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Gentlemen of Bacongo

by Maggie York-Worth in Culture on 03 December 2009

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Photographer Daniele Tamagni's new book Gentlemen of Bacongo captures the fascinating subculture of the Congo in which men (and a few women) dress in designer and handmade suits and other luxury items. The movement, called Le Sape, combines French styles from their colonial roots and the individual's (often flamboyant) style. Le Sapeurs, as they're called, wear pink suits and D&G belts while living in the slums of this coastal African region.

In interviews with some notable sapeurs, Tamagni unearths the complex and varied rules and standards of Le Sape, short for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People. Sapeur Michel comments on the strange combination of poverty and fashion, "A Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body."

The sapeurs engage the extremes between classes while injecting their individual perspectives into the conversation, establishing an identity within the larger social narrative they've helped construct.

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This anthropological wonder combines interviews with Sapeurs along with a preface by menswear designer Paul Smith and Tamagni's anecdotes throughout. Focused on Sapeurs from Brazzaville and Kinshasa in Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tamagni's title comes from the Bakongo, an African tribe of people along the eastern shore of the continent. At just about seven-inches tall, the book's compact in size but the colors are bright, matching the outrê style of Le Sape. Tamagni outlines rules as they relate to color, as well as the proper styles of tie, the strong religious convictions and non-violent culture of Le Sape and myriad other facets of this phenomenon.

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Tamagni's photographs capture the style, the “contradictions and paradoxes" and tight-knit social networks of the Sapeurs. He highlights the proper use of cigars—"even if you don't smoke you need to light it"—the strict use of color (only three colors may be combined in an outfit), and the deep spiritual and moral roots of Le Sape. "When the sapeur expresses himself through the harmony of his clothes, he is returning his admiration to God."

Of course, the poverty and political instability of the Congo makes the profound admiration and respect for Parisian fashion all the more distinct.

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Gentlemen of Bacongo also examines the strange merging of colonial and Congolese culture. Tamagni notes Sapeur Salvador Hassan “thinks that a real sapeur needs to be cultivated and speak fluently, but also have a solid moral ethic: that means beyond the appearance and vanity of smart, expensive clothing there is the moral nobility of the individual." Says Hassan, "The label is not important, what is important is to be able to dress depending on the taste of the individual."

Purchase Gentlemen of Bacongo from Amazon or Powell's.

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