Of all the style tribes in the world there are few harder to understand than les sapeurs of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dressed in a style that’s either a wildly exuberant homage to, or a mockery of, formal European dress the scope for projecting post-colonial politics onto their wild outfits is near limitless. To dig a little deeper, we spoke to Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni, who’s exhibition, Gentlemen of Bacongo, opened last night.
ESQ: How did you first hear about les sapeurs?
Daniele Tamagni: “I really found out when I was in Congo for the first time and I saw these elegant men in the street, but I’d seen les sapeurs in a book about Africa.”
ESQ: What is the origin of les sapeurs?
DT: “The first grand sapeur was Grenard André Matsoua who was a Congolese who lived in France. When he came back to Congo he was well dressed in the European style, so he’s a national hero for the Congolese. All the sapeurs are very proud of their Congolese identity, it sets them apart from every other African country. But the way they dress, as you can see, is European. They re-interpreted the French fashion in their own manner, colour and style and so developed their own identity. There is a historical and political meaning, it’s important to know the history of Congo, that it was a colony.”
ESQ: Do les sapeurs dress up every day?
DT: “No. You need to know where they meet and when they dress like this, perhaps at some nightclubs or at funerals or weddings.”
ESQ: Isn’t it a bit hot in a suit in Africa?
DT: “Yes, but in Congo it’s not so hot in August; it’s warm but it’s dry so it’s comfortable for them. They’re used to it, they don’t seem to suffer, and also somehow they’re impervious to the dirt of Brazzaville, because it’s very dirty there.”
ESQ: Where are the clothes from?
DT: “In Paris there are some specialist boutiques and the Congolese who live in France take the clothes home when they visit. There are boutiques that import the clothes in Brazzaville - the clothes are produced in Italy and some are specially designed for les sapeurs. They try to have their own designs, and not just depend on the big western labels. But usually all the clothes are imported from Europe.”
ESQ: Are fashion labels important?
DT: “It’s a mix. They show the labels off to prove they have original articles. But more important is the rule of elegance and combining three different colours.”
ESQ: Why is the look so formal?
DT: “This is the characteristic of sapeurs in Brazzavile, it’s different in Kinshasa.”
ESQ: What role does music play in world of les sapeurs?
DT: “It’s important because many musicians talk about sapeurs in their songs. They talk about the importance of elegance.”
ESQ: In a very poor country how do the men afford the clothes?
DT: “They make a lot of sacrifices to buy these expensive clothes. In Brazzaville it can cost between £500 - £1,000 for two or three different outfits. But it’s probably the Congolese who live in France and that can spend this money. Also there are some who rent clothes for just a couple of hours. But I don’t know how the Congolese who’ve never been in France get the money; it’s a question that always gets a different answer.”
Gentlemen of Bacongo is at the Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, London E2 7DP until Sunday 29th November 2009
Gentlemen of Bacongo is published by Trolley Books (www.trolleybooks.com)