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‘We Make An Art of It’: Congolese Fashion Defies Stereotypes of African Poverty

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Believe it or not, one of the world’s poorest areas is home to some of the world’s most fashion-forward people. The world of haute couture has been watching Congo for a few years now, particularly the dandyish set of men who call themselves sapeurs. Members of the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People) are dapper folks living in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo, and also in Kinshasa, capital of the much larger Democratic Republic of Congo — and they look amazing.

Sapeur Severin Mouyengo by Hector Mediavilla

Severin Mouyengo has been a sapeur since the seventies. (Photo via Hector Mediavilla)

The two French-speaking cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa are actually on opposite banks of the Congo River, almost directly across from one another. In both cities, working-class men scrimp and bargain to buy clothes. In Republic of Congo the average income is less than $6,000 per year. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the GDP is less than $1,000 per year, making it one of the world’s poorest countries. But the sapeurs use their bright colors, loud patterns, and unique combinations to contrast sharply with notions of central Africa as an impoverished, war-torn area.

Western tastemakers first noticed the Congolese through the photographs of Hector Mediavilla, who began photographing in Brazzaville in 2003. “It’s a way of presenting their lives and being somebody in a society that doesn’t give you many opportunities,” Mediavilla told NPR. “It’s about [being]confident in oneself despite the circumstances.”

Now, Vogue Italia covers Congo Fashion Week and the New York Times Style section has profiled the people of Goma, a city in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Video: Intersection | Fashion in Eastern Congo

Traditionally, Sunday is the day to look good, and men and women wear their finest clothes to Christian churches, with women parading down rocky streets in high heels and men wearing crocodile shoes that could cost as much as a year’s salary. The emphasis on fashion can be traced back to the early twentieth century when the Republic of Congo was colonized by the French and Democratic Republic of Congo was colonized by the Belgians. Now, events like Congo Fashion Week are trying to economically expand the economy of fashion in the country, an uphill battle in a far-flung region with no history of large-scale textiles manufacturing.

Back in 2012, Solange Knowles visited the region to film the video for her great single “Losing You.”

A Congolese rumba musician named Papa Wemba allegedly came up with the sapeurs’ motto: “White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it.”

(featured image: clothing by Bitshilux Mode via Facebook/Congo Fashion Week 2014)