The Makings of a Sapeur

Styles of Resistance

The Kinshasa fashion aesthetic does not merely serve the function of covering the body but also pays homage to the joy of the eye. It was inspired by the black working class who found themselves in the lavish households of their colonial superiors. The poor suddenly had access to the luxurious brands of their oppressors. This cross of fate between colonizers and colonized gave birth to a calibre of man who chose to see himself as above average. Most of them had been paid in trinkets and / or items of clothing for their work. Now, they had access to the white man’s world through servitude. They formed a class of their own. Their demeaning status became a platform on which they could mould their identities. Using the very tools given to them (second-hand clothing from their oppressive masters) they killed the racist trope of the ‘naked dirty savage’, declaring themselves as more than what met the colonizers eye, just through the use of fabric. It is not what they were given but what they did with what they found themselves handed. The transcendence of man above his dire circumstances is the essence of what makes one stylish.

What, I found, separates fashion in Kinshasa from fashion in the West is the creativity that is born from lack. The excellence that one has to acquire in order to make do with what one has can be seen in the style and sense of godliness the members of Kinshasa’s fashion elite exude as they walk down the streets of their otherwise contrasting environment. When your environment is hostile, Sapology insists that you take some fabric, look flash and continue to resist. Fashion consciousness always starts with the acknowledgement of one’s identity; how the world perceives you versus how you would like to be perceived. Class has always been an important factor regarding who gets to wear what. It is easy, really. Rich people wear diamonds. Poor people wear sacks. Being “civilized” is also communicated through clothing. Savages wear nothing. Civilized people wear clothes. This lens that we are all socialized to absorb the world through tells us who is who and departmentalizes everyone in our minds according to who deserves space and time. If a gentleman in a suit stops you to ask for the time, you are socialized to stop and help him. If a gentleman with tattered clothes stops you to ask for a dime, you are socialized to ignore him. These unconscious biases inform how most people walk through the world. For the black working class of Kinshasa this bias was barred by the creativity of second-hand clothing and a hunger to become more than what they are handed.

For me (a budding fashionista), growing up in an environment that does not have the resources to nurture a luxury such as having tailored garments made for you, rather than preventing a perceived style adds an element of conflict that is eventually realized through creativity. The man selling fashion on the street and the tailor in your back-house become the buyers and stylists that the wealthier people can afford. They become an important part of the process of gaining access to sought-after western labels. With a lack of funds and a hostile environment, the counterfeit market also plays an important role in what makes your style. Most of Kinshasa’s lovers of cloth live below the breadline. This leaves the responsibility of access to counterfeiters and local tailors who can replicate the style of western brands. This creativity is weaved into the journey of sacrifices a Sapeur has to make in order to look his part in the world. It is the performance of a poor man to confuse class by looking like his wealthier counterparts—a form of confrontation through conformation. If people cannot tell your class or background simply by looking at you, the way you move through the world changes. People put prefixes before your name. You walk differently. You look like you belong in all the spaces reserved for the upper classes.

White Frenchmen used fashion as a tool to exploit Congolese people for cheap labour and the fact that this tool that was used to exploit is being used to kill the capital of white Frenchmen is an ironic twist. Most western fashion brand labels are trademarked and hard to legally replicate. Having access to the wardrobes of their repressive masters changed this dramatically. The working class saw a hole in the market and filled it with counterfeit goods from China. Most western brands moved production to China due to cheaper costs. The search for cheap labour and resources is what made the leak in the production line. The greed for profits and high mark-ups fostered an environment where counterfeit products could enter the market without scrutiny because they came from the same place as the originals. Buying and consuming ”illegal” fashion has becomes an illegal operation, with designers using the law to crack down on counterfeiters. The trademark imposed on fashion consumers, however, lies only in the branding and not in the actual cut of the sewing pattern. Which means designers cannot patent patterns but can put out a pattern with their branding on it and that cannot be replicated. There is a lot of innovation and creativity involved in making ”knock-offs” and counterfeits. The trick is to make it look as similar as possible without branding it as the original. This loophole and the inability for fashion designers to successfully persecute individual offenders make access to fashion a little easier for those who want high fashion at a street price. Under these circumstances Kinshasa’s fashion gods could be defined as people who are willing to pay the ultimate price for their fashion.