Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Dedicated followers of fashion: Congo's designer dandies

By Mark Tutton, CNN
February 13, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
<a href='' target='_blank'>Daniele Tamagni</a> photographed the Congo's "Sapeurs" for his book 'Gentlemen of Bacongo." Daniele Tamagni photographed the Congo's "Sapeurs" for his book 'Gentlemen of Bacongo."
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
'Gentlemen of Bacongo'
  • "Sapeurs" are a Congolese sub-culture of dapper dressers
  • Despite usually working menial jobs, they wear expensive European labels
  • Daniele Tamagni snapped Sapeurs for his book "Gentlemen of Bacongo"

(CNN) -- Sporting only the most stylish designer labels, wearing only meticulously matched colors, the Congo's dandies are the very embodiment of sartorial elegance.

Known as "Sapeurs," these dapper dressers are a Congolese subculture devoted to the cult of style. In Brazzaville and Kinshasa -- the capitals of neighboring Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- they stand out among the widespread poverty, strutting the streets like walking works of art.

"It's the fetishization of fashion -- they are the worshippers of fashion, it's their god, it's powerful," says Didier Gondola, author of "History of the Congo," who has extensively researched the Sapeurs.

But for the Sapeurs -- who are almost always men -- it's not about what's in vogue, it's about style. The labels they covet most are those that evoke classic elegance.

You can lose your reputation if you are wearing imitation. That's something blasphemous.
Didier Gondola, author "History of the Congo"

Suits by Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and Armani are all in demand, as are Japanese labels Kenzo and Yamamoto, says Gondola. When it comes to shoes, exclusive French label Weston and British label Church's reign supreme. And imitations will not be tolerated.

"You can lose your reputation if you are wearing imitation," says Gondola. "That's something blasphemous."

See also: Desert festival: Oasis for sounds of the Sahara

But these labels don't come cheap. Gondola, who was born in the Congo and teaches history at Indiana University in the United States, explains that Sapeurs aren't rich; they typically work menial jobs, and have been known to resort to shoplifting to feed their addiction to apparel. In Brazzaville, it's common for Sapeurs to rent or borrow clothes from fellow fops or requisition them from friends visiting from Europe.

As the Congolese Diaspora has spread, so have the Sapeurs. They can now be found in European capitals including London, Brussels and Paris.

Dixy Ndalla, 30, was born and raised in Brazzaville, but has lived in London since the age of 17. He's infatuated with the classic cuts worn by the British aristocracy and can spend £1,000 a month on new shirts and jackets.

"I am very passionate about clothing, I'm passionate about colors and suits," he says. "In the winter it's anything to do with tweeds, in the summertime a nice blazer, a beautiful pair of jeans, a beautiful shirt.

"I especially love Hackett, one of the top designers in the UK ... Hackett suits start from around £600 and a bespoke made-to-measure will go out from £1,000 and upward."

Ndalla travels back to Brazzaville in the summer and takes pride in showing off his very British attire.

"In the summer holidays, everyone goes to show their outfits," he says. "They all meet in one street or bars and they all show their colors or the label of their suits ... it's up to people to judge and appreciate who's dressed well."

Once dressed in their finery, Brazzaville's Sapeurs will often head to "Le Main Bleu," a favorite bar, where they have informal contests. Each tries to out Sap each other with their combination of style, comportment and designer labels -- known as "griffes."

But Ndalla doesn't consider himself a Sapeur, because he doesn't dress up to compete with others. For him, it's simply about taking pride in what you wear. "People from Congo love to dress up -- it's something that's in my blood," he says.

Although every Sapeur has their own unique style, certain looks are especially popular. Pastel-colored three-piece suits are a staple of the Sapeurs' fastidiously assembled ensembles. They are finished off with a tie, cravat or bow tie -- and the obligatory pocket square protruding from their immaculately tailored jackets. Cigars and pipes -- lit or unlit -- are de rigueur.

Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni stumbled across the Sapeurs when he travelled to Brazzaville in 2007. The next year he returned to photograph them, collecting his images in the book "Gentlemen of Bacongo."

He says individuals often belong to sub groups within the Sapeur culture, such as the Piccadilly group, who dress in Scottish kilts.

"One member has a sister in Scotland who brings him kilts," he explains. "They use and they adapt to their taste and individuality. They are masters of style, they create their own style."

See also: Congo's erupting volcano boosts tourism

Some disapprove of the Sapeurs spending what little money they have on the frivolities of fashion. But Gondola argues that being a Sapeur isn't just about vanity -- it's a political statement.

In the 1970s "authenticity" was part of the state ideology in the DRC -- a policy that prohibited the wearing of Western suits. The Sapeurs rebelled by wearing aggressively non-conformist clothes, including leather suits, says Gondola. To this day Kinshasa's Sapeurs dress less conservatively than their suit-sporting Brazzaville brethren.

It's politics, spiritual, aesthetic, social -- so many things.
Didier Gondola, author "History of the Congo"

"The Sapeur is also about masculinity, politics, changing the stereotypes about how people view Africa," says Gondola. "It's about a lot of things, about beating the West at its own game, which is fashion: 'You colonized us but we dress better than you.'"

Gondola says the history of the Sapeurs can be traced back to the 19th century, when the Republic of the Congo was a French colony. Some colonial masters would pay their servants in used clothes, and those servants would make a show of wearing their masters' clothes on Sundays.

He adds that the phenomenon grew in the 1920s and 30s among Congolese nationals living in Paris -- in particular Sap pioneer and anti-colonial activist André Matswa. But it really took off after independence in 1960, when ordinary Congolese people would travel to Paris and return home wearing the latest fashions.

In the 1970s, popular musician Papa Wemba, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), began promoting the idea of the Sapeur, forming the "Société des Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants," or SAPE, of which many modern-day Sapeurs claim membership.

So what is the enduring appeal of the Sapeur? "It's politics, spiritual, aesthetic, social -- so many things," says Gondola. "It's a whole science -- they are artists."

Part of complete coverage on
November 6, 2014 -- Updated 1557 GMT (2357 HKT)
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Photojournalist Daniella Zalcman asked Uganda's religious leaders their views on homosexuality. Their answers might surprise you.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
In Africa, royalty is an endangered species. Meet the man on a mission to photograph the last remaining kings and queens.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1035 GMT (1835 HKT)
Getty photographer John Moore captured the spirit of those who survived the epidemic
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
Nazis, bomb raids, and a mysterious man with a mustache. The search for the spinosaurus reads like a spy novel.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Can a rat be a hero? It can if it saves lives. Meet the giant rats that sniff out landmines and TB
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
In Africa, royalty is an endangered species. Meet the man on a mission to photograph the last remaining kings and queens.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1110 GMT (1910 HKT)
Can state-of-the art schools in rural Africa rescue the environment? One charity is betting on it.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
To save the rhinos, one charity is moving them out of South Africa, where poaching is at an all time high.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
mediterranean monk seal
Many of Africa's animals are facing extinction. Is it too late for them? Our interactive looks at the many challenges to survival.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
One company thinks so. They're investing in insect farms in Ghana and Kenya. Could bugs build an industry and curb malnutrition?
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1020 GMT (1820 HKT)
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1027 GMT (1827 HKT)
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.