Dedicated followers of fashion: Congo’s designer dandies

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"Sapeurs" are a Congolese sub-culture of dapper dressers

Despite usually working menial jobs, they wear expensive European labels

Daniele Tamagni snapped Sapeurs for his book "Gentlemen of Bacongo"

CNN  — 

Sporting only the most stylish designer labels, wearing only meticulously matched colors, the Congo’s dandies are the very embodiment of sartorial elegance.

Known as “Sapeurs,” these dapper dressers are a Congolese subculture devoted to the cult of style. In Brazzaville and Kinshasa – the capitals of neighboring Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – they stand out among the widespread poverty, strutting the streets like walking works of art.

“It’s the fetishization of fashion – they are the worshippers of fashion, it’s their god, it’s powerful,” says Didier Gondola, author of “History of the Congo,” who has extensively researched the Sapeurs.

But for the Sapeurs – who are almost always men – it’s not about what’s in vogue, it’s about style. The labels they covet most are those that evoke classic elegance.

Suits by Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and Armani are all in demand, as are Japanese labels Kenzo and Yamamoto, says Gondola. When it comes to shoes, exclusive French label Weston and British label Church’s reign supreme. And imitations will not be tolerated.

“You can lose your reputation if you are wearing imitation,” says Gondola. “That’s something blasphemous.”

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But these labels don’t come cheap. Gondola, who was born in the Congo and teaches history at Indiana University in the United States, explains that Sapeurs aren’t rich; they typically work menial jobs, and have been known to resort to shoplifting to feed their addiction to apparel. In Brazzaville, it’s common for Sapeurs to rent or borrow clothes from fellow fops or requisition them from friends visiting from Europe.

As the Congolese Diaspora has spread, so have the Sapeurs. They can now be found in European capitals including London, Brussels and Paris.

Dixy Ndalla, 30, was born and raised in Brazzaville, but has lived in London since the age of 17. He’s infatuated with the classic cuts worn by the British aristocracy and can spend £1,000 a month on new shirts and jackets.

“I am very passionate about clothing, I’m passionate about colors and suits,” he says. “In the winter it’s anything to do with tweeds, in the summertime a nice blazer, a beautiful pair of jeans, a beautiful shirt.

“I especially love Hackett, one of the top designers in the UK … Hackett suits start from around £600 and a bespoke made-to-measure will go out from £1,000 and upward.”