Borrowing the Emperor’s New Clothes

Fashion in a poverty stricken war torn country

Brazzaville is the capital and largest city of the Republic of the Congo and is located on the Congo River. As of the 2007 census, it has a population of 1,373,382 in the city proper, and about 2 million in total when including the suburbs located in the Pool Region. The populous city of Kinshasa (more than 10 million inhabitants in 2009), capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lies just across the Congo River from Brazzaville. Together with Kinshasa, the combined conurbation of Kinshasa-Brazzaville has thus nearly 12 million inhabitants (although significant political and infrastructure challenges prevent the two cities from functioning with any meaningful connection). Over a third of the population of the Republic of Congo lives in the capital, and it is home to 40% of non-agricultural employment. It is also a financial and administrative capital.

Guinness: Sapeurs in their finery walk among the cattle

The ‘Sapeurs’ is a group of men from Brazzaville who have a deep-rooted pride in their aspirational culture. Their lives are not defined by occupation or wealth, but by respect, a moral code and a desire to inspire others through their style and attitude.


They are Congolese everymen/women —taxi drivers, carpenters, gravediggers—who believe in the uplifting, redeeming, beatifying effect of dressing well. European-style suits tailored to fit, complemented by bold pocket squares and textured ties, accessorized with Holmesian pipes and elegant hats. They spend their hard-earned cash on crocodile shoes, British sport coats, handmade Italian ties. As one Sapeur puts it, they do this because these clothes lifts them up and make them the men they wanted to be. Sapeurs take their name from the acronym for their group: SAPE, meaning Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. Ambianceur is a neologism coined in francophone Africa, which means persons who create ambience—atmosphere-makers, if you will.


They wear British ensembles, green-and-blue-plaid pants, a complementing silk plaid vest, tall green hat and wide yellow tie knotted large and tacked high, with a striped jacket that picks up a little of all these colors. Alain Akouala Atipault, a powerful government minister, “The Sapeurs can only exist in peacetime,” Atipault told me. “To me they’re a sign of better things: stability, tranquility. They indicate that our nation is returning to normal life after years of civil war.”


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