BRAZZAVILLE, Aug. 6 — Calfskin shoes on, checked. Square in the pocket, checked. Pipe in the hand, checked. This is the protocol for Contrao de Pereira from Congo-Brazzaville every time before he walks out of the house.
In Congo-Brazzaville and the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a group of fashionists like de Pereira is known as the “sapeurs”. Their name comes from the French slang that means to dress with class, but also from the acronym of their social group “SAPE” in French, namely the Society of ambiance makers and elegant people.
For de Pereira, who claims that every single soul in Congo-Brazzaville is a sapeur, the blood of the SAPE culture runs in his vein in particular. Born and raised in a family of famous sapeurs, de Pereira learned from his father at the age of three how to dress up and match different colors on his outfit.
For him, keeping stylish is part of his life and part of his duty as a sapeur. “The SAPE culture means first of all the love for dressing up,” he said as he showed off the brands he was wearing for the weekly gathering in a local bar.
When the weekend comes, sapeurs in the Congolese capital usually hang out outside the local bars, sipping beer, talking about life, and putting a little joie de vivre into their lives.
During each of these gatherings, local streets in Brazzaville are transformed into runways in Paris fashion week, where the dandies take turns to show off their outfits while dancing to the music.
Though being a sapeur sounds much of work, de Pereira said that ordinary people are only one rule away from being part of their group. “If you want to become a real sapeur, you only need to respect the three-color trilogy, meaning wearing no more than three colors at a time,” he explained.
The sapeurs are mostly hard-working men, instead of being born with a silver spoon. “Some people work hard to buy a house, but we work our whole life to dress with class,” said Mesmin Ba Couleur, another sapeur in the street.
Besides their expensive attire, an ethos centered around respect, peace, integrity, and honor accompanies the wardrobe of the sapeurs. “I’ve always said that sapeurs are peace-loving people. We are always trying to send the right messages,” said de Pereira.
For sapeurs, who are respected members of the local community, have been setting the example of staying stylish and maintaining personal hygiene. “We set the example of staying clean. We are telling people to wash their hands and keep social distance. This is also what SAPE is about,” said de Pereira.
“It feels so good to be a sapeur. The sapeurs are multidimensional and have colossal power. The SAPE is good because see how good I look when I suit up,” he said.