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Sapeurism can be traced all the way back to the colonial period in Brazzaville and Kinshasa when house slaves were given clothing instead of money as compensation for their work. This influenced Congolese colonial workers to combat inferiority levelled at them by their French and Belgian masters and made the workers adapt to their master’s style but with a hint of their very own exaggerated high-fashion style. Suave suits, colourful bow ties, scarves: this is a subculture that has been passed on from generation to generation.
But the question remains, who is the modern sapeur today and what has changed since the early 90s? Modern sapeurs are highly admired within Congolese society in both Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Sapeurism has become a cultural identity for these two cities. Today sapeurism is not just for men but is starting to expand to include women and children. Modern sapeurs are respectable, working class men and women who spend their hard-earned money on purchasing the best eye-catching clothing. They live an ordinary life but one obsessed with fashion.
Regardless of the level of poverty found in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, sapeurs sure do live an expensive and extravagant lifestyle. Buying clothes from famous well-recognised brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Cartier or Givenchy sets the sapeurs back an extraordinary amount of money. Most of these luxury brands are original but many sapeurs claim that the majority of their wardrobes are simply a collection of brand lookalikes purchased from local thrift stores known as ‘sola’, a Lingala word that means “second hand”.
Although most of the men and women involved in this fashion cult have regular day jobs, over the weekends they are most likely to be found at local events and, as strange as it may sound, can also be spotted at funerals. These have become the usual places to spot sapeurs; strolling through local neighbourhoods evoking excitement and adoration from onlookers, wearing bright-coloured suits, bow ties, monocles, suspenders, sunglasses, silky shirts and colourful hats. Life as a sapeur is nothing but extravagant fashion choices.
Sapeurs claim that they get inspiration for their style from European high-fashion menswear brands. Outfits are chosen based on the harmony of colour. Primary colours are matched with primary colours and the same applies to secondary and tertiary colours. This portrays a concordance or consistency in elegance.