While London, Paris and New York are still building up to fashion week, DRC’s own fashion event of the year took place at the end of July. It may not be up there with the likes of Milan, but Congo certainly knows fashion and I am flabbergasted on a daily basis by the commitment and creativity of the Kinois or Kinshasa population who put fashion ahead of everything.
If you have not heard of the sapeurs google it now. Sapeurs, are members of the SAPE (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes) and have emerged in Congolese diaspora communities over the past 25 years. Often read as a postcolonial take on the European dandies of the late 18th and 19th century, this group only dress in elegant sharp attire, creating flamboyant identities for themselves through their brightly coloured suits, and luxurious swagger. They were most recently featured in the Guinness TV advert. They are supposedly the epitome of the practice ‘fashion for life’, putting clothes before food and family.
This is what I thought fashion week in Kinshasa would be all about, and although they did make a (very entertaining) appearance there was much more to it than that. Kinshasa fashion week ran over a weekend with two catwalk shows and a shopping festival and the variety surprised me. I expected the outrageous pagne (African fabric) designs of the likes of Vlisco and Woodin but actually the show I attended was mostly western style clothes and accessories.
I was pleased to see that it wasn’t just for women however – the men got their chance to strut the catwalk too:
When the sapeurs appeared they definitely stole the show. Not necessarily for their fashion choices however, more for their performance. They came out one at a time walking with spasmodic movements and continued from there to shout and joke with the audience and jump around. All except one guy one stood still with his mouth open for the whole time. Unfortunately all the speech was in Lingala so I couldn’t understand it, which is perhaps why I did not laugh along with the audience and frankly found the whole thing quite bizarre but it was definitely a spectacle!
My conclusion is that Kinshasa may not be the leading African country in fashion but it is certainly the leader of the performance arts and can always put on a good show!