”La sape” (pronounced sap) is La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes, or the Society of Atmosphere Setters and Elegant People. The ‘Sapeurs’ adhere to a culture of high fashion at all costs. Most are very well-dressed men who strut in Versace, Gucci, Prada, or Ralph Lauren’s attires. They pay extreme attention to the quality or their clothing, and are extremely refined. The word sapeur comes from two Lari words “Lunkété” and “tsi Muntu” or ‘beauty’ and ‘human.’ A true sapeur is one who symbolizes beauty and humanity through the clothes he wears, in his outlook, his words, and his actions. In other words, he is someone who embodies and expresses the beauty of the mind and soul in harmony with the colors of his wardrobe, expresses love for his neighbor (luzolo), and is an apostle of peace.
The roots of the movement can be traced as far back as in the 1920s and 1930s when the first privileged Congolese returned from France with wardrobes of expensive suits. However the culture, and its name ‘la societe des ambianceurs et personnes elegantes’ took off thanks to the great musician and singer Papa Wemba who developed a flamboyant and sometimes exaggerated style. His style was in direct opposition to Mobutu-approved uniform, the dreaded style-less ‘abacost’ (from the French “a bas le costume” or “down with the suit”) a dull Zairean version of the three-piece suit. Papa Wemba called his new style Ungaru, and it was a throwback to the elegance of the 1930s—complete with tapered trousers, brogues, neatly trimmed hair and tweed hats worn at a rakish angle. For Congolese all over the world, the look was irresistible: SAPE was born. Sape became almost like a religion: fashion at all cost, elegance, and setting the atmosphere, creating the spectacle. Elegance at all costs is its motto. In the old days, sapeurs would often spend months or years saving up for outfits; they would start out by renting or borrowing suits from their more established peers. Like in any movement, there are rivalries and affiliations within the SAPE movement: Paris vs Brussels, Brazzaville vs Kinshasa, Bacongo vs Moungali. It is a total fashion warfare. Sapeurs from Brazzaville follow the three colors rule, while the Kinshasa crowd is all about going overboard.
One important trait of the ‘sapeur’ is uniqueness: one cannot look like the common man, and so there is a constant urge to look different, unique, and elegant. And the cost of the ‘sape’ is quite high… but very important. Isn’t a person unique anyways? then why not exert that uniqueness in fashion? There used to be weekly defilés (shows/catwalks) of sapeurs in the streets of Kinshasa or Brazzaville, to find and elect the most ‘sapé‘ man. These were known as “Fight days”, weekly events, and the combat arenas were the local outdoor bars on Avenue Matsoua, the most famous place of Brazzaville, Congo. Today, the sape culture has extended throughout Africa, and particularly French Africa. In the video below, you will see how sape is redefined in Cameroon, a neighbor to Congo… and how there is a difference between being ‘hip‘ and being ‘sapé‘. ‘Hip‘ is just having the latest trends: the pants down on the floor, the pierced jeans, etc… while ‘sapé‘ means having elegance, class, and uniqueness…. Enjoy!