(From Solange Knowles' 'Losing You' video)
"I could use that money to help with the war that is happening in the East," Papa Griffes, a self-proclaimed Sapeur—a member of Les Sapeurs, a group of men in the Congo who dress as dandies—told CNN, "but [they're] so expensive it might hurt people's feelings."
In the Congo, the second-largest country in Africa with the lowest nominal GDP per capita in the world, making its citizens among the poorest on earth, a group of men—dedicated followers of fashion—have banded together, bonded over their mutual love of designer labels. From Gucci to Dior and even Yohji Yamamoto, Les Sapeurs have the Congolese luxury market cornered.
The war-torn country, which has, by some estimates, lost upwards of 5 million people as a result of ongoing violence and armed conflict, may not be a place where you'd imagine high fashion flourishes. But, according to the CNN report, the look was first popularized by the singer Papa Wemba and his band Viva La Musica.
Papa Wemba wanted to challenge the status quo—not vocally, but visually. So he devised the acronym SAPE, roughly translated from French to mean "the Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People." By dressing up his band in the SAPE style, the adoring Congoloese crowds soon followed suit—literally.As for Griffes and his band of eight Sapeurs—who all live in Kinshasa—they meet once a week at his shoe repair shop before going out together, dressed in their finest—and sometimes wearing suits that may cost $5,000.
"It's the fetishization of fashion—they are worshippers of fashion, it's their god, it's powerful," Didier Gondola, author of History of the Congo, told CNN earlier this year. Gondola also explained that Sapeurs aren't necessarily wealthy—"they typically work menial jobs, and have been known to resort to shoplifting to feed their addiction to apparel," CNN reports.
Check out more information on Les Sapeurs over on CNN—today's story, "The Fashion Cult Cut From a Different Cloth," profiles Papa Griffes, and a story from earlier this year, "Dedicated Followers of Fashion: Congo's Designer Dandies," profiles the group.
Last month, Solange Knowles featured members of Les Sapeurs in the video for her new single, "Losing You." Check it out here: