Congo’s sapeurs pass their style on to a new generation

Some residents of the twin Congolese capitals of Brazzaville and Kinshasa have long been known for their love of stylish dressing – in particular members of the Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant People (Sape). These photographs by Tariq Zaidi reveal a whole new generation of “sapeurs”.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa, the son of famous sapeur Fiston Mahata, eight-year-old Natan, represents the new generation of style.

Across the River Congo in Brazzaville, 10-year-old Okili Nkoressa, middle, uses the dirt roads as his catwalk. “My favourite item of clothing is my Yves Saint Laurent suit which I am wearing today,” he says. He is accompanied by veterans of the Sape scene, 52-year-old businesswoman Ntsimba Marie Jeanne, left, and 39-year-old policewoman Judith Nkoressa, right.

Severin Mouyengo’s father was also a sapeur. “I Sape every day. It makes me forget about everything,” says the 62-year-old retired forester.

“It brings peace and tranquillity to everyone… I don’t see how anyone in La Sape could be violent or fight. Peace means a lot to us.”

Elie Fontaine, a 45-year old taxi-owner says he started dressing in suits as a child in 1982. “They used to tell us that Sape was just a form of ‘juvenile delinquency’.”

They gained international fame in 2014 when their style was featured in a Guinness advert.

“For me Sape is an art, Sape is a discipline, Sape is a job” says Maxime Pivot Mabanza, who has been a sapeur for 36 years.

Perreira Franchisco, a 37-year-old computer consultant in Brazzaville, calls himself “the greatest sapeur”.

“I will now demonstrate, what is known as a clothing equation with 2 or 3 elements. So I will be wearing a Kenzo suit, made in Italy, with a backless vest by Jean Basinga, I’ll wear a tie blue, white, red by Pierre Cardin and a pair of varnished tectonic shoes by John Foster. I love wearing my Kenzo suit – made in Italy!”

More and more women are joining the dapper dressers, including 44-year-old businesswoman Ella Kiadi who started eight years ago.

The women in the club are known as sapeuses.

Some women started decades ago, including 52-year-old housewife Clementine Biniakoulou, who has been a sapeuse for 36 years.

“It’s like someone who has an incurable disease and must take medicine, that’s what Sape is like,” says Nino Valentino.

Human resources manager Basile Gandzion, 51, has been a sapeur for 30 years.

“Out of all my clothes my favourite item of clothing is my hat,” says 58-year old bricklayer Yamea Bansimba. He has been a sapeur for 50 years.

“Jika is here. The clothes inspector, I have arrived, all the labels are here. A Y3 skirt, Zara and other labels, crocodile shoes, 40 cm socks, do you feel me. I am here, Jika the Parisian,” is how 28-year-old Serge Bakama Boke – aka Jika – introduces himself.

At just five years old, Israell Mbona (right) has been a sapeur for three years. Even at his young age, his kilt is from Scotland and his shoes are Versace.

Photographer Tariq Zaidi’s book Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo is published this month.

All photos by Tariq Zaidi

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