A Thrilling Commercial Featuring the Best-Dressed Men in Central Africa

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Jan. 14 2014 1:10 PM

Meet the Sapeurs

Congo’s Sapeurs are having something of a global cultural movement. In addition to a flurry of press coverage and magazine features over the last few years, these distinctive dandies have hit the mainstream with appearances in a music video by Solange Knowles and now the Guinness advertisement above. The company has also released the mini-documentary below to accompany the campaign:

In Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, and neighboring Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sapeurs are working-class men with a single-minded devotion to elegant, retro European fashion and high-priced brand names—particularly brightly colored suits, hats, and pocket squares.

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The name comes from the acronym SAPE, for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. (An ambienceur is a local neologism for “one who creates ambience.”) Depending on which article you read, the style either dates back to Congolese students who returned home from Paris with the new wardrobes in the 1950s, or to rumba musicians in the 1970s.

On the DRC side of the river, the Sapeur movement took on a political edge under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, when Western-style suits were banned. (As rumba musician and Sapeur godfather Papa Wemba put it, "White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it.") Today, Sapeur gatherings often involve competitions between gangs with names like “The English” and “The 1000 years war.” There are a number of rules for dressing, including wearing no more than three colors at a time.

Guinness’s marketing pitch about individuality aside, it’s certainly easy to be cynical about factory workers and electricians in two of the poorest cities on the planet dropping more than $1,000 on crocodile shoes rather than more immediate priorities. (Neither the ad nor the documentary seems to feature these guys’ wives or children.)

But all the same, Sapeur style is certainly a uniquely Congolese cultural innovation. And given how little the outside world sees of the two Congos other than poverty and violence and, more broadly, how rarely African cultural movements permeate the Western mainstream, the Sapeurs' global moment is a welcome one.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.