Fashion: Vive la sape!

By Habibou Bangré in Kinshasa
Posted on Friday, 12 July 2013 11:56

Dressed in black from head to toe, Mobonda ‘Chancelier’ Elabe stands in a dark and messy room where open suitcases reveal designer clothes, shoes and accessories.

“A sapeur begging for clothes is not a real sapeur,” says Chancelier, 37.

Yet the truth is that most sapeurs from his native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) do not have any other choice but to beg for top designer clothes and accessories.

With two-thirds of the population of DRC living in poverty, it proves tricky for fashion addicts to reconcile survival with passion for the ‘sape’ (société des ambianceurs et des personnes élégantes), a cultural movement with its roots in the 1970s that is mainly followed in DRC and Congo-Brazzaville.

Mohawk-wearing Junior Kipulu, who nicknamed himself ‘Maison Rei‘ as a nod to Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, can make $350 a month producing ceramics.

This is much more than the average wage of his peers, but it does not go far in a city as expensive as Kinshasa, where several thousand sapeurs are estimated to live.

“We have sisters in Europe who purchase expensive clothes for us. All my designer clothes are a present from them,” says Maison Rei, sitting in the yard of a house he shares with friends.

The most recent present he has received is a military-style outfit and a matching pair of green shoes by Kenzo.

He proudly wears them with the labels on, a common practice among sapeurs who want to show off newness and authenticity.

“A sapeur has to be loaded,” says Chancelier, a father of three who works as a foreign exchange dealer.

“You need a job that pays enough. I earn around $800 a month and of that, I keep $300 for clothes. If you’re out of job and you are a sapeur, in reality you are just a beggar, a fake sapeur.”

Six ‘Six-Smalto’ Lokoto, 24, has no regular salary but treats himself to Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto’s creations.

The money comes from his modelling jobs, where he sometimes gets to keep the clothes. “Almost everything I have, I bought it myself,” he says.

Some sapeurs buy second-hand clothes, a mostly secret practice because others frown upon it.

Chancelier is only interested in new fashion and, like some others, has become a ‘sapeur 2.0,’ searching the internet for the best deals.

“I have three sisters living in Europe. If I find something interesting, I send them the money.” ●

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