By Stephanie McCrummen
Thursday, March 11, 2010; A01
KINSHASA, CONGO -- This vast central African nation is known for many things: the massive corruption of the late leopard-hat-wearing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, grinding poverty, a devastating conflict in the east. But it is worth noting that Congo is also home to a formidable cult of high fashion, as demonstrated by the scene at a rickety, sheet-iron pool hall here one recent Sunday.
It was a lackluster afternoon until a shiny maroon Mercedes pulled up, delivering a group of young men in clouds of cologne and ensembles of Gaultier, Cavalli and Issey Miyake.
"Labels! Labels!" yelled one of the pool players. "Show us the labels!"
"Versace!" answered Ukonda Pangi, 22, pointing to a rhinestone buckle as he strutted about like Mick Jagger. "Look! Look at this belt! That's Versace!"
Congo's fashion devotees call themselves "sapeurs," and at the moment, a group of them are attempting to revive a movement that has been in some decline in recent years, perhaps not coincidentally along with Congo itself.
Last month, the men paraded in their best Guccis and Yamamotos to the grave of one of Congo's most famous sapeurs, laid flowers and declared a World Day of Sape. Their hope: to promote Congo's contributions to what people here call "the art of wearing," which is experiencing a rebirth in a country devastated by war and poverty.
"Clothing -- it's an important science in this human life on Earth," began the sapeur known as Papa Griffe. "It gives a person value."
Stories about the movement's origins vary, but the word "sapeur" comes from the French slang for clothes. Many trace the quasi-religious cult to a rebellion against the repression of Mobutu, who banned Western dress in favor of a dreary, Maoist-style number called the abacost. In the late 1970s, famed rumba singers such as Papa Wemba developed a following by challenging those edicts with a flair for haute-couture spectacle that rivaled Cher.
This was partly a marketing ploy. But as the country sank deeper into ruin and war, being a sapeur became a grandiose escape, a way of transforming broken-down sidewalks into so many floodlighted runways, and a jobless 18-year-old into a persona of his own choosing.
"I am," began Yannick Kindingo, who wore what looked like a post-modern kilt by Miyake, "the twin of the president of the republic, and of Papa Wemba. I'm a philosopher of sape."
He sat in a white plastic chair outside the bar, near a smog-sickened palm tree and an open sewer. As the sun set, his colleagues, who had just come from filming a commercial, struck theatrical poses. Guy Matondo whacked the heel of his shoe with a golf club to show the quality of the sole. Firenze Luzolo, 26, flashed the white label of his worn, black Y-3 suit, which appeared authentic.
"We know," Luzolo said, referring to their sense of style. "We are knowers."
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."