In Paris, in the neighborhoods of Château Rouge and Château d’Eau, from Simplon to the banlieue, one can notice chic looking Africans parading in Tommy Mugler suits and shod with John Lobb. They are the ambassadors of “la S.A.P.E” – La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. Most of them come from the popular Congolese youth, left secondary school early, and form clubs in which they shine in designer suits and wear an assortment of outfits and accessories. Their ultimate goal is to look like “fine gentlemen”. Their community evolves on the fringes of Congolese and French societal norms, defining itself as a separate caste perceived in variable ways.
Although he belongs to a determined milieu, a sapeur refuses to be confined to it. He constantly pushes the boundaries and acts as an electron that is free of social space. Through appropriation of the distinctive signs of the upper classes, sapeurs aspire to an overcoming of caste monopolies and carry out, consciously or not, a collective struggle eminently political. The sapeur’s costume becomes the instrument of emancipation, a tool of self-determination. It is also because it is constituted as a response to an attempt of assimilation that la Sape engages with issues of identity, freedom and self-representation that are far from superficial.