The Surprising Sartorial Culture Of Congolese 'Sapeurs' : The Picture Show In a poor city in a poor country on a poor continent, there is a group of people with a singular purpose: to look good.

The Surprising Sartorial Culture Of Congolese 'Sapeurs'

In a poor city in a poor country on a poor continent, there is a group of people with a singular purpose: to look rich.

Or, rather, to look good — and to fully embody the suave, elegant style that a wardrobe of three-piece suits, silk socks, fedoras and canes might suggest.

They are called sapeurs or members of the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People). And when they go out, they turn the streets of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, into a fashion runway.

The sapeur style began as one of emulation.

"At the beginning of the 20th century, when the French arrived in Congo, the myth of the Parisian elegance was born among the youth of the Bakongo ethnic group," says Spanish photographer Hector Mediavilla, who began documenting the SAPE in 2003 and whose work is on view at the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Ore., until June 2.

Congolese men who worked for the French colonizers, or who spent time in France, began adopting that country's sartorial elegance and aristocratic affect.

Fast forward to present-day Brazzaville, where today's sapeurs drop big money on slick garb — a pair of crocodile shoes can cost between 1,000 euros ($1,300) and 3,000 euros ($3,900) according to Mediavilla — and cultivate an air of refined gentility amid their war-torn country's severe poverty.

According to the World Bank, 46.5 percent of Congolese live at or below the national poverty line. The country's per capita gross national income is $3,240, according to the World Health Organization — enough for one pair of crocodile shoes.

"For some [sapeurs] it is an obsession," says Mediavilla, who says the men he met work as electricians, in small shops or as marketing agents for fashion boutiques — hardly professions that support haute couture. "But they can also get [things] secondhand or buy from a friend, because not everyone is ready to spend such an amount of money on their clothes."

But it's not all about the conspicuous consumerism.

"Creativity is very important," says Mediavilla. "It's not only about spending a lot of money on the clothes, but also the way they speak, the way they move. ... It's a way of presenting their lives and being somebody in a society that doesn't give you many opportunities. ... It's about [being] confident in oneself despite the circumstances."

Sapeurs are also pacifists, says Mediavilla: "You have to be respectful to others. You cannot be aggressive."

Still, it's tempting to see the sapeurs' aspirational style as part of a legacy of cultural imperialism, a post-colonial legacy.

But Mediavilla invokes a phrase common among sapeurs — and one that is attributed to Papa Wemba, a rumba musician from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who popularized the culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s: "White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it."