Sape: The sartorial joie de vivre

‘Where there’s peace, there’s sape.’

When considering how Africa is depicted in mainstream media it is rare we get a positive image fed to us, much less one of suggested emulation. The continent has become a humorous anecdote for reluctant consumption, formed by the ever relatable image of a berating mother frowning over a plate of runner beans: ‘think of the starving kids in Africa‘. No doubt thoughts of Africa will also recall those heart wrenching Comic Relief  films, and the easy reducible maths they like to hammer home – something like  £5 = 1 x mosquito net = a lot of good karma = an appeased conscience.

The geopolitical complexities of the land mass which contains approximately 15% of the world’s population is reduced to a rather homogenous haze centred around  concerns of ‘development’. The Africa of our collective imagination often involves a glug of emotive imagery, a dash of pity, with a pinch of collective guilt; with many claiming old colonial power relationships are merely being carried over in contemporary consumer culture. Where we Poms are often reduced to cliched images of tea-drinking and weather speculation, Africa gets skinny-ribbed children and bongo drums.

This is replicated nowhere more prevalent than advertising (just think of the dumb grin of the Senegalese cartoon for the French brand Banania).

“When  global marketers portray Africa, the goal is usually humour or pity. Rarely do brands treat Africans as cultural equals, much less as inspirational role models”- Ad Week

Therefore, when I stumbled across the new Guinness advert which has recently been making waves on the internet, I was excited to be presented with an alternative to the starving-kids motif. Instead of protruding ribs and big bambi eyes, my retinas were fed with swathes of rich fabric, shiny spangling jewels, and flashes of vibrant hues.

Guinness: Sapeurs in their finery walk among the cattle

The ad tracks the sartorial transformation of blue collared workers as they dress to the nines, parading around their villages in ostentatious outfits. Think the old colonial dandy (See: Leo di Cap in Django Unchained) goes shopping with Kanye and gets pimped out in YSL frills. This was something too good not to research.

Sapeurs – New Guiness ad (2014)

The ad is centred around the practises of a group of men in The Democratic Republic of Congo called ‘sapeurs’, who adopt their own dapper styles of dress in order to lead a peaceful existence against the turmoils of daily life. This is not just art for arts sake, but a lifestyle where personal expression and creativity are used to represent their deeper values of politeness and gentlemanly behaviour. Sape, or what The Guardian terms ‘a stylish philosophy’, is a sartorial protest that flicks a ‘bow-tied V’ to civil war and the challenges the African nation faces,where the pocket square, the cufflinks and cravat become a political statement of peaceful resistance.

While ‘Les Sapeurs’ can be traced to Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the capital cities of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the origins of the resistance movement are disputed. Some say the general term ‘Sape’ stems from an acronym – meaning the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, whereas others look to the French slang term ‘sape’ which means ‘to dress with class’. Many cite Congolese students in the 1950’s returning from studies in Paris as the pioneers of the dandy dress. Whereas others claim it was through the influence of rumba music with figures such as Papa Wemba.

However, according to Fader the movement can be specifically traced to the early 1970’s. Symbolically alluding to the break with their colonial past, President Mobutu Sese Seko officially banned the wearing of Western suits and ties in his campaign to promote a collective pro-African cultural identity in 1971.The appointment of the abacost as the official clothing of the Republic sparked sartorial dissent, and the youth movement snowballed from there.

6._mobutu

However, like everything we receive with an obvious agenda we must question the image we are being presented with by Guinness. A BBC article questions the truthful depiction of true sapeur life in the advert, concerns which are equally mirrored by Slate:

Guinness’s marketing pitch about individuality aside, it’s certainly easy to be cynical about factory workers and electricians in two of the poorest cities on the planet dropping more than $1,000 on crocodile shoes rather than more immediate priorities. (Neither the ad nor the documentary seems to feature these guys’ wives or children.) – Slate.com

However, despite these cynical echoes, both sources still agree that the ad is a success, and provides a refreshing change in the how African culture is depicted in the mass media. 

“They’re Congolese everymen—taxi drivers, carpenters, gravediggers—assembled …because they’re what locals call Sapeurs, men who believe in the uplifting, redeeming, beatifying effect of dressing well.” – Wall Street Journal (2011)

So how does a brand of Irish Stout Beer hope to sell to consumers by showing a Congolese game of Pimp my Nation? Guinness’ new ad is part of it’s Made for More campaign, produced by Spanish photographer Héctor Mediavilla for the market-leading ad agency AMV BBDO. While the beginning of the advert, and indeed the whole construction of the message, relies upon the familiar image of a war-torn African nation burdened with problems, it focuses on a very real and inspirational movement. The positive ethos central to the protest group provides an, albeit rather cheesy, model of emulation for anybody living anywhere in the world: In life you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are.

Check out the five-minute documentary behind the ad which is causing such a stir here:

Sapeurs – A Short Documentary by Guinness (2014)

 

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2 comments

  1. Corinne · · Reply

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