The death of Congolese rumba legend Papa Wemba in April 2016 brought into focus his role as the leading light of La Sapa, the movement of Congolese men that worships extravagant high-fashion designer labels.
La Sape (Society of Ambience and People of Elegance) are the dapper dressers who are part of Congolese subculture devoted to the cult of style and refined behaviour.
It has its origins in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and the Democratic Republic of Congo and brings together fashion conscious men who adhere to style and elegance.
The sapeurs extravagantly combine colour, texture and world-famous designer brand names like Cavalli, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garcons.
The followers of the movement have elevated it to a religion also known by the Lingala word “Kitendi” or the ‘religion of cloth’.
Alliance Francaise Nairobi is hosting a series of events till the end of September that highlight the flamboyant lifestyle of the sapeurs.
“Le Roi de la Sape” (The King of Sape) also known as “The Importance of Being Elegant” was screened last Monday at the Alliance Francaise at the start of the “Spotlighting La Sape” programme.
The 2004 documentary is centred on Wemba as the high priest of a cult of Congolese immigrants in Europe who spend huge amounts of money on designer clothes.
Wemba explains why he launched the movement in the Congo in the 1970s: “I wanted to be different because all the singers were doing the same thing,” he says in the film. “La Sapeur was a gimmick to get the attention of young music fans.”
One of Wemba’s hangers on, the so-called ‘ministers’ says: “We are jet set, expensive clothes, expensive cars, expensive girls, we smoke cigars. Now, it’s champagne and whisky, days of beer are over.”
In various scenes, Wemba walks into high fashion shops in Paris to try out top-of-the- line designer outfits including a floor-length Cavalli fur coat and a Dolce and Gabbana jacket.
Wemba was able to fund his wardrobe partly from the proceeds of “dedicaces” (dedications) for fans that paid up anything up to Sh615,000 (5,000 euros) while others would buy him cars and clothes, to have their names mentioned in his songs.
However many of his followers, the sapeurs, are jobless immigrants trying to eke out a living in Europe.
One of them explains that they are regarded as crooks back home in DR Congo because to be a sapeur you have to hustle and people do dodgy schemes to sustain the expensive lifestyle like buying a Cavalli jacket that costs Sh984,000 (8,000 euros).
There is a long-standing rivalry between the sapeurs of Paris and those in Brussels and they challenge each other whenever they meet, to show off the labels they are wearing from jeans to T-shirts and sunglasses. As one of them says: “A Sapeur is a Sapeur down to the underpants.”
The Sape exhibition at the Alliance Francaise features photographs by Baudouin Mouanda from Brazzaville and Yves Sambu from Kinshasa who have been documenting this movement for years.
Mouanda’s images of the Sapeurs won him the Young Talent Award at the African Photography Biennial in 2009.
Sambu who lives and work in Kinshasa has been interested in La Sape for years and through his portraits of the movement hopes to show that the clothes are a tool that allows them to express themselves.
Parade of Nairobi’s Sapeurs
There will be a discussion on the parallel worlds of Papa Wemba the ‘man’ and the ‘artist’ on September 27 introduced by Didier Bokelo Bile author of “Papa Wemba: icon of African music from generation to generation”.
The documentary “Black Dandy” pays tribute to men, including La Sape, who fight the stigma that sometimes comes with being a man who pays special attention to appearance and style.
The film will be screened on September 28 followed by a panel discussion on ‘the essence of being and appearing to be’
These events will culminate in a concert on September 30 at the Carnivore Restaurant by Congolese musician Nick Kosovo and a fashion event featuring a parade of sapeurs.