[Photographer: Hector Mediavilla Sabaté / Brazzaville, RDC]
Their canon of saints reads: Pierre Cardin, Roberto Cavalli, Dior, Fendi, Ferré, Gaultier, Gucci, Jourdan, Miyake, Prada, Saint Laurent, Versace, Yamamoto. A typical ballad runs: “Listen my love. On our wedding day/The label will be Torrente/The label will be Giorgio Armani/The label will be Daniel Hechter/The label for the shoes will be J. M. Weston.” Brussels, their shopping mecca, is referred to in Congolese as Lola, meaning paradise.
These are sapeurs, acolytes of a 25-year-old movement called la SAPE —La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (aka Kitendi, the religion of the cloth)— that revolves around the possession of the most expensive, most luxurious, most extravagant fashion in the world. Followers of SAPE wear $10,000 jackets and $500 shoes, but these mostly young Congolese men otherwise barely eke out a living in the rubble of Kinshasa and Brazzaville or the ghettos of Paris and Brussels, washing dishes or washing bodies, and sometimes selling their own. […]
These days, though, the passion for fashion has morphed into a craze for labels, the more expensive the better. While the Brazzaville faithful keep to a strict three-color rule—including accessories—for any outfit, in Kinshasa and among the immigrants in Europe, the look is more hip-hop, and features a blinding array of patterns and hues. But in both groups, designer names are at such a premium that rival sapeurs will do battle with each other, flashing label after label, trying to best their opponent, stripping down, if necessary, to their underwear. “It’s combat,” says Héctor Mediavilla Sabaté, a photographer who’s been studying the sapeurs since 2003, “and the clothes are the weapons.” […]
Before visas became difficult to get, some would travel to Europe to buy clothing to sell back home in Kinshasa or Brazzaville. Some rely on Congolese shoplifting gangs in Brussels and Paris to send them the latest Armani. Many have spent time in jail. Some cobble together outfits by borrowing “Only the people who lent the clothes know they were borrowed,” explains Mediavilla. […]
Paradise Is a Fabulous Suit / FOR THE CONGOLESE SAPEURS, HAUTE COUTURE ISN’T JUST AN ABIDING PASSION, IT’S A RELIGION.