S.A.P.E., a book celebrating a unique African sartorial movement

Dr John SLAMSON

S.A.P.E., a book celebrating a unique African sartorial movement

Elegance is everywhere, even from the farthest reaches of Africa.

In Congo—more precisely in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, you’ll find the lively tradition of the “Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elégantes”, whose members are known as “Sapeurs”. SAPE is above all an acronym and pun, as ‘sape’ is a slang word for ‘garment’ in French.

For seven years, Spanish photographer Héctor Mediavilla has followed the towering figures of this unique sartorial movement. Mediavilla then documented his remarkable social discoveries in the shape of a beautiful book.

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The ritualistic peacocking of these elegant gentlemen is their way of celebrating extravagant style and stylish extravagance… with sartorial choices having absolutely no regard for practical or professional necessities.

Quite conversely, the sartorial parades and contests of this distinct group of gentleman have nothing to do with their everyday environment, which is precisely why their attitude is distinctly original. Each Sapeur’s commitment to narcissistic pleasure is the basis for a legendary identity—a direct nod to the art of dandyism.

The Congolese Sape

Sapeurs love accessories like glasses, walking sticks, cigars and hats, which are used without regard to practical purposes. They also adore the most glaring of colours and enjoy taking the phenomenon of men’s style into the boldest regions of fashion.

Such sartorial freedom can be astonishing from a Western perspective, as the Sapeurs’ exploration of classic men’s clothing surpasses established norms, using the wardrobe itself as a means for creative invention and as a demonstration of prestige. This flaneur approach to clothing differs, to say the least, from the more subdued Western approach to the classic suit.

The contrast between the Sapeurs’ sartorial flamboyancy and a poverty-stricken background has the effect of spotlighting the dignity of the Sapeurs’ attitude.

The Congolese Sape

In this respect, the photographs send a message in striking opposition with a set of ideologies and anti-colonialist comments that can be quite patronizing.

Criticizing Africans for wearing Western clothes and accusing them of wearing ‘a white mask’ imposes the judgement that ‘Africans’ should be “African’ in the way that they dress. Really? Should the Africans go about with just a loincloth on their hips to conform to some Western fantasy?

This way of lecturing Africa about how to be an African misses the point of the Sapeurs’ sartorial approach, and diminishes the way they achieve an original identity. In actuality, adopting the Western suit and tie has little to do with colonial submission—unless one considers the use of vaccines and computers to be a terrible cultural betrayal as well.

Rather the SAPE dress code should be viewed as an African exotic longing comparable to 19th century French Anglomania—or to the Neapolitan craze that affects many gentlemen today…

The Congolese Sape

Globalization touches men’s style too, and the Sapeurs phenomenon is simply about transforming international codes and making them their own, much like the Japanese have developed their individual take on Western elegance. After all, one is always exotic for someone else—to the other guy, you’re the other guy…

The book is superb, in keeping with the exacting standards of the publisher, Editions Intervalles. Héctor Mediavilla reveals himself as a truly original photographer whose pictures reveal a unique take on a unique reality. A beautiful book sure to make one pause and ponder about men’s style and the cultural variety of its incarnations.

A must-buy indeed.

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S.A.P.E., Héctor Mediavilla, Editions Intervalles, 167 pages.

S.A.P.E. on the editor’s website : Editions Intervalles.