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June 27, 2017

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DR Congo dandies flaunt their 'fashion'

KINSHASA-The finishing touches on their flamboyant outfits may be wanting but the Democratic Republic of Congo's modern-day dandies will even use paper to make themselves look special.

"I love the clothes of Japanese and other designers but I'd rather dress in paper," said Cedrick Mbengi.

The 23-year-old is a dedicated follower of the "sapeurs," a sartorial subculture of colorful Congo dandies inspired by — but not always faithful to — the world's great couturiers.

For Mbengi, paper was revealed to him as a "fabric like any other" in a dream in 2004 and he crafts his outfits with a variety normally used to wrap up fish, meat or peanuts.

But what sets him apart from competitors is his finale at "sapeur" fashion shows: he rips off his "clothes" and has no problem standing there in his — cotton — underwear.

The SAPE — the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes, which loosely translates as the Society of Tastemakers, or Atmosphere Setters and Elegant People — was born in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville in the 1960s.

But the roots of the African dandy tradition can be traced back to colonial times when locals first encountered elegant European styles.

The "sapeurs" initial idea was to sport clothes, shoes and accessories designed by the world's most venerated couturiers, the likes of Gaultier, Vuitton, Cerruti, Versace, Yamamoto, Miyake, Weston and Dolce&Gabbana.

But the dandies in the DR Congo have gone decidedly eccentric.

'Clothes are living creatures'

In the capital Kinshasa, where many of the 10 million residents earn barely enough to survive, thousands of confirmed or would-be "sapeurs" strut their stuff in hand-me-downs that often came from the Congolese diaspora, according to the artists' collective Sadi.

But many expats are also struggling financially and can no longer fund the tastes of those back home, said art historian Lydia Nsambayi of the ISAM institute for applied arts in Kinshasa.

"So when the 'sapeurs' realised they could not maintain their lifestyle, they bought the brands in thrift shops or mixed their own creations with Yamamoto, for example."

Some turned to ready-to-wear, such as Spain's successful clothing and accessories retailer Zara.

Others created their own line, like Mbengi with his "100% Paper" brand or Bwapwa Kumeso, who in 2009 created "Kadhitoza," or "The Beautiful Creature" in the language of the Chokwe ethnic group which is spoken in the country's south.

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