The Society for Leisure Lovers and Elegant Persons
November 28, 2006 10:40 PM   Subscribe

To be a Sapeur in Kinshasa is to treat every trash-strewn alley or muddy street as a fashion catwalk. Inspired by Congolese rumba star Papa Wemba* and his Société des Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants* (le Sape), urban peacocks cheerfully adopted "Religion Kitembo”, literally the worship of clothes. "The Pope of the Sapes" himself appears to have undergone a conversion since his recent legal troubles. Photo gallery by Héctor Mediavilla. *sound
posted by maryh (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

And sad.
posted by darkstar at 10:56 PM on November 28, 2006

Really fascinating post, maryh - thanks. Disturbing yet intriguing. Bookmarked to come back to and explore in greater depth tomorrow morning, but just wanted to say thanks tonight.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:11 PM on November 28, 2006

Cool post.

I see the contrast between what they spend their money on and the good that money could do, but it could be worse - it's not like they're fat cats squeezing it out of the peasants. Their lifestyle seems no more irresponsible to me than that of an itinerant artist in that society would be - pouring their effort into their passion rather than working to materially benefit society.
posted by XMLicious at 11:54 PM on November 28, 2006

This is a great post, thank you. On my best days I never look as sharp as these guys and I don't live in hell on earth. Like many things in Africa, I find myself conflicted by the many conflicting and competing strands all rolled up into one idea.
posted by Falconetti at 11:57 PM on November 28, 2006

I do my little turn on the scatwalk.
posted by sourwookie at 12:00 AM on November 29, 2006

Suit up!
posted by basicchannel at 12:06 AM on November 29, 2006

Bizarre, unusual, strange. Thanks.
posted by loquacious at 12:22 AM on November 29, 2006

Great post, I had just read the LA Times article. One thing I found interesting was the fashion face offs which were described as a gang ritual that's one part west side story and one part zoolander.
posted by cell divide at 1:04 AM on November 29, 2006

Yeah, cell divide. I found this quote from George Amponsah (second link) interesting:

We were told that comparisons could be made with the Biggie/Tupac relationship. It's true that there is an element of gang warfare to the Sape but the difference is that there is no bloodshed. It was explained to us by sapeurs themselves that resorting to violence just isn't elegant. If you can't let your clothes do the fighting then you're not even to be considered a sapeur.
posted by maryh at 1:32 AM on November 29, 2006

Wow, if I'd tried to make this up, I'd have bruised my brain.

I'm trying to imagine some parallel, in importance and cost, and I'm thinking Zoot Suits in the late 30s and early 40s, and Air Jordans, like, 10 years ago.
posted by toma at 2:27 AM on November 29, 2006

b1tr0t: huh? These are the peasants getting squeezed by the fashion-world fat-cats. Several of the profiled Sapes sell coke to get their clothes.

I did miss the part about coke-selling, and unfortunately the story seems to have gone into you-gotta-pay mode, but how are they being squeezed by the fashion-world fat-cats? They're being denied their universal human right to Ray-Bans?

Are you just saying "the fashion industry is bad"? Maybe Zoolander was a decoy, to get us to not take seriously the true evil of the fashion industry.
posted by XMLicious at 2:43 AM on November 29, 2006

Excellent post!!

Here is a good example of ndombolo dancing (this is Awilo Longomba's group rehersing - a Grand Sapeur himself and successful international Soukouss star).

Though I do have to agree with the Sapeur critique of American rappers: "They don't really know how to dress."

Here is an academic view of the phenomenon.
posted by pwedza at 2:50 AM on November 29, 2006

There was a good TV dcumentary on the sapeurs shown on the BBC. At a Papa Wemba night in france the patrons queue up to have the labels of their clothes read out by the MC.

Nice Awilo Longomba links, those girls have some power in those legs, Crumb would be delighted. Here is a half hour of mapouka ass shaking.
posted by asok at 3:28 AM on November 29, 2006

South Africa has a slightly related group called Swenka in which migrant Zulu workers will put on their best clothes and compete against each other in sort of a posedown with each competitor trying to show off his clothes best.
posted by PenDevil at 3:34 AM on November 29, 2006

Amazing post, Maryh. I first read about this group in Michela Wrong's great book In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz'. Obviously it is and is becoming ever more complex but there was a passage in it when she asked a very clever 40 year old Congolese man why a natural leader and achiever like him was so concerned with sock analysis and third-hand Gaultier T-shirts - he revealed that living under dictatorial repression left him no other outlet for hope and expression. Very sad and a not a great use of economic resources better spent on geniune self-improvement, but a drought of opportunities creates little other space. Beautiful and depressing all at once...On a side note, I once read that good old Papa Wemba will take cash for appropriate lyrical inserts - in one case citing a minor government minister who allegedly had the sexual power to exhaust 19 women or something. Wish I could afford such a global shout-out.
posted by The Salaryman at 3:42 AM on November 29, 2006

Great post. Wonderful photos in the gallery.
posted by algreer at 5:02 AM on November 29, 2006

You know, I came up with a new term for them last night, just before I fell asleep, extravagrants.

And I do think the fashion industry is incredibly dangerous and damaging to the esteem of girls everywhere. They want a size 0 now? What message is this sending to people? Not necessarily the Sapeurs, who seem to be trying to find a little light in a whole lot of darkness. But maybe I didn't read far enough.
posted by fenriq at 7:07 AM on November 29, 2006

Wow. How weird.

They're sharp dressers though.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 8:27 AM on November 29, 2006

Excellent post. Reminds me of the sharp dressers I see in the poor areas of Detroit, done with even more style. Also a little bit of the Swing Kids.

Part of me wants to cheer them for finding a way to escape. Part of me is ashamed they need to find a way to escape. And, part of me wants to tell them to get a life, which is not my place, at all.
posted by QIbHom at 9:12 AM on November 29, 2006

Zoot Suiters are probably an accurate parallel, especially considering the social and economic positions of the pachuco in 40s LA.

Another might be the Mods- of course it raises the question as to what degree they were asserting newfound economic independence and to what degree the were mortgaging what little benefit they received from the end of the post-war slump on clothes and drugs.

Of course, depending on the type of analysis one applies, one could argue that the symbolic power enjoyed by the Mods, particularly following the riots was of greater importance than economic gain in a system with still highly restricted mobility.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:07 AM on November 29, 2006

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