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
Sunday 23 April 1995
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
Gianni Versace, Yohji, Mugler, Comme Des
Garons, Weston shoes
Let me enjoy good clothes and take care of
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. !
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove