Friday, August 31, 2007
Le Sape: Extravagance or Fashion
These are sapeurs, acolytes of a 25-year-old movement called la SAPE—La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (aka Kitendi, the religion of the cloth) — that revolves around the possession of the most expensive, most luxurious, most extravagant fashion in the world. Followers of SAPE wear $10,000 jackets and $500 shoes, but these mostly young Congolese men otherwise barely eke out a living in the rubble of Kinshasa and Brazzaville or the ghettos of Paris and Brussels, washing dishes or washing bodies, and sometimes selling their own.
The craze started with le Pape de la SAPE—intermediary between the gods of fashion and practicing sapeurs—the musician Papa Wemba, born Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba in the Kasai River region of the Belgian Congo. Papa Wemba, an emerging pop star in the late 1960s, fomented a revolution in self-presentation, agitating for pizzazz over the dowdy duds prescribed by Mobutu Sese Seko's "authenticity movement." Mobutu was the first leader of Zaire after it was renamed—freshly liberated from Belgium in 1960 (Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). His authenticity movement, which frowned on all associations with Western culture, was part of an effort to distinguish African-controlled Zaire from the Belgian-controlled Congo. Under Mobutu, anything from Christianity to neckties was in danger of being banned.