Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo

These images were made in the streets of the 2 capitals cities Congo Kinshasa & Congo Brazzaville. The series is about people who are part of a fashion culture in Congo called: La Sape, Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Soci... Read More

Tariq Zaidi

Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo

These images were made in the streets of the 2 capitals cities Congo Kinshasa & Congo Brazzaville. The series is about people who are part of a fashion culture in Congo called: La Sape, Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers & Elegant People). Its followers are known as »Sapeurs« (»Sapeuses« for women).

Most have ordinary day jobs as taxi-drivers, tailors and gardeners, but as soon as they clock out they transform themselves into debonair dandies. Sashaying through the streets they are treated like rock stars – turning heads, bringing ‘joie de vivre’ to their communities and defying their circumstances.

Brazzaville and Kinshasa are on opposite banks of the Congo River, almost directly across from one another, yet they have different styles. In Brazzaville, La Sape is mainly ‘French style’ (think exquisite suits), but in Kinshasa anything goes, from Japanese Yamamoto coats to Scottish kilts.

True Sapologie is about more than expensive labels: the true art lies in a sapeur’s ability to put together an elegant look unique to their personality. Though the culture is traditionally passed down through the male line, many Congolese women have recently begun donning designer suits and becoming sapeuses.

As Papa Wemba (1949–2016, Congolese singer and fashion icon who popularised Sape) once said: “White people invented the clothes, but we (Africans) make an art of it.”

This series, which Zaidi started making in 2017 is part of a larger body of work published as a book in September 2020, “Sapeurs: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congo”. The book was selected by Vogue as one of the "Best Fashion Books of the Year 2020". Designed by Stuart Smith, published by Kehrer Verlag Germany and co-edition with Seigensha Art Publishing, Japan. The book was also recognised by Pictures of the Year International POY78 (one of the most prestigious photojournalism competitions) as a Finalist for "Photography Book of the Year 2020". The photobook is already on its second printing.

Tariq Zaidi