From the Congo to the Cross: The Sapeurs Lead by Example

David Penbarthy’s trending article about the tragic death of Daniel Christie and the emergence of a ‘new generation of gutless thugs’ has added some much-needed perspective to the debate about the relationship between drinking and violence. We all drink, often to excess, but the only nursing that’s required for the majority of us is our hangovers, and unhealthy bank accounts the next day. David has voiced the opinion of a generation who is tired of avoiding these parasites who make us second guess a stroll home at 3am. So, in light of the chatter about this moronic new breed of man who David describes, I thought it was fitting to write a story about a group of men who display the characteristics we should all aspire to – especially the Shaun McNeils of the world. This article is about Sapeurs or members of the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People) who hail from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo.

SAPE: Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant PeopleAt the beginning of the XXth century when the French arrived in Congo the myth of the Parisian elegance was born among the youth of the Bakongo ethnic group who were working for the colonizers. At that time

The art of Sape originated in the 1920’s shortly after the French arrived in the Congo, when many considered white men to be superior due to their sophistication and elegance. In 1922, a Congolese man named Grenard Andre Matsoua returned to Brazzaville from Paris dressed as a genuine Frenchman and received great admiration – he became known as the first Grand Sapeur. Against the backdrop of poverty, the art of Sape was born, where a select few men devoted their lives to dressing and conducting themselves like a true gentleman with a shared dream to one day go to Paris and return as ambassadors of supreme elegance.

The sapeur Lamame takes a ride in a taxi to the outskirts of Brazzaville. In this occasion, he is dressed in a tail coat and covers his right eye with a black patch.

It was the photos by Hector Mediavilla (whose images we’re featuring in this article) that grabbed my attention, and you can see why. Impeccably dressed men draped in vibrant colours walking through slums of central Africa. Such elegance juxtaposed against such extreme poverty create not only an evocative compelling picture – they force us to ask questions about who we are, where we come from and the type of men we want to be. The pictures are remarkable, there’s no denying that, but the code they live by is so much more meaningful because as the Sape maxim goes, “It’s not the cost of the suit that counts, but the worth of the man inside it.” This quality of the Sapeurs is less apparent in the images but one that makes an important comment on the current arguments about young angry men in Australia. Mr McNiel cannot hide behind the fact he may have come from a poor background or lacked education. There is no excuse for violence or intolerance because you may have had a hard life.

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The Sapeurs exemplify this. A Sapeur must have a solid moral ethic; one that is beyond the appearance and vanity of smart, expensive clothing. The dress is used to demonstrate the elegance of their characters; a physical expression of their aspiration to be better men. They are taught how to behave socially, how to perfect their decorum and maintain their propriety, how to dress, how to talk, how to walk. Most importantly he is a pacifist, always respectful of others and never aggressive – a point we can all take some influence from.

The Sapeurs are not rich men, but they are rich in values. They live with great pride and make a positive impact on their community. Whether in central Congo or Kings Cross, it is important to remember that a man isn’t defined by where he comes from, but by choosing the type of man he wants to be.

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All images taken by Hector Mediavilla. You can see more of his photographs at www.hectormediavilla.com

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James is the Founder and Editor of The Versatile Gent.

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