Arts, Culture & Media

Guinness discovers the working-class fashionistas of the Congo

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Hassan Salvador and his two friends, Brad and Laroche, wait to take a taxi to go to a wedding reception.

Credit:

Héctor Mediavilla/Picturetank

They strut down the street in canary yellow suits. Some wear Scottish kilts. Others sport cowboy hats and alligator boots. These are Congolese men who love to dress like a million bucks — even though they live in poverty.

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They're known as sapeurs. The term comes from the original French name for the club the men belong to: Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (SAPE), which translates loosely as the Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo.

The tradition began in the 1920s, when the Republic of Congo was still a French colony. Many Congolese people were fascinated with French sophistication and decided to emulate the styles.

In present-day Brazzaville, sapeurs drop big money on designer gear — a pair of shoes can cost thousands of dollars. But the sapeurs aren't millionaires. They are policemen, street vendors, miners — part of the working poor in the Republic of Congo.

Almost half of the country's residents live below the poverty line. And the average household income is just $4,600.

But the sapeurs use the money they have to dress to impress.

"They love it. It's their passion, so some of them make sacrifices in order to put aside some money to get a pair of shoes that can be worth thousands of euros," said Héctor Mediavilla, who began photographing the sapeurs in 2003 and has directed a short documentary for Guinness beer about them. "But there are also other strategies, like getting second-hand items, fake ones, so, in the end, what's more important is the man inside the suit."

But there's a method to what they wear. Rules. Sapeurs never wear more than three colors at once.

And they take accessorizing to the exteme. Héctor Mediavilla met a sapeur called Lamame.

"He arrived with an eye patch, a black one," Mediavilla said. "And also he had one of his hands covered with a glove. At first, I thought he had an eye problem and maybe a skin problem on one of his hands. And then I realized, no, he'd seen it in a movie."

Lamame was imitating an actor in a movie he'd seen who wore an eye patch. Now, the sapeurs themselves have become the stars.

A new Guinness ad features the Congolese men shedding their working clothes and transforming themselves into hat-wearing, cane-wielding, monocle-using fashionistas.

At the end of the ad, the sapeurs strut and dance in a club as a crowd cheers them on.

The narrator at the end of the commercial says, "in life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are."

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    Sapeur Bienvenu Mouzieto poses in front of his house in the Bacongo neighborhood.

    Credit:

    Héctor Mediavilla/Picturetank

  • MEH0170567.jpg

    Hassan Salvador walks down a Mungali street with a Parisian friend and some "petits" (little ones), who are proud to be with the sapeurs.

    Credit:

    Héctor Mediavilla/Picturetank