The sapeur Willy Covari, one of the most admired sapeurs of the Bacongo neighbourhood, walks with his two children in his plot. (Image: Hector Mediavilla)
It’s not just African designers like David Tlale or traditional cloth like shweshwe that have been turning the heads of fashionistas recently. Men who live by the motto that life can be beautiful and beauty begins in your closet, are spreading their gospel of style across the world.
Namibian designer and fashion blogger Lourens Loux Gebhardt and the sapeurs of Congo are not mere Prince Cinders; they are men who believe in the inspiring, redeeming and consecrating effect of dressing well.
The men of La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or the Society of Atmosphere Setters and Elegance (sapeurs), are the subject of a new Guinness advertisement that celebrates their sense of style, ethics and grace. The ad, which was filmed in KwaMashu, in KwaZulu-Natal but set in Bacongo, Brazzaville in Republic of Congo, celebrates the foppish tastes of these dedicated followers of fashion in the shantytown of Bacongo. Sapeurs also exist in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
The ad comes on the heels of a book by Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni. Gentlemen of Bacongo is his celebration of tailored suit wearing, bowler hatted, cigar chomping working class men. A superficial reading of the sub-culture paints it as simply a group of men obsessed with clothing. And indeed, “les sapes” take huge pride in their clothing, spending most of their money on the most unusual shirts, ties, shoes and suits; but it is not just about expensive suits and colourful shirts.
In Congo-Brazzaville – I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul:
Living with joy
Les sapes believe they are a source of inspiration and positivity in their community. They have a simple philosophy: live with joie de vivre. “Even if I don’t have money in my pocket, I only need to wear a suit and tie to feel really at ease,” says Prince Armel, one of the men in the Guinness ad.
After their day’s work is done, these farmers, taxi drivers, carpenters and labourers transform. They use flair and creativity to express their identity and code of honour using clothing to rise above the circumstances of their war-torn lives. Le sape is not about raising aesthetics to a religion; for sapeurs it is a longing for the manners and ethics of the idealised perfect gentleman. “Dressing well can symbolise many things, and for a sapeur their fine clothes stand for peace, integrity and honour. A sapeur has to be respectful, non-violent, well-mannered and an inspiration through their attitude and behaviour,” explains Armel.
The sartorial African man is not a new phenomenon. The photos of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé capture Africa embracing social change and discovering new identities by tweaking the look of their departing colonial masters. The Congolese sapeurs in turn grew out of an act of civil disobedience. This working class group of fashionistas embraced the suit and tie after Mobutu Sese Seko, former president of the DRC, declared them a throwback to the country’s colonial past.
And in Namibia
In his signature snap brim hat and vintage spectacles, Gebhardt is the epitome of style. He looks for all the world like a man who lives by Frank Sinatra’s rules on personal style: shirt cuffs must extend half an inch from the jacket sleeve; trousers should break just above the shoe; do not sit down because it wrinkles the pants; if you have to sit, don’t cross your legs; pocket handkerchiefs are optional, but preferably always wear one. Something of a time traveller, he would have been comfortable in that style icon’s inner circle. His look is about reworking vintage style into something modern and new. “Too many Africans look at vintage simply as old clothing.”
Omuthiya-Gwipundi, in the far north of Namibia, is not the fashion capital of the country but its open air market is a goldmine of vintage suits. Vendors don’t realise the treasures they have on offer, says Gebhardt, so he is able to buy tailor-made suits from the sixties and seventies at knock down prices. “It makes me different from most people here; I manage to dress myself cheaply and end up looking like a million bucks.”
The hundreds of photographs of Gebhardt floating around the internet show a man swaddled in an atmosphere of charming gentility. A sharp-dressed man projecting the best version of himself: it’s a sensibility born of a true love of fashion, not trends but an aesthetic that comes from trying different looks until you find that urbane character waiting to shine. “I stand apart from the crowd. It is simple; I am suave.”
For the self-confessed hipster – “It just means I get to express myself and influence other people’s fashion sense” – clothing is a way to try on new personalities until you discover who you are. It’s a lesson he learned at the knee of his grandfather, another sharp-dressed man. “He would tell me that fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.”
Money can be an issue but Lou Gebhardt has perfected the art of buying inexpensive clothing at thrift stores – and always looking supremely dapper. (Image: Loux Gebhardt)
A vintage tie and suit, updated and personalised, a hat and shoes shined to a mirror gloss are his every day wear. It’s a style he refers to as sophisticated punk. His reworked suits are light weight, best for Africa, and pay homage to traditional western tailoring. Each one has a twist that makes them distinctively African. Some days it’s the addition of Ovambo beads, the next a brooch or a pocket square. It’s an avant-garde mix that Gebhardt believes is helping him to change the way Namibians look at design and style.
A novice who learned how to make clothes under the tutelage of Namibia’s tailors, a dying art worth saving he says, Gebhardt is designing a line of suits he hopes to show at one of Africa’s fashion weeks. African flair and style is unique, he believes, and it is catching on across the globe. “We need strong brands that reflect this African spirit. Go to a show and you will see that African fashion is on point. The world is waking up to the fact that Africa is blessed with more than just models. There are designers doing really interesting things.”
Like dreamers around the world, his are on hold while he struggles to find money to emulate his heroes Sam Lambert and Shaka Maidoh, the artist and the designer behind fashion label Art Comes First. They share his fascination with vintage clothing, taking them apart and grafting them together again to create something new.
Meanwhile in Bacongo on a Saturday night, hip young men roll up the trouser cuffs of their Yves Saint Lauren suits as they navigate their way through the streets of this town on the edge of a rain forest. In handmade Grenson shoes and a splash of Armani cologne they dance to le sape hero Papa Wemba, who once sang,