les Sapeurs; battle of the dandiesJuly 16, 2010
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.
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
**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