“To die without having seen Paris is a sin.”
So says Jocelyn Armel (right, with boutonniére), whose life revolves around sartorial style. For this native of the Republic of the Congo, his first visit to the French fashion capital was nothing less than a sacred pilgrimage. He arrived in Paris as a teen and decided to stay, building a life for himself as a clothier.
It’s the perfect occupation for this member of la Sape (pronounced “sap”), a subculture in Africa and Europe that venerates cosmopolitan style, à la the dandies of the colonial era. The movement’s adherents, called Sapeurs, devote their lives—and often-meager incomes—to staying on the cutting edge of fashion. La Sape is an acronym for la Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes, which means “the society of ambiance makers and elegant people”; “sape” is also French slang for “attire.”
Earlier this year, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank (left), who graduated from the Clark Honors College in June with degrees in international studies and journalism and a minor in African studies, interviewed Armel and other Sapeurs.
For her thesis, Steinkopf-Frank examined la Sape, a society with roots dating to the 19th century and the French and Belgian colonists who arrived in the Congo wearing Western garments that the locals came to see as status symbols. In January, for her research, she spent three weeks in Paris and Brussels, interviewing and photographing more than a dozen Sapeurs who had left their homelands in search of a better life in the countries that colonized them. See a gallery of her photos below.
Whether they have found it depends on whom you ask. Sapeurs derive immense pride and satisfaction from stocking up on high-end designer labels—Christian Dior, Benetton, Marithé et François Girbaud—but many of them otherwise lead hardscrabble existences. Critics question the society’s priorities and note that some Sapeurs turn to petty crime to support their expensive habits.
The fashionistas’ stories illustrated to the student that a social movement is not a single entity but comprises individuals with their own experiences.
Said Steinkopf-Frank: “I realized, writing about la Sape, that it’s important to highlight the diversity of the community as well as what unifies it.”
photos by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank