FASHION C'est chic: putting on the style

Les sapeurs are quite simply the best-dressed men in town, with an attention to sartorial detail that dazzles and delights ture that Frances McLaughlin-Gill made fashion photography into an art-form. Martin Harrison introduces a celebration of her

THE FIRST time I saw Olivier, he was dressed in black leather from head to toe. Not any old black leather, not biker black leather, not even leather-queen black leather. Instead, beautiful, supple, closely- fitting black leather jacket, sleek black leather trousers with pony skin patches on the buttocks, black leather boots so highly polished you could see your face in them - and sunglasses. And all this for a quiet supper at home in Camden. But then Olivier is a Zairean, and Zaireans are passionate about clothes. And none are more passionate than the sapeurs, as the acronym goes for the dazzlingly dandyish exquisites of the Socit des Ambiancers et Personnes d' Elgance.

They have their heroes - Matsuda, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana, Issey Miyake, Paul Smith, Mugler, the couture pantheon - and their poets, notably Papa Wemba, the king of soukous, the shimmering rumba-based music of Zaire. As one of Papa Wemba's songs goes:

"We are facing the new generation.

Everyone is responsible for himself...

Fashion will never pass me by

So now I want to wear all the new top

designers....

Gianni Versace, Yohji, Mugler, Comme Des

Garons, Weston shoes

Let me enjoy good clothes and take care of

my appearance

Because life is too short..."

The sapeur phenomenon had its beginnings in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, 30 or so years ago; now, with the movement of young Zaireans to Paris, Brussels, Geneva and London - many of them exiles from the worst excesses of their dictatorial government, others economic migrants - it has spread, in all its glory, to Europe. Graeme Ewens, the author of Africa O Ye!: A Celebration of African Music, says: "The sapeur scene is like a re-run of the British mod cult of the mid-1960s. Clothes are seen as a mark of a person, bringing a measure of self-esteem essential to those who dream of living in the far-off fantasy world of Europe." In what is no longer such a far-off fantasy world (there are about 10,000 Zaireans in London), the sapeurs could well claim to be the best-dressed men around; according to Antonia Gaunt, a stylist familiar with the Zairean scene in London (a scene mainly centred round Upton Park and Tottenham): "Shirts are wildly eccentric, suits outrageously cut, jackets huge and beautifully detailed, trousers copious, tightly gathered at the waist, and constantly readjusted. Shoes are mind-boggling. Sunglasses, preferably by Gaultier, are obligatory. Gold jewellery is a must. Chrome shooting sticks - perhaps to avoid sullying one's clothes - are the fashion accessory."

Ali Babason, a big, burly man who describes himself as "un grand couturier du Zaire" - he's dressed such soukous stars as Pepe Kalle, Defau and Madilu - summed up for me: "A sapeur is someone who lives to dress, who likes to be propre [strictly speaking `clean' but, in this context, `immaculate']; he is someone who takes care of his appearance and of his image. Someone who likes quality and not quantity."

Not all those we photographed were happy to be labelled sapeurs, partly for fear of being thought stupid or frivolous. Mick Jo Lusala, a singer who often acts as MC at concerts of Zairean music (and who also works as an interpreter for the Home Office) told me: "Clothes are the distraction, not the main purpose. We have talented people involved - artists, lawyers, schoolteachers, designers." None the less, all nine men at the shoot (la sap is not really a female thing, and although Zairean women do turn up at soukous concerts, dressed to kill, they tend to wear Zairean clothes) showed up with five or six changes of outfit. The clothes were impeccable, with not a crease, not a wrinkle to be seen on any of the outfits - including one beautiful pastiche of a city suit, designed by Ali Babason (mainstream designers, they assured me, had seen sapeurs in Babason clothes, and were now incorporating African influences in their designs). At a distance, the fabric (a discreet pinstripe), the deceptively sober cut and the plain white shirt were conventional; a closer look revealed a three-quarter- length jacket and high-waisted trousers. But what really gave the game away were the reptile-skin shoes, which are de rigueur.

But le vrai sapeur wants the big names - Gianni Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier for preference. Mick Jo says: "A sapeur is someone who loves clothes like a drug addict loves drugs,'' adding that both compulsions gave rise to the same difficulties - "les problmes avec le sou [money problems]." Sapeurs, he went on, "sacrifice themselves for their image: we call ourselves Les Enfants Propres de l'Afrique, du Zaire - specialement du Zaire."

Few are more propre than Kolo, who gave his name as Kolo Gaultier, the better to emphasise his allegiance. He, predictably, was wearing Jean- Paul Gaultier from head to toe: black double-breasted military-inspired jacket, lined with scarlet silk and worn over matching trousers with little laces dangling from them, the whole ensemble rounded off with a leopardskin-trimmed pillbox hat and little round wire-rimmed Gandhi sunglasses.

Another of our models, "Inspecteur Sept-Sept", was wearing - from the feet up - crocodile shoes from GM Weston (cost: £800); Gianni Versace socks; Issey Miyake trousers; a Nigel Curtis shirt worn under a Versace waistcoat and over a Giacomo waistcoat; and a jacket from Dolce & Gabbana. He had been in England for two-and-a-half years and worked as a security guard. When I asked how he could afford to dress in such a fashion, he said: "J'ai fait des conomies." This was a leitmotif; although all the men were happy enough to talk to me, they were anxious to stress that their passion for designer clothes meant neither that they had a lot of money nor that the clothes were in any way dishonestly acquired. As Patrick emphasised: "Each of us does something for a living."

The relationship between la sap and music is symbiotic - the one feeds the other, and soukous concerts (massively important social occasions for the Zairean community) give the sapeurs and quasi-sapeurs an opportunity to show off their finery. These concerts are dignified, almost formal affairs, allowing full expression to the degree of ritual that is one of the features of sap culture: there are, for instance, strictly prescribed ways of walking, standing and sitting, all of which are intended to display more effectively the cut and style of the clothes. And a man will leap up on stage to give money to his favourite musician and seize the chance to open his jacket and reveal the designer label to the crowd below or to hoist fractionally his trouser leg to reveal the make of his sock or shoe. There's even a strict code of behaviour in terms of what goes on on the dance floor; however sweet the music, no Zairean will move on to the floor until a hidden signal is given. Once up, they will dance impassively, unsmiling, to a precisely observed formula.

La sap is above all about style - extreme style, sophisticated style - and concerts provide a perfect forum for the grandest of grands sapeurs; often, like peacocks on full display, they will do no more than be. At a recent concert at Dougie's Intermezzo in east London, two grands sapeurs, Doukour and Chico International, found an empty space on the dance floor and just stood there, posing. Doukour was resplendent in black and cream, bedecked with gold jewellery and sporting sunglasses, while Chico International, his head shaved, a cigar between his lips, boasted a caf-au-lait double- breasted suit, a Versace umbrella which he twirled from time to time, crocodile shoes, gold jewellery, and - the final touch - a fox fur stole (complete with the late animal's head, paws and tail) draped nonchalantly round his shoulders. It was impossible to imagine either of them doing anything as ordinary as brushing his teeth or making a cup of Nescaf. !

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