Bukavu, DRC, August 2020.
Sapeur Chrispin Floribert Sumaili, 25, shows off his style on a street in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu this month. Raissa Karama Rwizibuka for Fondation Carmignac
Perhaps nowhere has the unwelcome pandemic accessory of the facemask been so enthusiastically embraced as by Congo’s famous “Sapeurs”, for whom the mask has become yet another layer in a rich tapestry of accessorized outfits.
La SAPE, Société des ambianceurs et personnes élégantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People), emerged under colonial rule and grew as Congolese soldiers returning from Europe after World War Two brought home the latest Parisian fashions. Styles evolved over the decades in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and across the river in neighbouring Republic of Congo, whose sapeurs were featured in an advert for Guinness.
Big societal disruptions and wars have long shaped global fashion trends. The French Revolution, for example, did away with styles associated with the old, aristocratic regime, according to fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. After World War Two, Dior introduced a new fashion for very long skirts and corset waists, Chrisman-Campbell recently told NPR. And of course, coronavirus has made designer facemasks the latest mandatory fashion accessory.
This has been a boon to sapeurs, who traditionally accessorise with hats, shoes, socks, glasses, bags, pipes, ties, suspenders, canes, umbrellas, and more. The mask is just the latest piece of their fashion puzzle.
Sapeurs and their flare exist partly to entertain, but they also consider themselves symbols of emancipation from the legacy of colonial influence, creating their own self-image of the liberated Black man. It hardly matters that they rely heavily on high-end designer labels from Europe; as the late Congolese singer Papa Wemba famously put it, “White people invented the clothes, but we made an art of it.”
Bukavu’s sapeurs feel a heightened sense of relevance in the current moment as Black culture and pride is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement and the global reckoning around historical racial injustices.
“For me, la sape is like my first child,” said Delphin Kalita Mambo, 61, who goes by the name Niarcos Kalita and has five children and has been a sapeur for 30 years. “It brought joy, pride in my life no matter how difficult it is.”
With economies and businesses across the globe hit hard by the fallout from coronavirus, creative industries have been forced to adapt in innovative ways with the sapeurs being only one local example. The Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba, 29, debuted her latest collection on her Instagram using 3D models to showcase her outfits, earning her international acclaim.
Although Mvuemba is based in the United States, traditional clothing worn by Congolese women inspired her collection and she plans to return to Congo once coronavirus restrictions allow her to travel.
Bukavu’s sapeurs, meanwhile, have found a way to make a statement by turning the inconvenient facemask into something stylistically interesting. But they do more than just look cool. By applying several of their ten commandments —including “You will not give in” and “You will adopt very strict clothing and personal hygiene”— they are helping to educate people on the importance of protecting one another. And their adaptation of the facemask into a form of personal expression transforms an ugly situation into something beautiful.