One of my personal favorite style books, when I’m looking for menswear inspiration is Milan based street photographer Daniele Tamagni “The Gentlemen of Bacongo.” Released in 2009, with a preface by Paul Smith, the book is filled with the most vivid images of the Sapeurs of Bacongo, a district of Brazzaville in the Congo, known as the birthplace of the Sape, the religion of elegance.
With eccentric and ever so costly fashion they state their identity. It’s essential to look good but it is just as important to live by the rules of elegance and good manners. The most important rule when dressing, for a Sapeur, is never combine more then three colors in one look. A Sapeur can enrich his look by using accessories such as his cane and cigar. Sapeurs men can vary in age, profession, personality, taste and appearance, but all belong to the “Société des Ambianceurs Personnes Elégants” also known as la SAPE.
The Sape began when the Congo was a French colony. Many Congolese people were fascinated with French elegance and decided to imitate the French look, a style which was further developed during the transition to independence. In the seventies and the eighties, many Congolese immigrants went to France, and returning to Brazzaville, brought with them “the cult of elegance”. In order to participate in this most expensive lifestyle many Sapeurs shop at second hand marketplaces and boutiques. Most Sapeurs use this lifestyle to make their lives better.
The Congo today suffers from coming out of the last war, the great African War which spilled over from the Rwanda Genocide and cost the region of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) over 5 million lives. Today the Congo, sadly, is known as the rape capital of the world, since rape has become the latest weapon in the conflict between the DRC and Angola. At least 657 cases of sexual violence against women, girls and men, have been reported by UNICEF in September and October this year alone.
With their colorful and elegant lifestyle the Sapeurs known to many in the region as celebrities, bring light and hope to a culture in distress with their uncanny ability to find joy and happiness in a dark day. Their relationship with faith is important; a true Sapeur always tries dialogue, does not hate others, and avoids conflict. Their influence and beliefs in fashion amidst such heartache and sorrow so vividly emulated by their fashion and style helps teach good manners and bring joy to the young men and women of the Congo. During a funeral or a wedding, the Sapeur gentlemen are invited because their presence “ennobles” the ceremony. On important occasions there are always numerous Sapeurs who convene, and here you can see the difference not only between the various trends but also between the true Sapeurs and the pretenders, but no one ever excludes the “ try-hards” because it would contradict the very spirit of openness and conciliation that the SAPE uphold.
All photo’s shown are by Daniele Tamagni who is an Italian art historian and a freelance photographer based in Milan and London. Much of his work is documentary. He has a great interest in African and Caribbean culture. He is a regular contributor to the bi-monthly Italian magazine ‘Africa’. http://www.photodantan.com
Daniele Tamagni’s work is currently on exhibition in New York at the MAD Museum as part of ‘The Global African Project’ through May 15, 2011. http://www.madmuseum.org
Tamagni, D. (2009) Gentlemen of Bacongo. Great Britain, Trolley Ltd This blog post was co-written by Guido Vermeulen.