h1

les Sapeurs; battle of the dandies

July 16, 2010

A good day to all of you…This is not a fashion blog.

Yet,  I can not resist reporting this spectacular fashion event, held just last night. An official part of the Amsterdam Fashion Week 2010, organised by the Prince Claus Fund and the Amsterdams fonds voor de Kunst. Quite an official gathering…

My interest was stirred first of all since this night out promised to be a fashion battle and   a few key members of  ‘Sapeurs’, members of  La SAPE (Société  des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes) were invited.  On the catwalk Sapeurs  from  Congo, Ghana, Rwanda and Morocco elevated fashion to the status of religion.

Les Sapeurs create a totally different identity through expensive Western haute couture garments that are presented with African eccentricity. Looking good for les Sapeurs is just as important as following the rules of elegance and good manners.

One could call them dandies, more critical minds may discard them as idle poseurs or fashion victims. But whatever their image may evoke, their impact on African culture should not be underestimated.

Les Sapeurs started in the mid 70’s as a small group of Zairous Fashion Lovers who rebelled against the regime of president Mobutu of Zaïre who introduced the uniformed look. A look for men and women based on communist Mao suits, replaced  the suit and tie  of Zaïre’s colonial oppressors and banned European fashion in general.  Les Sapeurs found a new way of protesting Mobutu’s  regime by importing Western extravagant outfits from chic boutiques in  Brussels and Paris. Musician Papa Wemba was their idol; ‘le pape du Sape’.

La Sape was a very peculiar movement. At first glance it seemed ridiculous for a man in Kinshasa, in the midst of an economic crisis, to walk around with gaudy sunglasses, a colorful shirt by Jean-Paul Gaultier and a fur coat of mink, but the materialism of Sapeurs was social criticism, as punk in Europe in later years was. It depicted a profound aversion to the misery, poverty and repression that they knew and it allowed to dream of a carefree Zaïre.

La Sape was all about success, about visibility, and about scoring. Discothèques were entered with a combination of Chic, Choc et Chèque. The true Sapeur was űber cool, he moved and spoke with perfect control, he regaled his friends on beer and women were his easy prey. He was a dandy, a playboy, a snob. The Sapeur was not despised but admired. For many poverty-stricken youth his extravaganza kept hope alive.*

Les Sapeurs are following the footsteps of those dandies who flashed the streets of South African townships like Sophiatown and Alexandra in the 40’s and 50’s. These people were known as tsotsis and widely regarded for their immaculate sense of dress. And love of music too; marabi, jazz. Tsotsis had been named for the zoot suits they adopted just after World War II, but the name was also conveniently close to the Sotho verb ho tsotsa, meaning ‘to behave thuggisly’.

Gangsterism had a range of forms and social meanings. Many gangs had started out as genuine self-protection groupings for country boys prey to the wicked big cities; to survive, they had to learn that wickedness themselves. They progressed to demand protection money, traded in dagga and bootleg liquor and controlled the prostitution market.

They gathered their inspiration from movies about Al Capone and Cab Calloway, of whom they borrowed their trademark look; the zoot suit. And they dated the beautiful ladies; Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Thandy Klaasen. They were going through that whole thing of the moll, the gangster’s moll.

dolly_rathebe_2

Their attitude towards women performers-as to women in general- was not so respectful as singer Dolly Rathebe recalls:

‘We used to have it very tough in those days…Sophiatown was like New Orleans -it had the jazz, the fashion, everything! We had competition with Orlando -we used to call them turkeys because they spoke too much of the native languages like Zulu. To us, it sounded like gobble, gobble. We were proud of our Afrikaans and English.

Those from Alexandra were real raw and uncouth and used to go and raid other townships, starting fights and kidnapping women. They came for me once, said; ‘after the show, you’re coming with us’! I had to go with them. What choice did I have? Oh yes, it was tough…the police didn’t care about it, because later I reported that this guy had taken me against my will, but nothing happened. We were just kaffir meids (black girls), Bantus, so the police didn’t care. We found ways to survive. The tsotsis were the best dressed gangsters in town and eventually I settled down with one of them. He looked after me. It was just that kind of life, and we’d grown up with it.’*

*from the book ‘Soweto Blues -Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa’ by Gwen Ansell. 2004 Continuum Publishing New York-London

on the Amsterdam catwalk last night, the finest selection of les Sapeurs had no criminal connections nor did they belong to any gang of tsotsis. Les Sapeurs LOVE fashion with a Sexy, Afro Glam Wham Attitude!

African chic combined with  European fashion. Models striking a pose to bass-heavy raw African tunes and sophisticated NYC 90’s discotheque hits.  Two young boys on the decks,  “l’Afrique Som System” signed for the soundtrack; Asheru Alhuag & Ashwin Murli.

Certainly  a night to remember,  quite refreshing and what great fun. Vive les Sapeurs! Long live the African Renaissance!

all photographs©Soul Safari 2010

a selection from ‘les Sapeurs’ soundtrack right here

 

**excerpts from ‘Soweto Blues -Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa’ by Gwen Ansell. 2004 Continuum Publishing New York-London

*excerpts on La SAPE  from ‘Congo. A History’ by David Van Reybrouck‘. 2010 De Bezige Bij Publishing Amsterdam

9 comments

  1. Thanks for this informative post. Where did you get that quote from Dolly Rathebe?

    hi there, the quote from Dolly Rathebe can be found in
    the book ‘Soweto Blues -Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa’ by Gwen Ansell. 2004 Continuum Publishing New York-London

    p.s.thnx for your comment.


  2. Eddie,
    Check out the Smarties from Joburg:
    http://dianepernet.typepad.com/diane/2008/06/smarties-in-joh.html


  3. as well as the Swenkas….the tradition of looking sharp continues:
    http://www.viceland.com/int/v14n5/htdocs/swank.php


  4. brothers and sisters this event should be all over europe and all over the world…….some years ago in liberia i went to a street side tailor and he made me a complet set of clothes for every day of the week……….and it only took him three days……and my first suit white silk with short sleve jacket and extra pare of pants short and long……….so brothers and sisters we can make clothes all over the world……we need the work……and we should have our own fashion book in the street…….we black people look good and we should make our own films around the world…….now is the time…..right now…..today……the safari prince…..around the world safari


  5. when we were teenagers we use to sell silk ties….we would buy the ties for one dollar and sell them for 5 dollars and more…….we went to all the fancy bars…..barber shops and lady salons….business was always good………….today we are selling dvd films that we make ourselves……..put in a few prety girls…..a sports car……a home party…..a little love love love…..a candel light dinner….a walk in the woods and volla…thats a film…..print and sellllllllll…..the dvd is so small 2 or 3 hundred fits into a briefcase.and you are in business…..so get bussy brothers lets make our own black films……a note from the safari prince


  6. check out the safari prince films on google and flickr…..


  7. soul brothers lets make a film at cannes film festival about you all….by safari prince films………


  8. […] Guardian ,  les Sapeurs; battle of the dandies, The Sunday Times 7th February […]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: