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Sapeurs: The Congolese Fashion Movement

Updated: 3 days ago

On the Streets of Brazzaville and Kinshasa

A typical day on the streets of Brazzaville is a crowded scene. Taxis, motorbikes, and

pedestrians line the streets. Fruit markets and small, local farmers sell their products to

passersby. Suddenly, the crowd parts and the street fills with men, women, and

sometimes children dressed in dazzling suits. They begin strutting, the road becoming

their dirt runway. Across the river in Kinshasa, a different group of Congolese participate

in identical activities. These people are the “heart and soul of Congo” the Sapeurs.

Sapeur (Francis Mbéré) in the Street

The Sapeur movement is present across "the Congo," which is a region that encompasses two states: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — home to Brazzaville — and the Republic of Congo — home to Kinshasa. The focus of this article is mostly on the DRC, but sapeur movements are present in both countries.


Sapeur

Roots of the SAPE

Sapeurs are a group of Congolese men who follow a fashion movement known as La Sape. La Sape stands for the “La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes” or “the Society of Ambiance Makers and Elegant People.” Originally, the sapeur movement was inspired by 19th-century French dandyism. Both movements grew from a more modest economic sector of the nation that desired to express themselves through expensive clothing.

Sapeur

In the DRC, sapeurs are often in poverty and have little disposable income.

“Sapping,” as they have nicknamed the activity, has become a powerful method of self-

expression. These people are often taxi drivers, shoemakers, small traders, or

masons who use their income to feed this passion.



Who are the Sapeurs?

The sapeur movement is a diverse and all-encompassing group of Congolese

people. There are some common factors, however, that unites the sapeur experience.

Many sapeurs come from conflict-ridden backgrounds. For example, the

UN Human Rights Council did a Spotlight piece on Francis Mbéré, who became a sapeur

after fleeing the Central African Republic at age nine. In the sapeur movement, he found

comfort and community as a means of healing his traumatic experiences.

Sapeur with Goats

Traditionally, being a sapeur is passed down through the male lineage; if you were

a sapeur, then your son would also become one. Now, more women are participating in

the sapeur movement. Sometimes, they are referred to as “sapeuses.” They currently

make up about 15% of individuals in the movement. The sapeuses are reinventing the makeup of the movement and testing the boundaries of female inclusion in the national culture.

Sapueses with a Child

A New Generation of Sapeurs

Like many other sapeurs, Francis has passed the tradition down to his children. A

new generation of sapeurs is arising within the Congolese youth. As young,

disenfranchised members of society find themselves questioning the world around them,

they turn to fashion for hope. As with the sapeurs before them, these new high-fashion-

loving individuals are dedicated to keeping Congolese culture alive through their elegant

and boundary-breaking style.

Older Sapeur + Infant








Two Children Sapeurs












Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence University Intern

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