Suits you, Sir
Commercial feature A new film by Guinness will bring the Sapeurs of the Congo to a global audience
Director, Documentary: Hector Mediavilla
A man in a suit and tie usually signifies conformity. However, in the hot and dusty streets of Brazzaville, you’d look twice at a tailored three-piece, never mind a pair of alligator loafers and pork pie hat.
You’d be looking at a Sapeur, part of a sartorial league of ordinary Congolese gentlemen (and some women) who use clothes to denote creativity, independence and integrity.
The Sapeurs are members of a sub-culture that takes its name from the acronym SAPE: the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes.
‘Ambianceur’ is a French-African word roughly translated as ‘tone-setter’ or ‘ambience-maker’. In Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, the Sapeurs strive through elegant tailoring to reimagine the ambience of streets that have seen better times.
It’s not just about appearance but spirit and outlook. For this reason the Sapeurs have been chosen by Guinness as part of its latest TV advertising campaign, showcasing ordinary people from around the world, who choose to act with extraordinary integrity and character.
Héctor Mediavilla’s short film, The Men Inside the Suits, features the Sapeurs as they move around the low-rise, improvised streets of Brazzaville. Intricate footwork and twirling
canes are central to the repertoire, as are impeccable manners and bonhomie.
“A Sapeur respects people, and a Sapeur is polite, not vulgar,” says Ferolle, a policeman who features in Mediavilla‘s film dressed in an outfit inspired, he says, by Prince Charles. “I don’t see how a person who is well-dressed in the SAPE way could be violent or fight. It doesn’t go with SAPE.”
The Sapeurs have attracted the attention of artists and photographers before, but as part of the Guinness ‘Made of More’ series Mediavilla’s film featured in the new Guinness TV ad is set to take SAPE to a much wider audience. The most recent in the series, documenting a wheelchair basketball team in action, attracted more than five million YouTube hits.
Mediavilla’s film depicts a committed group of modern-day dandies who regard appearance as a profound expression of personal philosophy. The movement dates back to the 1920s when Congolese students who left Africa to study in Europe returned wearing the styles of Paris, Milan and London. The first Sapeur was Congolese politician and religious leader Grenard André Matsoua.
When, in the 1960s and 70s, President Mobuto banned the wearing of European clothes in favour of traditional attire, SAPE emerged again as a counter culture. There’s a political vein running through the evolution of SAPE, but it would be incorrect to describe these men as political activists. To the Sapeurs, labels matter but resourcefulness underpins the SAPE way of life, with local retailoring and constant swapping and mending a bigger part of the culture. The clothes bring joy to them and those around them.
Sapeurs meet regularly to play peacock and parade theatrically. When journalist Tom Downey visited Brazzaville in 2011 to write about the Sapeurs for the Wall Street Journal, he observed that “when men dress as Sapeurs they become different people. Their gait, their gestures, and their manner of speaking are all transformed. The clothes are the gateway into a whole other way of being in the world.”
Watch "Sapeurs - A Short Documentary by GUINNESS" below.
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