Cloth cult: "Why Congolese men rather starve to death than look cheap."

( posted from Guatemala / Xeni ) Photo: Héctor Mediavilla Sabaté, from this Colors feature.

Serial entrepreneur and blogger Emeka Okafor, who also happens to be organizing TED GLOBAL in Tanzania next week, points us to this blog entry about Congolese "sapeurs" by Sefu Massamba Shongo Erik aka "Papa Shongo," a Congolese blogger who lives in New York City:

Hopefully you’re already familiar with the Congolese outlandish fashion sense courtesy of Koffi Olomide (expensive designer clothes, no concern whatsoever about matching colors) and Papa Wemba to name a couple.

If you thought that fashion sense (nonsense sometimes) was limited to famous Congolese artists only, you were wrong my friend. We Congolese have been so obsessed with designer clothes and looking good that over time some of us have prioritized it to the detriment of basic needs sometimes.

If you ever thought you spent more than you could afford to support a lifestyle, wait till you meet this guy I read about in a LA Times article who reported earning about $150/month but somehow was able to afford D&G, Gucci and other obscure designer accessories. That same gentleman also owned a fur coat, in an equatorial climate mind you!

Although this may seem ridiculous to most of us, showing off (which this really is) has become a religion for a lot of “Congolais” who feel that perhaps they must live up to the hype, the expectation that all Congolese must have a high fashion sense. The phenomenon can also be observed here in the US where I’ve met someone (Charlotte, NC) who was working 3 jobs (no kidding) just so he could impress his friends and family with his Mercedes-Benz.

Read the entire post on Sefu Massamba Shongo Erik's I'm an African in New York blog.

Emeka also points us to some fascinating related items about the "cult of cloth" in Congolese culture, including a Colors Magazine feature (with amazing photos), the "Chic Theory" article in the Australian Humanities Review, and a BBC video documentary.

Image, top: "A three-and-a-half-year-old sapeur – wearing an eye patch in imitation of his uncle, the famouse K.V.V Mouzieto, a grand Sapeur who lives in paris – struts down a dusty street."

Image, inset: "‘I’M A SAPE’: Papy Mosengo, 30, lives with his parents and earns $120 a month – and spends several times that each month on clothes. (Edmund Sanders / LAT)"

Reader comment: Brett Burton says,

Just saw your Boing Boing post about the LA Times' Congolese cloth cult. It reminded me of something I recently read in Vice Magazine, so I did some googling.

On the Vice web site, they mention the recent LA Times piece and point out that they covered the Congolese scene in an article four years ago: Link.

The thing I read was in the May issue, where Vice profiled the Swenkas of South Africa. Couldn't find a link to that article, but here's one for a Swenka documentary: Link.

Ben Frazier says:

Regarding your post on the Congolese men who would rather starve than look bad – as usual, the Onion beats everyone to the punch by commenting on the phenomenon (albeit using a Westerner as the subject) in this article, which is now over seven years old: Link.
Correction: I goofed when I first posted this, and attributed the body of that "sapeur" post to Emeka Okafor -- my apologies! The prolific Mr. Okafor has so many projects going on -- TED Global, plus he authors at least two excellent blogs, and he is an African entrepreneur living in New York (from Nigeria, specifically). But he is not the author behind I'm An African In New York. Here's an interesting profile piece about his work, from The African Executive: Link.

Clarification: Many BoingBoing readers wrote in to ask if the Emeka Okafor in question is this Emeka Okafor, listed by Wikipedia as an pro NBA player. No.

Wikipedia, disambiguate thyself!