DRCongo dandies give new meaning to the phrase fashion victim
Brand fashion addicts ("sapeurs" in French) arrive to take part in a tribute to Stervos Niarcos, leader of the "Sape" movement, on Feburary 10, 2013 at the Gombe cemetery in Kinshasa - by Junior D. Kannah
"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 colourful 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 neighbouring 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.
"Our continent's animals inspire me," said the 44-year-old Kumeso, who uses lots of linen, pure new wool or oil-impregnated gabardine. "Bats, elephants, ducks, cockroaches... Clothes are living creatures."
"I love Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. But I design very extravagant clothes, more extravagant than what they do!" he said.
"I do convertible clothing whose aspect changes, so using snaps, a waistcoat can be turned into a bag, for example."
- 'All about craftsmanship' -
Every February 10, the "sapeurs" commemorate the movement's founder, artist Stervos Niarcos Ngashie who died that day in 1995 in a French prison while serving a sentence on drug-related charges.
Dozens of members sport their personal look while dancing on tombs in northern Kinshasa's Gombe cemetery, where their hero is buried.
For nothing in the world would Cedrick "100% Paper" Mbengi, who was dismissed as "crazy" when he started his business, or Bwapwa "Kadhitoza" Kumeso miss the event.
Tailor Roger Bakandowa, initially unconvinced of Mbengi's talent, is now sewing trousers, overalls, hats and shirts designed by him.
"What I find interesting in '100% Paper', 'Kadhitoza' and others is that they're looking for the personality in clothes," said Bakandowa.
Critics accuse the DR Congo sapeurs of "lacking quality", but there are signs of improvement.
"Kadhitoza" takes pride in having dressed Papa Wemba, Congolese rumba star and one of Africa's most popular musicians, and has managed to get some of his items on sale in a boutique at Kinshasa's Ndjili international airport.
"These initiatives should be encouraged," said art historian Lydia Nsambayi. "Without a proper fashion industry, it's all about craftsmanship.