Decades ago, the Congolese rumba king popularized a glamorous style that has remained relevant today.
Often in the posthumous rush to exalt dearly departed cultural icons, sweeping claims are made for creative influences they are said to have exerted, assertions not always supported by fact. Was David Bowie truly a pioneer of gender-blur in fashion or, rather, a shrewdly adaptive interpreter of what was already in the air? Did a vogue for stick-and-poke tattoos and girl-group cat’s eye makeup predate Amy Winehouse’s success or follow on her tragic death? And, sartorially, Prince may have been a sexually polyvalent version of Iceberg Slim — all slick suits, frilly jabots, stilettos and shades — but he was sui generis, a trend of one. With some performers, though, it’s easier to draw vectors directly from an onstage persona to its effect on the style world. And that is surely the case with the magnetic Congolese musician Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba, or Papa Wemba, who died April 24 after collapsing onstage during a concert in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan. Throughout a career spanning decades, Papa Wemba remained among the most persuasive global proponents of African music. Singing in his supple, piquant tenor, he transmitted the propulsive hybrid originally known as Congolese rumba (later, soukous) far beyond the boundaries of Africa. Yet if most obituaries rightly focused on Papa Wemba’s music, few failed to note his singular role as style muse and nominal leader of SAPE, a loosely federated cult of fanatically natty Congolese dandies known as “sapeurs,” whose acronym in English translates as the Society of Poseurs and Persons of Elegance. Photo The fall 2015 collection from Junya Watanabe was deeply influenced by the “sapeur” look. Credit Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Based in Brazzaville, the shantytown capital of the Republic of Congo, the sapeurs have long performed a deft act of reverse colonization, appropriating the elegant duds and status markers of European high style to disport themselves through the dusty city in all their finery. Dressed in costly designer labels, kilts and sporrans, suits with short pants, Savile Row tailoring accessorized with bowlers or ebony canes, they parodied the structures of class even as they demonstrated adherence to a way of life few in one of the world’s most impoverished countries will ever know. And, like members of American voguing houses, they provided enduring inspiration to people like the Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, who not only based his fall 2015 men’s wear collection on the sapeurs, but also imported some of the movement’s most prominent members to walk in his Paris show. NYT Living Newsletter Get lifestyle news from the Style, Travel and Food sections, from the latest trends to news you can use. The sapeurs who appeared in Solange Knowles’s 2012 “Losing You” video came close to upstaging the singer with their saucy antics, and numberless fashion magazines have featured editorials about them or the extreme styles they propose. Lovingly name-checking Armani, Daniel Hechter, J.M. Weston and others designers and labels in his lyrics, Papa Wemba and his followers also stood as an enduring emblem of one of fashion’s most punk dimensions, the ability to be political. Back in the days when Papa Wemba and his band started out, the repressive regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, banned the wearing of Western suits in an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to eradicate colonial influence under a program he termed “authenticité.” Flouting the ban, those who held true to the style popularized by Papa Wemba risked public beatings by wearing their glad rags anyway, demonstrating that creative authenticity knows no uniform.