On the streets of the Congolese capitals Kinshasa and Brazzaville—or in the largely African Château Rouge neighborhood of Paris—if you see a man decked out in a spotless suit with an eye-popping color like pink, green, or yellow, his look completed with a pocket square and a cane or fedora, you can be pretty certain you’re in the presence of a sapeur.
Sapeurs are members of la Sape movement, a play on the French word for classy attire and shorthand for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes (which literally translates to Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People). But la Sape is more than just a fashion subculture. It’s a social movement with a long history, rooted in the period when the Congo region was colonized by France and Belgium in the late 19th and early 20th century.
With the arrival of the colonizers came the arrival of European elegance and expensive classy dress, which some young men began to emulate. Being a sapeur became a way of life, in which the members, self-described Sub-Saharan dandies, were bound by a code of fashion but also of conduct. A sapeur was required to be calm, composed, and non-aggressive. It was a conscious reaction and stark contrast to the conflict and squalor that surrounded them, and a way to create an identity and build confidence.
Today, Paris’ sapeurs flock to Sape & Co, a small boutique selling colorful men’s attire for modern-day dandies. The shop is a landmark despite its unobtrusive exterior, owned by Le Bachelor, a clothing designer originally from the Republic of Congo, who moved to Paris from Brazzaville in 1977 at age 16 to study business. This was not long after la Sape had seen a revival in the 1960s after Congolese independence, when music icon Papa Wemba took the look and the ideology to the rest of the world. (Wemba is reported to have said, “White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it.”)
Le Bachelor opened Sape & Co in 2005, selling his own brand, Connivences (the shop’s full name is Sape & Connivence). Over the years, he says he has gone from having mostly Congolese and African clients to, ironically enough, welcoming more European men. Now, people from all over the world come to his boutique looking to add more color into their own wardrobes, to add a bit of the flair of a sapeur.