Known in their home country as “sapeurs” – a play on the French word for “well dressed” – Congolese luxury fans have perfected the art of matching candy-coloured suits, crocodile shoes and rakishly cocked hats in an homage to male vanity.
And while the fashion trend started with Congolese migrants returning from France and displaying their wealth through luxury clothing, a new generation is proudly parading the colourful style of Brazzaville through the streets of Paris.
“Congo exports oil and timber, but now we have another raw material,” said designer and self-confessed dandy Jocelyn Armel in his boutique in northern Paris, pointing to the pink and purple suits and matching ties around him.
“We came here, and we brought our history with us,” said Armel, who designs all the clothes for his label, “Connivences”, and produces them in Italy. Nicknamed “Le Bachelor”, he was wearing tartan-patterned trousers, with a natty handkerchief peeking out of his suit pocket. When Armel set up his label five years ago next to an African hairdresser and a supermarket crammed with yams and bags of dried pulses, the dandies were not convinced. They preferred French brands such as Dior and Louis Vuitton.
Now, European fashion fans are discovering the style. French magazine L’Express has just published a fashion shoot about the “sapeurs”, featuring handsome black men in sharp suits and loud colours. There are photo exhibitions on the trend at Paris’s Dapper Museum and Amsterdam’s Prince Claus Gallery.
“There are some women who are part of the movement, but it’s mostly men,” said Sebastien N’Djembo, a customer at Connivences in a carefully coordinated brown-and-caramel outfit.
N’Djembo organises parties and dinners in Paris for members of the fashion movement, playfully named “La Sape” – “The Society of Social Facilitators and Elegant Persons”.
“In Brazzaville, dressing up is an institution. We hold fashion shows and vote for the chicest person of the evening,” he said.
With the broader recognition comes a greater sartorial pride. Armel said his breakthrough happened when he dressed the body of a deceased Congolese pop star in baby pink for the funeral. It was then that even his snooty fellow “sapeurs” began to accept his creations.
“We display colours to show people that elegance doesn’t just belong to Paris, London, Milan,” he told Reuters.
“In Paris, we’re a mixed society now, and us newcomers want to show that it’s not all about navy blue and black…there are other colours that we love to wear, and this is how to wear them.”