You don’t expect the most extravagant fashions to be flaunted in the regions of the world which are hardest hit by severely compromised living conditions and widespread poverty. But a group in the Congo known as The Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant People, or La Sape for short, makes it their mission to defy these common expectations. The documentary short The Congo Dandies explores their commitment to maintaining an elegant quality of life that goes beyond the mere clothes they wear.
The group’s origins date back to the end of World War II as Congolese soldiers returned home and brought the influence of Parisian designer fashions with them. The traditions they inherited in the aftermath of the war continue to this day. In the earliest moments of the film, we are introduced to Maxime, a husband and father living in extremely modest conditions, who nevertheless treads through town donning an impeccably vivid red designer ensemble. His dandified appearance is carefully and lavishly cultivated; it took him nearly two years of saving before he could afford to purchase his top-of-the-line Weston brand shoes.
From the moment he steps out and makes his through his impoverished community, it becomes apparent that Maxime’s dependence on fashion represents a way of transcending the poverty which surrounds him. It infuses him with a sense of self-respect and dignity, and infects those he encounters with a feeling of pride and hope.
Maxime is just one of many residents who indulge in this expensive practice of dress up. The group hosts frequent social gatherings where they compare their ensembles with equal parts envy and admiration. For these men, the cost of their attire is tantamount to the fashion-forward reputation they seek to protect. They refuse to settle for the lower priced knock-off merchandise, because to do so would compromise the integrity of their commitment.
The Congo Dandies proves most fascinating it is portrayal of stark contrasts. These men appear as though they’ve just stepped out of a swank luxury nightclub in Paris, and yet they’re cornered in every direction by dilapidation and despair. The extravagant prices they’re willing to pay to clothe themselves is viewed as an obscenity in some circles, especially given the conditions by which their families are forced to live.