologist, shall conquer the Sapeophobes.
La Sape etiquette is a serious business. While not all Sapeurs know Ben Moukacha and his precepts, many others follow his 10 commandments to the letter, with near-religious zeal. For the Congolese, wearing more than three colours in the same outfit is out of the question. It’s not quite a religion. They continue to worship an existing God and there is no officially constituted clergy.
The same cannot be said of the people of “the other Congo”, the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are equally inventive in this area. While the people of Congo Brazzaville swear by the three-colour rule and a certain understated elegance (understated being a relative term, compared to Europe’s dreary norms), their neighbours in Kinshasa seem to take more liberties with bright colours. Having been forbidden in the DRC under the rule of Marshal Mobutu (between 1965 and 1997) for being too “Western”, La Sape has made a big comeback, led by famous musicians such as Papa Wemba.
“Until recently, it was easy to distinguish between Brazzaville Sape and Kinshasa Sape, particularly in terms of colour harmonies,” says Elvis Makouezi. “But that gap is closing. La Sape is in the process of breaking up into two or three distinct currents. Some Sapeurs who are close to those in power are not well thought-of by others. And those who are not in that inner circle are not properly valued.”
A political art?
If there is one touchy subject in the Sape world, it’s politics. Sapeurs shudder when it is mentioned. “There is no question of getting involved in politics,” says an indignant Ben Moukacha, who can boast a certain popularity both in France and in the Congo, a country to which he returns frequently.
“Sapeology is here to unify the Congolese people,” explains the father of Sapeology, “not to divide them”. While some claimed that the President of Gabon, the late Omar Bongo, (pictured below left), was a Sapeur, Luc refuses to entertain the notion. “He was just the President. He wasn’t a Sapeur. You can’t be both at the same time”.
As some of the commandments suggest, La Sape has become a way of life – for the purists, at any rate. “It’s a way of behaving, a philosophy, an art of living that unites us and promotes peace,” says Ben Moukacha. Previously considered as delinquents, Sapeurs now inspire respect in the Congo, explains Elvis Makouezi: “In an Africa where we deplore the cruelty of child soldiers, Sapeurs, with their non-violent spirit and their elegance, will gradually come to earn the recognition they deserve”.
Chardel, too, believes in the unifying power of La Sape: “La Sape transcends ethnic origin, conflicts and divisions. It’s universal. The Congo is an increasingly divided place. People are even beginning to talk about Northists and Southists. That’s something we have never seen before! The government would be well advised to create institutions to promote La Sape as a unifying value”.
A path strewn with obstacles
But the road to reconciliation is still long. There are still divisions in the Sape world, particularly between generations. On the TV station for Paris’s Congolese diaspora, Ben Moukacha complains of the lack of respect shown by the younger generations.
Elvis Makouezi is worried too:
“Our recent work in the field with Congolese designers showed us that La Sape is under threat and that men’s clothing design is dying as a trade in Congo Brazzaville. There are no apprentices anymore. Young people prefer to take their driving test and become taxi drivers – it doesn’t take so long. Learning the trade of clothes making requires more time, willpower and patience. Congolese designers are sounding alarm bells. The way things are going, there is no guarantee that the trade will continue. None of the best-known designers, such as Gauchemar, Jacquot Mouanangana, Molinar Junior and Lassys, is under 50. And yet every one of them, without exception, says that they are willing to pass on their know-how.”
There are also several schools of thought about the Sape way. Some will reject its arrogance, which is “an integral part of La Sape, but in a good way,” according to President Chardel. “Some will use all their savings to buy shoes that cost thousands of euros. Where’s the sense in that?” says Luc, who is also wary of the excessive institutionalisation of La Sape. “You don’t have to be rich to be a good Sapeur. It’s all about how you put the colours together,” says Ben Moukacha, between two high-impact TV interviews. But “even though money isn’t everything, a Sapeur does require a certain income to be able to keep up with the trends,” says Elvis Makouezi. The man who calls himself M12, pictured below, claims to be the “White Knight of Mantes la Jolie” (a town 57 km west of Paris) and is delighted to have “a treasured clothes size” which allows him to please people with slim-fitting suits. As in many such cases, extroversion and self-worth seem to play a greater role than pugnacity.
Where do women fit into all this?
So far, I’ve only mentioned men. It must be said that they account for the vast majority of the movement’s followers. But the lines are shifting, and more and more women’s labels are emerging. Could this be a key factor in the emancipation of women? The buxom Huguette Moussodiat is one such pioneer, and she is confident about women’s prospects:
After spending several hours with the Sapeurs and watching their diatances, you begin to discern different degrees of Sapeological passion. While some hold themselves up as quasi-priests or scientists of Sape, others see the movement as an occasional pastime or a personal lifestyle choice. One of these is Franck Zongo, a designer from Burkina Faso who was recently interviewed on Clique, and who claims to be a Sapeur, but not a militant.
We should not lose sight of the fact that La Sape is a complex web of communities, itself linked to the wider “Black Dandy” movement, a more general form of pride in one’s appearance which has variants in every corner of Africa, and even within African-American communities. US stars such as Solange Knowles and Jay Z are considered as Sapeurs in Brazzaville, Kinshasa and Paris. Europeans, meanwhile, seem to be increasingly interested in this way of life. “I recently ran into some French people who had just become Sapeurs and were returning from a pilgrimage to the most iconic homes of La Sape in the Congo,” says Zongo.
All these nuances and all this mutual enrichment could, it seems, turn into divisions, but that doesn’t worry the Sapeurs. “Competition is a good thing as long as it is fair. That’s how we move forward and create things,” says Chardel.
One has no difficulty believing him, and this trust is no doubt one reason why the movement has been able to reinvent itself with relative ease over the decades. Which goes to show it’s much more than a fad… even if we can’t quite define exactly what it is.