The Beau Brummels of Brazzaville
by Tom Downey for the Wall Street Journal Magazine, 6 July 2011

At Le Main Bleue, an outdoor club hidden in the back alleys of Brazzaville, Hassan Salvador enters like he owns not just the Congo but the world: Gianfranco Ferre umbrella stretched open overhead, though no rain is likely to fall, salmon-colored silk scarf draped on top of his tie and sportcoat, though it has to be ninety degrees Fahrenheit on the terrace. Salvador, a tall thirty-year-old with his head shaved shiny, prances, struts, and strides between blue plastic tables covered with brown glass bottles of beer. As all eyes turn to him, Salvador comes to a precise stop before the dance floor, stretches out his left arm so that his sleeve slides up, uncovering his wristwatch, and checks the time. Populating the place, slowly sipping beer or gracefully stepping to the music, are a collection of Congolese men dressed much like Salvador, in European-style suits tailored to fit, complemented by bold pocket squares and textured ties, accessorized with Holmesian pipes and elegant hats. These well-dressed gentlemen aren’t African big men slapping each other on the back to celebrate just-consummated deals. They’re Congolese everymen—taxi-drivers, carpenters, gravediggers—assembled here on this sunny Sunday afternoon because they’re what locals call Sapeurs, men who believe in the uplifting, redeeming, beatifying effect of dressing formally and well. True Sapeurs, like Salvador, are willing to put their hard-earned cash behind that belief, spending improbably large sums of Central African Francs to buy French crocodile shoes, British sports coats, handmade Italian ties. Salvador resumes his martial parade, locates the young men in his clique, called Piccadilly, and, in a complicated and choreographed set of motions, removes his jacket, folds it neatly in half over his seatback, sits down and crosses his right leg over his left to reveal a colorful flash of sock, then finally starts to talk with his friends—and assess the outfits of the other Sapeurs.

As Salvador huddles with his posse, an old man sits alone at a table nearby, relaxing with a single-serving bottle of cheap red wine and tending his pipe. Bidounga Ferdinand, sixty years old, has been a sapeur for forty of those years. Sapology, as they call it here, is in his blood: Ferdinand’s father and brothers were all Sapeurs. Ferdinand doesn’t come here to compete with other Sapes or converse with comrades—he comes back every week, dressed like this, because these clothes lift him up and make him the man he wants to be. He now works only sporadically as a carpenter, so he can’t buy new outfits that often. But what he’s earned from forty years of toil he wears with style. Today it’s green and blue plaid pants, a complementing silk plaid vest, tall green hat, and wide yellow tie knotted large and tacked high, with a striped jacket that picks up a little of all these colors. It’s a British ensemble, no doubt, but with striking pattern matching and color coordination that few people on the isles of Britannia would have the courage to attempt.

I’ve come to the two Congos to understand what meaning the Sapeurs of Brazzaville and Kinshasa find in the clothes they wear. Formality is on the decline the world over. Most men only don a suit when business or custom demands they do. I want to know why this group of Central Africans, positioned at the epicenter of chaos, poverty and civil war, have chosen to exalt in the pleasure of extravagant clothes they have absolutely no practical reason to wear. Sapeurs take their name from the acronym for their group: SAPE, meaning La Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes. Ambianceur is a neologism coined in Francophone Africa, which means persons who create ambience—atmosphere-makers, if you will.

When I chat with ordinary people in Brazza about these men, I hear the same refrains again and again: “Here in the Congo everyone is a sapeur.” “Sapology is in our blood.” “The president of our nation is our greatest sapeur.” After reciting these obligatory platitudes, though, people are mostly just amazed that working-class men in their struggling Central African nation would sacrifice the chance to buy a car, move to a better place to live, or pay their children’s school tuitions in order to underwrite an obsessive interest in old-school European menswear. Some Congolese, though, see the Sapeurs differently. A few days before I watched Salvador show his stuff at Le Main Bleue, I sat in the office of Alain Akouala, a powerful government minister—and a man Sapeurs have crowned an honorary Sape—talking about the reasons this movement has reemerged in Congo. Akouala, though not sporting the bright colors and bold accessories of a Sapeur, was dressed in an elegant dark blue suit. Out the window of his twentieth floor office was the broad brown Congo River and the high-rises of sprawling Kinshasa, across the river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a war-torn nation that makes Congo Brazzaville, with its decades of civil war and authoritarian rule, look like a model state. “The Sapeurs can only exist in peacetime,” Akouala told me. “To me they’re a sign of better things: stability, tranquility. They indicate that our nation is returning to normal life after years of civil war.”

By now dozens of Sapeurs have converged on Le Main Bleue, chatting amongst themselves, dancing with some women who have joined the party, and sussing out everyone else’s attire. All the Sapeurs are wearing either odd jackets or suits, always with a tie, mostly with a pocket square and braces not belts. Styles vary, but what makes these outfits much more than well-executed boardroom attire are the bright colors and daring pattern and tone combinations: Hassan has matched a rust sportscoat with a maroon tie and salmon-colored pants. There are blue and yellow plaid suits, entirely pink ensembles, and various other outfits running the gamut of the pastels. The general rule for Brazza Sapes is said to be that they wear no more than three colors at a time. In fact what this seems to mean is three tones, not counting white. Pocket squares aren’t folded but stuffed in and left to spill out, rakishly. Patch pockets abound, an unconventional feature on most jackets. The outfits are dandyish, but they don’t come off as costumes. Some Sapes boast of their brands, especially their shoe brands, of which JM Weston, a fine and expensive French shoemaker, seems to be the most prominent. But most Sapes agree that brand isn’t everything—it’s about fit, confidence, and, as Hassan Salvador tells me, art: “As Sapeurs, we need to paint with the colors, patterns, and textures of our clothes,” he says. “All week long I mull over all the different possible combinations of jacket, trousers, pocket square, tie, tie pin, scarf, umbrella and suspenders before I actually put on the clothes.”

The sight of these splendidly dressed men is in stark contrast to the trappings of the city. The bar where they assemble, Le Main Bleue, sits in a district called Bakongo, a working class quarter populated primarily by people from the Lari ethnic group. Though Sapeurs also hail from other parts of Brazzaville, Bakongo is their spiritual and historical home. Just a kilometer or two from Le Main Bleue stands the city’s largest market, a chaotic mess of screaming vendors, flyblown sides of antelope meat, and child-high piles of trash. The streets and alleyways outside the bar are made of dirt, littered with refuse and remains, and lined by tin-topped shacks where residents eke out a living selling whatever they can. A gauntlet of kids and adults forms spontaneously as soon as the Sapeurs start stepping out of taxis and cars to enter the bar. The crowd stares at them in wonder, shouting out the names of some of the well-known Sapeurs as they recognize these men walking by.

As the sun sets over the nearby Congo River, I see two strikingly tall, thin Sapeurs shaking hands and bending their necks to touch at the forehead, a traditional Congolese greeting. They hold the pose for a moment, silhouettes locked in a solemn prayer. Then they look up, laugh, and take to the dance floor, facing off in the stepping, swaying combat of the Sapeurs. The younger of the two, Idris, dons a pink suit, white shirt, red bow tie and red flower in his lapel buttonhole. His foe on the dancefloor, Elyfontaine, a middle-aged taxi driver, wears a white double-breasted linen sportscoat with a teal square spilling out of the pocket and crocodile double monk strap shoes polished to a high shine. He pulls up his pant legs a little and makes a point of displaying his shoes as he slams his feet down on the dance floor. Their dance match is low-key—the most intense face-offs take place in the summer, when Congolese Sapes living in Paris or Brussels come home to take on Sapeurs who have stayed behind.

Eventually Elyfontaine, the lanky taxi driver, sits down to wipe his brow and sip a beer. I ask him why he comes here every week. “When I dress like this, it’s like I have the Holy Spirit in me,” he says. “I’m at ease, as if I was sinless.” His older brothers were Sapeurs before him. When Elyfontaine saw them dressing up for the first time he was just twelve, but he knew: “I said to myself, ‘La sape, this is me.’” By now everyone’s been drinking ice cold Congolese beer and dancing for hours. Still, the vibe at Le Main Bleue remains calm and cool. “You can’t fight or get drunk when you’re a Sapeur,” Elyfontaine tells me. I ask him why not, expecting some Gandhian philosophy of non-violence underpinning the movement. “My clothes are way too expensive for that,” he says, smiling, before standing up to dance again. Watching him walk onto the dance floor I realize that when men like Elyfontaine, Hassan, Idris and Ferdinand dress as Sapeurs they become different people—and it’s not just the clothes. Their gait, their gestures, and their manner of speaking are all transformed. The clothes of a Sapeur are the gateway into a whole other way of being in the world.

Brazzaville and Kinshasa, separated by just a ten minute ferry ride across the Congo River, are the closest two capital cities on Earth. But oh what a difference ten minutes makes. The chaos outside Kinshasa’s customs hall—porters bent in two under backbreaking loads, limbless beggars crying out from the gutter, hustlers of every stripe and style—makes the squalor of Brazzaville seem quaint, nostalgic and Disneyfied. Kinshasa is almost certainly the largest French-speaking city in the world, with at least ten, probably twelve, really who knows how many millions of people stuffed into its confines. These countless millions are served by a public sector that would have trouble cleaning the garbage, controlling the traffic and policing the streets of a small town. Kin, as they call it, is expensive, dangerous, extravagant and bizarre, like a brilliant but psychotic friend who drags you along on his flights of fancy. There is crushing poverty of a severity and scale that simply can’t be found across the river in Brazza. There is also fabulous, fantastic wealth flowing out of the ground in the form of cobalt, coltan, copper and diamonds, detouring through the pockets of the country’s big men for a costly pit stop, then being shipped abroad to build cellphones, supply Chinese industry, even, during World War II, construct the uranium core of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. When we enter the lobby of the Grand Hotel, where Mohammed Ali and George Foreman bunked during their Rumble in the Jungle, the sky outside goes dark, though it’s still early evening, and gusts of wind blow through the entryway. A vast, ornate crystal chandelier rings out with the sound of a thousand wind chimes. Suddenly, spectacularly a foot-long pointed crystal falls from high above and shatters on the marble floor, missing a Congolese guest by just a couple of inches. She doesn’t even flinch, as if it’s the most ordinary thing in the world to nearly have your nose sheared off by a crystal fragment, and then makes a play to cut in front of me in the reception line. The clerk behind the desk, wearing an ancient necktie that commemorates Soviet-Zairean cooperation with the embroidered flags of each country, continues with my check-in procedure and ignores the woman—and the chandelier. Finally a bellboy, observing the incident, calls out to a colleague to please shut the door so that no more crystals smash to the floor. When I finally make it up to my room, which rents for three hundred US dollars per night, it has neither functioning air con nor internet. Ten minutes later, after I’ve relocated to a second room, the lamp next to my bed billows black smoke and erupts into flames, triggering the fire alarm and evacuating the floor. After the hubbub dies down we discover the cause of the fire: a maid left a dust rag atop the light bulb. All told it is, I soon learn, a typical couple of hours in the DRC: smashing glasswork, flames and smoke, and a population that has seen it all. The next day we go in search of our Sapeurs, starting with a man known as Papa Griffe, who meets us at a TV station downtown dressed in a midnight blue shirt, jeans, and reptile skin cowboy boots. Griffe, eyes obscured by the dark sunglasses he wears indoors, announces with little preamble that he’s the leader of all the Congo’s Sapeurs. I ask him when and where they assemble. “Wherever and whenever you want,” he says, with a wide grin. But, he continues, it’ll cost you. Clothes, transport, everything is expensive in Kinshasa. After a little hemming and hawing we give him some money to cover the cost of the Sapeurs’ travel. After pocketing the cash, Griffe explains that his most famous Sapeur outfit is composed entirely of snakeskin. When we tell him we’re looking forward to seeing it tomorrow, Griffe parries: “I won’t be wearing that tomorrow unless you give me more money. It’s an expensive ensemble and so I have to charge extra to put it on.” On the way out of the building, after bidding Papa Griffe goodbye, Jackie Nickerson, the photographer shooting the story, turns to me and utters just one word—chancer—gambling argot that says just about all there is to say about Papa Griffe. The next day, as we wait at a rendezvous point at the side of the road for Kin’s Sapeurs, Papa Griffe calls. “The Sapeurs are arriving,” he says, “but don’t talk to them until I come. I’ll be there soon.” On cue we see some teenagers ambling into a doorway nearby, dressed in improbable outfits—leopard-patterned velvet pants, billowing black jackets, plaid blankets wrapped like skirts and paired with tuxedo shirts and combat boots. The kids look like they’ve been playing dress-up, with the aim of shocking and awing outsiders like us with the exotic, menacing and bizarre style of their clothes. After a few words with these guys, who are pleasant enough, and with Papa Griffe on the phone, who isn’t, it becomes clear that Griffe’s likely press-ganged them into this stunt in order to pocket the transport cash we gave him. We exit the scene before Papa arrives. After ten or fifteen frantic phone calls from him, asking where we’ve gone, desperate to have us return and photograph him, he even offers to don the snakeskin suit without an extra charge. I stop answering his phone calls and start to wonder whether spontaneous, indigenous Sapology exists at all in Kinshasa.

Later that day, in search of Sapeurs without a shakedown, we descend on Matete, a tough, dusty, and deserted quarter on the south side of Kinshasa, where Chikwate, a local Sapeur lives with his Mom and siblings. Chikwate leads us past a black pitted cauldron of meat and green vegetable stew simmering over an outdoor fire, up the stairs past his numerous young relatives, and onto the rooftop, where we look over the low-rise shacks of Matete, , punctuated by the occasional dirt road or palm tree. Chikwate comes back upstairs dressed in an all-black haute-couture version of the one-piece front-buttoned French mechanic’s uniform, paired with tall black combat boots and a black leather cap. It’s a strange, arresting, and somehow appropriate outfit for the monotone surroundings: brown streets littered with washed-out, burnt-out abandoned vehicles that no mechanic, no matter what outfit he wears, will ever bring back to life. Soon Yves Kandiz, a Sapeur friend of Chikwate, arrives dressed in a flowing black all-Yohji-Yammamoto outfit—a skirt and hooded-jacket combo that makes him look a bit like one of the sand people in Star Wars. Brazzaville Sapes worship classical fashion. Kin Sapeurs, they tell me, adore Yohji because his style is violent, brutal, and in line with the spirit of their city. Where Hassan and Elyfontaine, over in Brazzaville, dressed, strutted, and spoke like someone from a Maugham novel, Chikwate and Yves take to the streets in an utterly different way: Yves extends one arm and holds his jacket open, as if spreading a wing, to reveal the Yohji label inside. Chikwate stomps in the dirt like he’s marching off to war. I don’t doubt their sincerity as Sapeurs, and I admire their attempt to find a style that reflects the complex, anarchic, neo-noir atmosphere of their world. But Kin is a broken-down shell of a city, and though Chikwate and Yves strive and thus there’s no constancy in the Sape culture here. Life in today’s DRC grinds people down, wears them out, lays them to waste. The corruption that plunders the nation’s mineral wealth has even managed to trickle down to its snakeskin suits. Though twenty years ago there was a lively Sape culture in Kinshasa, right now elegance and extravagance just don’t seem able to offer an enclave or escape from problems that run so deep.

Back in Brazzaville and I’m seeing the Sapeurs with a newly skeptical eye: Was I somehow tricked into believing that Sapeur culture here was real and vital? Had Le Main Bleue just been a fashion show for the benefit of us foreign observers? I get a call from Hassan to meet him and his Piccadily crew the next morning.

Traffic is halted in the streets of Bakongo. We jump out of our taxis and Hassan marches in front of his crew of five, leading them onto the median and eventually catching up with another crew of Sapeurs who walk in front of a funeral procession led by a hearse with a framed photo of the deceased perched on the windshield. Everyone on the streets stares at the Sapeurs, who march before the coffin with a peculiar, joyful, even comical gait that brings to mind the exuberance of the death dances I saw at a jazz funeral in the Treme.

Moulalal, a local sape, leads the pack, dressed in a Prince of Wales print suit with wide peak lapels, slanted ticket pocket, surgeon’s cuffs open and rolled up slightly, pipe protruding from his mouth, holding aloft a wooden cane that he alternately uses to twirl like a baton or brace himself during his animated pantomime of a kind of falling, twisting, turning, drunken instability. Marching behind him is another member of his crew dressed in full Scottish regalia: wool socks with garters, plaid kilt and cap, a traditional chained leather purse dangling from his waist. Two female Sapeurs, in outfits made almost entirely of denim, also march in the funeral procession. Moullal’s friend Jean Tranrive Vivien is in a bright baby-blue suit, black pith helmet, with red bow tie and cumberbund. Vivien wears a lapel pin with an enamel-covered sepia photo of a man called Andre Matsoua, an important Congolese political figure from the early part of the 20th century, who returned from France dressed like a European and is said to be the first Grand Sapeur of the Congo.

Their march is called a diatance, taken from the Lari word for walking and it’s a traditional way for Sapeurs to send off their dead. Riding shotgun in the hearse is Didier Al Capone, a Paris sape who’s come home to bury his father. Though he’s lived in Paris for twenty years, the men marching are his old Sapeur gang from Brazza. “This procession is a way for these friends to show me that they’re sharing my soul right now” he says. “I haven’t thanked them yet because I’m so moved that I can’t even find the words.” He looks at all of his friends, dressed regally to marching through the streets of his neighborhood on this special, sad occasion. “They’re real,” he says, articulating the words as if that is the highest compliment he could possibly pay to his fellow Sapeurs.