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In Congo, designer cheek

An over-the-top fashion addiction is nothing new among the impoverished nation's men. But now even the pioneers recoil at what they've created.

November 28, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

Kinshasa, Congo — HE struts down the muddy, trash-strewn alley like a model on a catwalk, relishing the stares and double-takes from passersby.

In a country where many survive on 30 cents a day, Papy Mosengo is flashing $1,000 worth of designer clothing on his back, from the Dolce & Gabbana cap and Versace stretch shirt to his spotless white Gucci loafers.

"It makes me feel so good to dress this way," the 30-year-old said when asked about such conspicuous consumption in a city beset by unemployment, crime and homelessness. "It makes me feel special."

But Mosengo can scarcely afford this passion for fashion. He worked eight months at his part-time job at a money-exchange shop to earn enough for the single outfit, one of 30 he owns, so he'll never have to wear the same one twice in a month.

He doesn't own a car. He lets an ex-girlfriend support their

5-year-old son and still lives with his parents, sleeping in a dingy, blue-walled bedroom that is more aptly described as a closet with a mattress.

Friends, family and his new girlfriend implore Mosengo to stop pouring all his money into clothes and liquidate the closet.

"Man, we could buy a house with the money," said Dirango Mubiala, his clothing dealer, estimating that Mosengo spends $400 a month.

Mosengo won't budge. "This is just what I am," he said from behind a pair of oversized white Gucci sunglasses. "I'm a Sape."

Mosengo is part of a fashion cult born decades ago in this Central African nation, its name drawn from French slang for clothes.

Before bling and ghetto fabulous, before the dawn of the metrosexual, Congolese men have been pushing the limits of outlandish fashion and heterosexual male vanity, roaming the streets like walking advertisements for the world's top labels. These fashionistas were donning fur coats and gaudy jewels as early as the 1970s, when American hip-hop star Sean Combs was still accessorizing with a grade-school lunchbox.

"The white man may have invented clothes, but we turned it into an art," said Congolese musician King Kester Emeneya, who helped popularize the Sape movement with the legendary Papa Wemba, who is often called the pope of the Sapes. Emulated and admired by a generation of African musicians, Wemba once called fashion his religion, advising devotees that what they wore was more important than school.

Some saw the movement, which dubbed itself the Society for Leisure Lovers and Elegant Persons, as a rebellion against former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whose patriotic programs included renaming the former Belgian colony Zaire and replacing European fashion imports, such as suits and ties, with traditional African garb.

Wemba laughed off any political motivations.

"It was never about that," he said recently. "It was just about looking good."

His cult survived years of conflict and economic devastation in Congo.

After Mobutu was chased away by rebels in 1997, the country, renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, endured nearly five years of civil war and invasion by neighboring countries. An estimated 4 million died of hunger and disease, which continue to beset parts of the northeast. International leaders hope last month's presidential election -- the first democratic ballot in more than 40 years -- will jump-start the rebuilding process.

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AS the Sape movement has endured among a tightknit group of musicians and well-off businessmen, it also has inspired, for better or worse, a new generation coming of age amid violence, poverty and uncertainty.

On a recent Saturday night along the main drag of Kinshasa's Bandal district, a small gang of young men sipped warm beer, watching the crowd watch them.

Most are twentysomething and unemployed, their only money coming from dealing cocaine, opium and marijuana.

There's little question where the money goes. They ticked off their designers like actors on the red carpet. Yves Saint Laurent. Jean Paul Gauthier. Thierry Mugler.

One wore his leather Versace coat inside out to show off the label.

It made little difference to them that they sat at a grubby plastic table near an open sewer line. A blackout had cut electricity in the neighborhood, leaving them and their clothes visible only by the headlights of passing cars. Reared in an era that has offered them little hope or opportunity, they said they draw their identities and self-worth from what they wear.

"When I dress this way, and sit here with a beer, no one can touch me," said Patou Coucha, 29, in a tomato-red Paul Smith suit with thigh-length coat. It took him a month of selling cocaine to raise $1,500 for the outfit, which was bought secondhand by a friend in Europe. "I don't hear anybody else. I do what I want."

Japanese designers are the hottest right now, they said. Yamamoto and Miyake. They pooh-poohed American rappers and hip-hop stars for copying their style.

"They don't really know how to dress," said Dede Forme, 27, wearing red Dolce & Gabbana pants and a matching sailor shirt. "We're the one setting the tone."

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