Africa's fashionable gentlemen want to change attitudes

Jocelyn Armel at his boutique in Paris. Armel claims to be the first Congolese man to create his own fashion label called Connivences. (AFP)

An hour late, Jocelyn Armel swaggers in to his men's clothing boutique in Paris in three-piece black suit, black felt miller hat and shiny black patent lace-ups.

Lifting his hat and giving a bow, he introduces himself as "Le Bachelor" – a nickname, he says, he picked up as a young man because of his dandy image.

Armel, who claims to be the first Congolese man to create his own fashion label, Connivences, is a member of a society known as "La Sape" – a French acronym for "Society of Revellers and Elegant People".

"It's not just a way of dressing, it's a way of life," Armel said.

The "sapeurs", as they call themselves, revel in refinery, ready to spend their last cent on the finest men's labels in vogue to outdo each other on the dandy dress scene.

Le Bachelor glides around his store – one of two he runs in Paris – leaving behind the spicy scent of his cologne. Cobalt blue, burnt antique orange and powder lavender suits hang from the rails.

Armel adjusts everything in sight – including himself – with intense attention to detail, facing a mirror to rearrange the chiffon polka dot handkerchief nestled in his breast pocket.

The Sape society has two Congolese branches: those from Congo-Brazzaville and others from Kinshasa, capital of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

The flamboyant lives of the Kinshasa branch of Sape have featured in the media, with allegations of crime amid some members somewhat tarnishing the image of the sapeurs.

"There is a lot of criminality, petty criminality," said documentary film maker George Amponsah in a recent BBC interview. "It is a form of underworld, a kind of mafia."

But Le Bachelor says he is fighting to improve the reputation of the movement, whose main aim, he says, is to celebrate good fashion sense and an ideal of "gentlemanly" behaviour.

"We as Africans need to believe in Africa again, we need to believe that something good can come out of the continent and its people," he said.

Expensive designer clothing may seem a low priority, however, in a war-scarred nation such as Congo.

"Most people do not associate Africans with 50,000-euro (68,000-dollar) Cavalli coats," Amponsah said.

But the filmmaker, whose 2004 The Importance of Being Elegant explores the inner world of the Kinshasa Sape, insists high fashion has serious significance for Africans.

"Sapeurs have said they want to show European colonial masters they can beat them at their own game," he said.

Despite this, African fashionistas line the pockets of European designers sooner than African ones.

"Africans love designer labels," preferably expensive foreign ones, said Armel, himself proudly sporting a Paris-made Georges Rech suit.

The suits from Connivences are designed by Le Bachelor and manufactured in Italy. Aiming to put his label on the map, he last month launched an online store allowing him to sell to international customers as far away as Australia.

He is also in the initial stages of setting up shop in his home town of Brazzaville, capital of the smaller of the two Congolese nations – but says that market is hard to crack.

He points to a blue suit lined with an African fabric. "Africans will not buy it, because they do not like the fact it is lined with traditional fabric," he said.

"We have to change that attitude," he added. Some sources say the Sape movement was started in the 1960s by Congolese musician Papa Wemba, whose attire was supposedly a way to denounce the dictatorial laws of then president Mobutu Sese Seko.

But in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Papa Wemba once said his clothing was "just about looking good".

Brazzaville saw the first example of western dress in 1922 on the Congolese politician Grenard Andre Matsoua, known as the Grand Sapeur, who returned home to Brazzaville from Paris in French attire, sometimes sporting a tail coat. (AFP)

 

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