There was a time when the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People (or Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes in the original French, or SAPE for short) were the epitome of an underground subculture. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sapeurs, as they call themselves, could swagger down the streets of Kinshasa in three-piece couture suits and crocodile loafers, unmolested by the attention of the outside world. Now sapeurs have starred in documentarie, Guinness adverts, and even upstaged Beyonce's baby sister in her "Losing You" music video.
It's easy to see why the world fell in love with them. The stylish set of blue-collar workers who devote their time and money to dressing like a million dollars isn't just a feel-good story in one of the poorest countries in Africa—it epitomizes the transformative power of fashion. But the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People has also been a very male-dominated organization—until recently, that is.
In 2011, photographer Junior D. Kannah was photographing sapeurs at the Kinshasa cemetary of La Gombe on February 10, the official Day of the Sape. "The date marks the death of the founder of the Kitendi (or clothing) religion, Stervos Niarcos, who died 20 years ago in Paris and was renowned as the founder of modern sapeurism," he explains.
Every year, sapeurs congregate in their finest outfits to pay their respects to the Niarcos—also known as "the Pope"—at his grave. That's when Kannah spotted her: "I saw a single female sapeuse among many men, dressed in a shirt and black trousers and holding tailored jackets in her hand, shouting, hopping and strutting. Her courage and her looks attracted me… This was my first shot of the Queen of Sape, Mama Afrika."
Kannah went on to photograph the small but ever-growing sapeuse community in Kinshasa, and those images now form the basis for Lady Dandies of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an upcoming book and exhibition at London's Brunei Gallery. With nicknames like Queen of Uprising and Princesse de la Sape, their clothes—and their characters—are larger than life. It's in strict contrast to the criticism they sometimes endure on the streets. On one photoshoot, Kannah remembers, someone told him: "Women should engage in trade to supplement the needs of families rather than wallowing in the street like rogues."
He estimates that there is about one woman for every five sapeurs, but the number of sapeuses is on the rise "thanks to the growing confidence of Congolese women and changing attitudes in Congolese society."
"I think their style is quite extraordinary and beautiful," he says. "I see it as an expression of a yearning for individual identity that we see everywhere in the world. For sapeuses their method of exploring this identity is in their unique style of dress. They choose designers who are avant-garde or brutal: Rei Kawakubo, Versace, Roberto Cavalli, Alexander McQueen…
"In some ways," he adds, "this is expanding the boundaries of African in a fusion with the West, and in other ways it is a new African culture: It's a source of pride for Congolese youth."
Inda "The Minor" Gabie, 51, stallholder
"One is born, rather than becomes a sapeuse: it's a calling, and a gift. I've always dressed in a sharp, pointy hat to stick out from the crowd. This hat was given to me by a sapeuse friend who calls herself the Queen of England; it's by Gianni Versace who's one of my favourite designers. Today women are seen in everydomain of work in the DRC, but we still battle with some old attitudes to women. Dressing like this is my challenge to those attitudes."
Musa "'Princesse de la Sape" Umpalaba, 30, student seamstress
"I get my clothes from my big brother Kadhitoza who has his own couture line in Kinshasa, Made in Congo. I'm studying to become a seamstress at his boutique, so I can make magnificent clothes for myself that you can't buy prêt-à-porter. I have two daughters [Ketsia is pictured, aged nine] and I hope life will be easier for them, as Congolese women, when they grow up. I'd like them to become sapeuses and they sometimes let me dress them up; but they're very religious, and prefer to dress modestly. There's always time…"
Maguy "Mama Afrika" Ndumza, 33, self-described hustler
"I was inspired to become a sapeuse by the preacher [and early sapeuse] Mama Malu, who would come to our village in these wonderful suits and bright hats she'd bought in Europe. Today I order clothes from friends and family in Paris; the dark, manly suits of [Paris-based Japanese designer] Yōji Yamamoto are my favourite, and I wear my braids in yellow, purple and red as my sapeuse signature. Many men tell me I should dress like an African woman in colourful print dresses; that I will not find a husband if I dress this way. I ignore all of them."
Barbara "Queen of Uprising" Kasende, 35, fashion retailer
"Being a sapeuse is a way of life, and a talent. My brother Pi-Roger was a sapeur and as a girl I'd idolize him and the sharp suits he'd wear. My first outing as a sapeuse was on a trip to Brazzaville in 1999. I dressed in a black man's suit with dark red shoes and a red scarf: It felt wonderful. Later I became a fashion trader so I could afford my sapeuse clothes and I now belong to a Kinshasa sapeuse group called The Leopards. I love to wear men's suits by Zara and H&M, but particularly [Italian men's designer] Carlo Pignatelli. To those who say we're deranged to dress like men I say nothing; they're just the same old men who say that women should not be in the military or politics.
Kimbondo "Mama Africa Mayise" Dumbo, 36, bar owner
"Many people think the sapeuses are lesbians. Being a lesbian is a big taboo in Africa, so you have to be brave to dress this way. I work hard to get my clothes, begging shopping trips from friends who visit Europe; this scarf's by Alexander McQueen and was bought for me by my cousin Depitsho, a musician who regularly travels to Paris. To the men who complain about women in the Sape? I invite their wives to join us!"
Captions provided courtesy of Sally Howard. Lady Dandies of the DRC will run in the first floor space at The Brunei Gallery from October to December 2017 as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. For more information visit the Sapeuses page on Facebook or the Twitter hashtag #ladydandies.