The Eccentric Lifestyle of La Sape Dandies
Alice Mann’s work depicts the Congolese fashion movement as it spreads across Europe. A lifestyle trend with roots in last century's colonisation.
There’s more than style and pride in La Sape. A lifestyle trend, a philosophy based in a way of living: it sank its roots in two African cities - Kinshasa and Brazzaville - overlooking the Congo River, then spread through European capitals of fashion and business.
La Sape stands for Société des ambianceurs et des personnes elegantes (Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People), and its members are called Sapeur, French slang for "se saper," meaning "to dress with class." It stems from the French and Belgian colonialism that occupied the Democratic Republic of Congo and the neighbouring Republic of Congo. As colonialists introduced tailored clothes by European brands into the country as a bargain with African officials and a signifier of civilisation, the poor populations adopted the style as a tool of social stature.
For its adherents, "fashion transcends being something purely aesthetic; style, it’s a way to express a lifestyle," says British-South African photographer Alice Mann. She started photographing London-based members of La Sape in the summer of 2016 for her ongoing project which will also explore the movement’s ramifications in France and Belgium.
To break into Londoners’ La Sape world, Mann tapped social media but mostly attended night parties, where the eccentric outbursts of colour, fabric and pattern hypnotise. La Sape dress code typically includes three-piece tailored suits paired shiny leather shoes, but also sports and casual clothes, eccentric accessories and large felt hats. Brand labels and price tags are visibly pinned to the garments. But La Sape surpasses fashion: it’s the elegance of the demeanour, an immaculately apolitical and peaceful way of living.
Playing with the paradigms of fashion and advertising - as their boundaries blur - Mann depicts her subject in their element, stylists of their own likeness. The model is an active subject, choosing the garments, location, and often the backdrop and pose, fully expressing self-awareness and pride. As she pays homage to their creativity, Mann’s goal transcends appearances: "I’m very interested in how society projects things onto people, and how people work with certain ideas and shape them and take them into their own hands," Mann explains. "For me, these guys don’t fit into any simple definition."
Growing up in South Africa, Mann has long considered how stereotypes and representations of people are reinforced and perpetrated as well as how people create stereotypes and boundaries. As La Sape sprang from Congo and reached European cities, its significance and depth also grew. "[Its adherents] are moving but also challenging those boundaries in terms of the places they live," Mann says. With her lighthearted but thoughtful work, Mann’s exploration of representation ultimately leads viewers to re-examine "those boundaries that we want to put people in."
Alice Mann is a South African photographer whose intimate portraiture essays explore notions of picture making as an act of collaboration, presenting viewers with empowering images that highlight her subjects’ dignity and confidence. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.