Before meeting the Sapeurs in 2003, I had never really been interested in fashion per se. As a film maker, photogapher and visual storyteller, I was fond of real people's stories that revealed the complexity of our world.
The first time I met the Sapeurs was in 2003, when I was in the Republic of Congo's capital Brazzaville, in the Bacongo neighbourhood, in La Detente terrace bar. It was a Sunday evening.
It was about six o'clock when, suddenly, there was a commotion amongst the drinkers. I moved closer to the entrance door and saw a group of six gentlemen dressed in a very unusual but elegant way; they were walking in a way that seemed to have been taken straight from the catwalk at a fashion show.
They were wearing dark suits, some had hats and some were carrying a cane; they were all wearing glasses, either sunglasses or spectacles. From time to time, they would move in a slick way, as the group surrounding them applauded and shouted in Lari, a local language, that I was unable to understand but could only be interpreted as sounds of joy.
That same evening, I met Lamame, an Old Parisian, who immediately stood out with an eye-patch and a black leather glove on one hand. He would later become one of the stars of a nationwide ad campaign.
When the Sapeurs entered the premises under the watchful yet discreet gaze of the customers, they walked past the performing band, sat at the bar, and ordered beer and softdrinks. Shortly afterwards, the Sapeurs carried out peculiar yet choreographed moves: they rolled up their trousers to show their matching socks, they dried the sweat off their faces with paper tissues and cleaned their shoes repeatedly.
I wasn't quite sure what was going on, or why, but it was clear that they were the stars of an informal show, with a Congolese rumba playing in the background.
It was at this point I first became intrigued by this group of people, I started investigating and discovered that the movement known as 'La SAPE' was a traditional Congolese phenomenon with great social and anthropological richness. Photography students of mine also confirmed that these extravagant and elegant men were nothing out of the ordinary; they were a part of daily life and inherent to their culture.
It came to my attention that the Sapeurs live their life by a motto that could be heard all over Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo - "There can only be SAPE when there is peace". I was surprised that no photographers had previously been interested in this. There was no in-depth work on 'La SAPE', so I decided I wanted to be the first to explore them further. Since then I have been to Brazzaville six times.
Like the Sapeur Severin says, "To dress in the Sape fashion sense is of course a way of being alive. We look out for each other and no one is allowed to fight. In fact, I would like the Sape to be effectively a vaccination for peace."
'La SAPE' is a fascinating reality. It is about a heritage from the past that is reinterpreted in a unique way. The Sapeurs is a group of people who, despite their humble lives, show their true character in an inspirational display of flair, style and creativity. Their deep-rooted pride and philosophy of "joie de vivre", inspires others to believe that in life the more you put in, the more you get out.
When I was asked to direct a short documentary about the Sapeurs for Guinness, I didn't have to think twice. It was a great opportunity to spread the word about this group of extraordinary people. At the same time, I was also sure that the Sapeurs, my friends for the last ten years, would be very happy to be stars of the new ad and my documentary... and they really are!
To view my documentary on the 'Sapeurs' and learn more about their lifestyle visit www.guinness.com