Meet the Sapeuses of Brazzaville

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Meet the Sapeuses of Brazzaville
Okili, centre, 10, struts through the neighbourhood with his mother Judith, right, and her friend. The art of the SAPE is about turning heads wherever you go. Okili has been a Sapeur for five years. He is still at school and his favourite item of clothing is his Yves Saint Laurent suit. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Okili, centre, 10, struts through the neighbourhood with his mother Judith, right, and her friend. The art of the SAPE is about turning heads wherever you go. Okili has been a Sapeur for five years. He is still at school and his favourite item of clothing is his Yves Saint Laurent suit. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo – Wearing a white linen Jean Courcel suit, a Chanel bow tie and Versace sunglasses, Ntsimba Marie Jenne would not look out of place in the front row of the Paris or London fashion weeks.

But the 52-year-old happens to be strutting her stuff in Brazzaville, the capital city of the Republic of the Congo.

She is one of the growing number of women belonging to the Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People), or SAPE.

Like their impeccably dressed male counterparts, the female Sapeuses will spend in excess of $3,000 on a suit when they do not even have running water, and go without food in order to save up for the right designer accessories.

Most have ordinary day jobs as policewomen and tailors, but as soon as they clock off, they transform. On the streets of Brazzaville, they are treated like rock stars, defying their circumstances to bring “joie de vivre” to their communities.

Spending money on ornate umbrellas and silk socks might seem surreal when almost half the country’s population lives in poverty, but the SAPE movement aims to do more than just lift the spirits. Over the decades, it has functioned as a form of colonial resistance, social activism and peaceful protest.

Charlotte, 44, has been a Sapeuse for five years. She works as a tailor to fund her lavish wardrobe, which includes Pierre Cardin suits, a Cartier watch and JM Weston shoes. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Charlotte, 44, has been a Sapeuse for five years. She works as a tailor to fund her lavish wardrobe, which includes Pierre Cardin suits, a Cartier watch and JM Weston shoes. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Celmantine, 52, has five children and she is a housewife, but for 36 years she has also been a Sapeuse. Her father was Sapeur and he gave her this pipe, made from Congolese ivory. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Celmantine, 52, has five children and she is a housewife, but for 36 years she has also been a Sapeuse. Her father was Sapeur and he gave her this pipe, made from Congolese ivory. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Michelle shelters from the intense heat in her trilby. The 32-year-old has been a Sapeuse for six years. She has one child and works at the agricultural ministry. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Michelle shelters from the intense heat in her trilby. The 32-year-old has been a Sapeuse for six years. She has one child and works at the agricultural ministry. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Edith, 47, has been a Sapeuse for decades. She now has four children and she is a housewife. She performs the SAPE greeting of stamping and showing off the lining of her jacket outside a local bar. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Edith, 47, has been a Sapeuse for decades. She now has four children and she is a housewife. She performs the SAPE greeting of stamping and showing off the lining of her jacket outside a local bar. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Ntsimba, 52, has been a Sapeuse for 20 years. She has two children and is a housewife. She wears a white linen Jean Courcel suit, Chanel bowtie, Versace glasses and JM Weston shoes. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Ntsimba, 52, has been a Sapeuse for 20 years. She has two children and is a housewife. She wears a white linen Jean Courcel suit, Chanel bowtie, Versace glasses and JM Weston shoes. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Boudimbou, 44, outside a local hairdresser.  A snack bar owner, Boudimbou has been a Sapeuse for 15 years and her favourite item of clothing is her Dakar suit. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Boudimbou, 44, outside a local hairdresser. A snack bar owner, Boudimbou has been a Sapeuse for 15 years and her favourite item of clothing is her Dakar suit. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Okili is followed through the streets by his schoolmates. Although the other children at his school wear sandals or go barefoot, Okili is wearing patent Churchill boots from London. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Okili is followed through the streets by his schoolmates. Although the other children at his school wear sandals or go barefoot, Okili is wearing patent Churchill boots from London. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Edwige, 35, stops traffic in the streets of her neighbourhood outside Brazzaville. Sapeuses say they perform something like a public service, bringing joy to everyone who sees them. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Edwige, 35, stops traffic in the streets of her neighbourhood outside Brazzaville. Sapeuses say they perform something like a public service, bringing joy to everyone who sees them. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Ntsimba, 52, has been a Sapeuse for 20 years. She has two children and is a housewife. She likes to express her style through her Jean Courcel suit, Chanel bow tie and Versace sunglasses. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Ntsimba, 52, has been a Sapeuse for 20 years. She has two children and is a housewife. She likes to express her style through her Jean Courcel suit, Chanel bow tie and Versace sunglasses. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Edith, 47, has been a Sapeuse for 36 years. She has four children and is a housewife. Her favourite item of clothing is her Pierre Cardin suit. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Edith, 47, has been a Sapeuse for 36 years. She has four children and is a housewife. Her favourite item of clothing is her Pierre Cardin suit. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Celmantine, 52, sits on a neighbour's sofa in her Next London suit and Chaps tie. Her pipe was passed down to her from her father, also a Sapeur. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Celmantine, 52, sits on a neighbour’s sofa in her Next London suit and Chaps tie. Her pipe was passed down to her from her father, also a Sapeur. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Memba, 45, returns home. She has been a Sapeuse for 20 years. She is married with two children and is a housewife. She is wearing a suit designed and created by her Sapeur husband, Maxim Pivot. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Memba, 45, returns home. She has been a Sapeuse for 20 years. She is married with two children and is a housewife. She is wearing a suit designed and created by her Sapeur husband, Maxim Pivot. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Judith, 39, sits in her lounge in a Rubens suit, Pierre Cardin bow tie and JM Weston shoes. The policewoman has been a Sapeuse for 18 years and has three children, one of whom is a 10-year-old Sapeur. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

Judith, 39, sits in her lounge in a Rubens suit, Pierre Cardin bow tie and JM Weston shoes. The policewoman has been a Sapeuse for 18 years and has three children, one of whom is a 10-year-old Sapeur. [Tariq Zaidi
/Al Jazeera]

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