Meet Nairobi’s dandies

A sapeur in Nairobi. PHOTO | Courtesy
A sapeur in Nairobi. PHOTO | Courtesy 

Most Kenyans choose to play it safe with their wardrobe choices; nothing too bright or flamboyant, lest you endure long stares and whispers from passers-by.

For a group of certain people, however, such extravagant dressing is actually a way of life or something closer to a religion.

Ngenga Chebeya Boris “Classic”, whose name incidentally means ‘shine’ in Lingala, is among the men cut from a different cloth.

The 25-year-old Congolese who has lived in Kenya since 2015 is a member of La Sape, the fashion movement popularised by rumba musician Papa Wemba.

“If Wemba was King of La Sape,” Boris says, “then I am the Prince.”

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.

“We are a group of people who go crazy when we see good clothes. We sapeurs like dressing up immaculately, playing around with colours until we get the perfect match,” says Boris.

The movement is just gaining ground in Kenya largely through the efforts of some members of the Congolese community in the country.

According to Boris whose group consists of 15 sapeurs, there are more than 20 different La Sape clubs based in Nairobi but these are mainly among Congolese nationals and a few Nigerians and Ghanaians resident in the city.

Each of these groups has a hierarchy and before a new member is accepted, they must prove their sense of fashion to the ‘seniors’.

“The members of the group have to approve your taste in clothes, the choice and mix of colours, and the fitting of the attire relative to your body size,” explains Boris.

Ngenga Chebeye Boris a.k.a Classic, a sapeur who lives in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

Ngenga Chebeye Boris a.k.a Classic, a sapeur who lives in Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

In Congo, these fashion-conscious men, most of whom are poor, are ready to splurge money they don’t really have on designer clothes. They take huge loans, run down their businesses just to buy flamboyance.

But the newer generation of sapeurs have learnt that fame comes at a price. They still are well-dressed, nicely scented and wearing the unusual shoes, ultra-special timepieces, queer hats and suspenders, but the elegant look is slightly cheaper.

Boris says most people mistakenly associate fashion sense with expensive or designer clothing.

“Choosing the right clothes is about brains and not necessarily about money,” he says in response to how much he spends on his clothes.

“I don’t have a budget as such but when I spot clothes that I like, then money is not an object,” he says.

He picks the best clothes from the second-hand clothes market at Gikomba in Nairobi because of the wide variety available but adds that it takes time and effort to spot the right ones.

Kibera slums

Stephen Okoth is one of the few Kenyans who have been absorbed into La Sape culture in Nairobi having taken the fashion business seriously for about a year.

Dressed in a light green shirt, white jacket and bright yellow trouser, multicoloured socks and shiny black shoes, he looks every bit the sapeur.

Around his neighbourhood in Kibera slums they call him Ondivow, slang for “on the go” because he has built a reputation for turning up with his camera whenever a story breaks in the area.

Stephen Okoth in Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY | BRIAN OTIENO

Stephen Okoth in Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY | BRIAN OTIENO

The 26-year-old who is a photographer and video/film director says the vibrant colours he wears provide a lively backdrop to some of the austere background of Kibera.

Stephen became attracted to bright outfits by watching what Jamaican dancehall musicians wore in their videos. In Kibera, they called these colourful outfits ‘shuba shuba’ after a refrain in a reggae song.

“What most people think of as funny colours are what I actually I thrive on,’’ he says.

“My intention is to make people happy so if my colours make heads turn, then I know I have the right choice.”

A fellow photographer Brian Otieno won the #CelebrateAfrica competition organised around the continent by Canon camera company in May 2017 with a series of photos of Stephen around Kibera in his trademark bright outfits.

The same pictures were splashed around the world through publications like the Guardian newspaper of the UK and the BBC Online.

Just like Boris, Stephen relies on the informal traders of second hand clothes to sell him clothes.

“The clothes that I get from Gikomba market are unique because I can pick and choose different items to suit my tastes,” he says. Some times he buys the same pair of shoes but of different colours just to spice up his look.

Back in the DRC, where La Sape was born, dressing is like a competition, says Boris. He says this bid to attract attention, makes people as adventurous as possible with their dressing.

“On the streets of any Congolese city, you cannot tell the rich from the poor just by looking at their clothes,” he says, adding that the culture of the Congolese is to dress sharp, whether rich or poor. To illustrate the point he quotes a Lingala saying: “Yayo eza leo, ya lobi eza ya zambe” (Whatever you get today is yours, leave tomorrow up to God.)

Boris became fashion-conscious as a high school student in the province of Bukavu. “I was the best dressed student in school and organised all fashion events.”

But to be a sapeur, he has had to learn the correctness of the style.

The jackets vents have to be just right, those of 32 centimetres are most preferred, socks must be of a certain height, a maximum of three colours can be used in an outfit and the bottom cuff button must be undone.

Accompanying him during the interview is Maggie Zabibu, a model who is preparing for the first ever La Sape fashion show in Kenya at the Carnivore Hotel tomorrow.

She scrolls through her phone and selects the picture of a lady dressed in a trouser suit and a tie. “See! This kind of dressing is traditionally male,” she says. “Sapeurs dress unconventionally,” she explains.

Unlike models that showcase a set of clothes that have already been selected by a designer, sapeurs create their own unique style from different sets of clothing each with a striking appeal.

Maggie says that while models are generally young, sapeurs can defy age. She points at the picture of an elderly sapeur among those currently being exhibited at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi.

Maggie has lived in Kenya much longer than Boris and to her the difference between the modes of dress in the two countries is stark.

“Most Kenyans are quite happy dressing in traditional colours like black, blue but for Congolese, the brighter the colours that you choose, the better.”

Does that mean that every Congolese is a member of La Sape?

“No. The sapeur are different because we elevate dressing to a cult,” says Boris.

Boris says that the combination of colours from his wardrobe is determined by the weather and the nature of occasions that may demand formal attire or casual dress.
Sometimes he changes clothes multiple times in one day depending on the nature of his engagements.

Is it true that a sapeur would rather go hungry but wear the best fashion designs? “Our priority is clothes, food can come later,” says Boris.

‘’Whenever I get any money, the first thing I must plan is buying clothes.”

The fashion show and music concert at the Carnivore will be the culmination of a two-week programme of activities that also included a photo exhibition at the Alliance Francaise.

The photos are by Baudouin Mouanda from Brazzaville and Yves Sambu from Kinshasa who have been documenting La Sape for years.

The objective of the events is to popularise La Sape in Kenya especially among the youth.

‘’Younger people can easily grasp the meaning of La Sape and can influence their peers,” says Boris, adding that Kenyans should be free to mix colours like yellow, green and red, without being labelled as weird or attracting curious looks.

Tomorrow’s fashion event will feature 10 models, five men and the same number of women who have been trained on the selection of La Sape outfits. There will be four different sets of clothes for each of the models during the show.