Tuesday, January 21, 2014

You can always choose who you are

Meet The Sapeurs

Sometimes there's a topic that I am interested in but it never makes it to any of my 4 blogs. I content myself to post on one of my many Facebook pages instead. Yesterday was one such post. It was about a group of men from the Congo called the Sapeurs. Sapeurs take their name from the acronym for their group: SAPE, meaning Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. Ambianceur is a neologism coined in francophone Africa, which means persons who create ambience—atmosphere-makers, if you will.)

I posted a little intro and then 2 short videos by Guinness and tried to move on. But, I couldn't. I found myself continuing to think about these men and I wanted to know more.  Maybe it's due to a meeting of 2 of my favorite subjects, fashion and Africa. I don't know. I just know I needed to know more.

"Clothing -- it's an important science in this human life on Earth," began the sapeur known as Papa Griffe. "It gives a person value."

Stories about the movement's origins vary, many trace the quasi-religious cult to a rebellion against the repression of Mobutu, who banned Western dress in favor of a dreary, Maoist-style number called the abacost. In the late 1970s, famed rumba singers such as Papa Wemba developed a following by challenging those edicts with a flair for haute-couture spectacle that rivaled Cher.

This was partly a marketing ploy. But as the country sank deeper into ruin and war, being a sapeur became a grandiose escape, a way of transforming broken-down sidewalks into so many floodlighted runways, and a jobless 18-year-old into a persona of his own choosing.
The Men inside the suits

GUINNESS: in this documentary (above) we illustrate the brightly coloured and social affairs that bring the 'Sapeurs' together. Their bold choice to live an unexpected lifestyle is a source of celebrated originality and positivity. Their life is not defined by occupation or wealth, but by respect, a moral code and an inspirational display of flair and creativity. The Sapeurs show us that whilst in life you cannot always choose your circumstances, you can always choose who you are.

The general rule for Brazza Sapes is said to be that they wear no more than three colors at a time. In fact what this seems to mean is three tones, not counting white. Pocket squares aren't folded but stuffed in and left to spill out, rakishly. Patch pockets abound, an unconventional feature on most jackets. The outfits are dandyish, but they don't come off as costumes. Some Sapes boast of their brands, especially their shoe brands, of which J.M. Weston, a fine and expensive French shoemaker, seems to be the most prominent. But most Sapes agree that brand isn't everything—it's about fit, confidence and, as Hassan Salvador tells me, art: "We need to paint with colors, patterns and textures," he says. "All week I mull over the different possible combinations of jacket, trousers, pocket square, tie, tie pin, scarf, umbrella and suspenders before I actually put on the clothes."

The sight of these splendidly dressed men is in stark contrast to their surroundings. The bar where they assemble, La Main Bleue, sits in a district called Bakongo, a working-class quarter populated primarily by people from the Lari ethnic group. Though Sapeurs also hail from other parts of Brazzaville, Bakongo is their spiritual and historical home. The streets and alleyways outside the bar are made of dirt, littered with refuse and remains, and lined by tin-topped shacks. A gauntlet of kids and adults forms spontaneously as soon as the Sapeurs start stepping out of taxis and cars to enter the bar. The crowd stares at them in wonder, shouting out the names of some of the well-known Sapeurs as they recognize them walking by.

**Note - Just so you know, I am not connected to, nor do I endorse Guinness or any of their products. Just so happens they made a couple of pretty cool videos about The Sapeurs and I wanted to share them with you.

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