They're the stars of a new Guinness campaign and are devoted to dressing like gentlemen. Stephen Doig introduces the Sapeurs, a curious sartorial society in the Republic of Congo.
To the outsider, Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, doesn’t seem like the obvious hub for a trailblazing sartorial subculture.
When the challenge for some of the population is just to try and eat that day in the face of grinding poverty, matching your shoes with your tie isn’t exactly high on everyone's agenda. And yet, quietly and persistently, a fascinating cultural movement has been bubbling like an undercurrent in this pocket of the world for over a century.
The Sapeurs, which stands for the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People), are a band of men who turn the art of dressing into a cultural statement, and abide by a code befitting of the gentlemanly clothes they don so resplendently each morning.
The stars of a new Guinness campaign, directed by documentary filmmaker Hector Mediavilla, the Sapeurs’ peacock flamboyance is set to propel them beyond the confines of the Congo and onto TV screens across the world.
"It’s about much more than style, which is why we’ve called the ad series ‘Made of More’," says Mediavilla, who first encountered the Sapeurs in 2003 while working on a project about showing the less familiar facets of African life. The documentary that accompanies the Guinness ad campaign looks at the engrained social codes involved with being one of these impeccably decked out gents. "It’s a way of life and it’s a way of having pride in yourself. It brings a sense of meaning to their lives."
The Sapeurs sense of style is one of joyous exuberance, flamboyant colour, polished tailoring and impeccable attention to detail; suits in periwinkle pink, buttercup yellow and poison green, fat regatta stripes, Jeeves-esque bowler hats, handsome canes, plump bow-ties, polished brogues and jaunty evening scarves, draped just so. It’s a sartorial DNA that nods to 1920’s jazz age refinement and has its roots in the French colonisation of the Congo in the early part of the 20th century.
Certain pockets of the Congolese took inspiration from this new influx of French elan; Paris sophistication and elegance became the sartorial goal. When Congolese immigrants visited France and returned laden with finery, the Sapeurs evolved into a fully-fledged style tribe, adapting European clothes with vibrant African flair.
What makes their sense of dress all the more remarkable – surreal even – is that it often takes place against a backdrop of poverty and deprivation, the Sapeurs resemble rare exotic birds in the most desperate of surroundings, from bombed buildings to shanty-town slums. But this isn’t about frivolity or conspicuous displays of wealth. There are strict behavioral customs that come with being a Sapeur which are as important, if not more so, than dressing with dash and flair.
"The Sapeur is a model of gentlemanly behaviour and mannerisms; it’s also the language he uses, the way he walks," says Mediavilla. "How you treat people is very important. For a man to be a Sapeur he must be gentle, he must not be aggressive, he must be against war, he must be calm tempered." In a country where many of the population live below the poverty line, the simple act of civility and kindness means a great deal.
The Sapeurs' cultivated code of conduct, gentility and sense of propriety is a rejection of the more brutal aspects of Congolese life. Even the stringent grooming regimes of the Sapeurs is, to Mediavilla, a way of showing that one has the ability to wash and stay clean and hygienic in a country where water is in short supply. And when so much of the West’s idea of Africa comes from what we’ve seen in the media, there’s a sense that the Sapeurs are striking out as rainbow-hued, vibrant individuals in a world that’s been painted in broad brushstrokes.
The Sapeurs look doesn’t have to come at great expense either, says Mediavilla. "Men borrow pieces from one another, and focus on putting it all together in an individual, creative way. They pick pieces up from the fashion boutiques in Brazzaville or have pieces made by local tailors. A lot of the clothes come from Europe and are sold in the Congo."
t’s not a clandestine society either; the focus is on inclusiveness. Initiation into the visual and social codes of the Sapeur society comes through myriad ways too. "Sometimes it’s a father showing his son how it’s done; sometimes its through friends. Sometimes it’s a personal choice. The Sapeurs like to say that it passes through generations, from grandfather to father to son."
Cynics might dismiss it as trivial gloss, but the transformative effect of dressing as a Sapeur - of perfecting the dimple in a half-Windsor knot, tilting that top hat at just the right angle, fine tuning those complimentary colours - is "a way of feeling a sense of pride", says Mediavilla. "The Sapeurs have said to me lots of times that when they get dressed up, when they go out and put on a show, they forget their problems. They feel happy."
2. "That rubbed me the wrong way" In response to Reply # 0
I'm all for dressing nice,or even wearing whatever you want but the implication that being a dandy can dull the effects of being a savage African reeks from this piece. Not implying these gentleman believe this themselves, but that's the impression I got from reading.