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To ease the struggles of their daily lives, the sapeurs of Congo look at their labels

Among crumbling buildings and dirt roads in Congo's capital Kinshasa, "sapeurs" sport labels from Gaultier, Cavalli, Versace, Mikaye and Dolce & Gabanna. Despite difficult living conditions, these devotees of high fashion often put what little money they have toward their look.

Being a sapeur often involves competitions among fashion gangs that adopt names such as "The English" and "1000 Years' War," and on this day Luzolo and others were preparing for a fashion smackdown with rivals from the neighboring capital of Brazzaville, across the river in Congo Republic.

"Glasses -- Gabbana! Shirt -- Cavalli! This is very expensive!" shouted Matondo, whose nom de guerre is "The Chinese from China."

Kindingo, who has a slight lisp and calls himself "Mzee," an honorific usually reserved for the elderly, noted that his kilt is "sold in three shops in all the world -- Paris, England and Japan."

There are wealthy sapeurs -- singers with money and diamond dealers -- and many have girlfriends who bemoan their spending habits. But most are like this group, who at the end of their strutting borrowed money for bus rides to their homes across Kinshasa, a capital so neglected it appears to have been bombed and left to decay, its ruins smothered in weeds.

Luzolo is an engineering student who sells DVDs for a living and resides behind crumbling storefronts with wishful names like Boutique Oasis and Casablanca. His two-room apartment has no running water or power, and he sleeps on a floor mat. But a black Dolce & Gabbana suit hangs on the cracked walls of Luzolo's bedroom.

His relatives in Paris and Brussels send him clothes, he said. Otherwise, he rummages for outfits at roadside markets, or borrows from other sapeurs, a business known as "mining."

Luzolo opened a suitcase and pulled out a long, black Yohji Yamamoto trench coat with various zippers and buckles. "This is brutal," he said, brightening. "This is the thing that I will fight with."

He tossed it on, swirled and posed, explaining that when he wears such clothes, another persona takes over.

"It's like a spirit that comes in me," he said. "I have no shame. I feel there is no one above me."

Especially outside Kinshasa, many Congolese view sapeurs as frivolous. But in the poorest enclaves of the capital, sapeurs are often treated like rock stars.

As Kindingo strutted through his neighborhood across town, children popped out from behind barbed-wired gates. "Mzee!" they yelled. "Master! There he is!"

Walking along the dirt road in his kilt, Kindingo came upon an old, beaten-down wooden cart. "Move this chariot!" he commanded, then slipped behind the iron gates of the house where he lives with his father.

Kindingo bounded through a barren living room, where a large Michael Jackson poster hung on the wall, and into his room, a closet-size space that appeared to double as a kitchen. He looked in a suitcase for a Jackson outfit, which he did not find, clarifying that the clothes were "not sent by him, but they're in the same style."

Kindingo pulled out his favorite outfit, a pair of black palazzo pants with a bustier top, and put them on without a shirt. "I just wear it like this," he said, walking back outside.

Speaking of his future, Kindingo said that someday he'd like to model in Europe, or teach at a place he called "The University for the Development of Sape."

"Presently, it's not created physically," he added. "But when we sapes meet, we talk about it."

Then he spoke about his life. He has no job prospects. His father earns a pension of $20 a month. "Life is difficult," Kindingo said. "Life is bad. Eating is a problem. But when you dress, people admire you. It gives you honor."

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