Identity construction, Consuming Passion & Fashion entrepreneurship in Africa

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My recently accepted paper on entrepreneurial emergence in the fashion space of Africa rearticulates luxury fashion consumption using a case illustration of a sartorial group, the Sapeurs – or Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People or La Sape) – in a war-ravaged context. 

The study highlights how an ‘entrepreneurial emergence’ has gradually taken root at the bottom-of-the-pyramid. The study surmises that it is now up to marketers to exploit the fortune at this lower rung of the economic ladder in order not to be caught out by the entrepreneurial emergence.

Les-Sapeurs

Originally conceived as a male sartorial group and subculture, I once argued that “La Sape” seems to have, over the years, navigated its way from the margins to the mainstream of fashion – from consumption to production. Rooted in what I describe as the two Congos (Congo Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC), this unique fashion movement brings together fashion-conscious individuals ready to splurge money they do not really have, on designer clothes. I also postulated that these Central African countries have been rarely discussed in the business and management literature. 

While these countries cannot boast of high standards of living, the “La Sape,” movement remains prepared to spend a fortune on designer fashion. Made up of dandies who derive true joy from showing off their attire on the streets of Brazzaville – the country’s capital, and walking down dusty streets lined with clay houses, turning heads and feeling like kings (and queens), this group would perform this grooming ritual at any price. 

Interestingly, the mode of dressing is in stark contrast with their surroundings, and these elegant ambience-makers have become local celebrities to be adored and disdained in equal measure. For adherents of the movement, it is all about style and elegance – the right mix of colours and textures, brand names and the highest quality materials. 

In striking the right balance between looking chic, the Sapeurs also seek being reasonable with their spending. They insist that the movement is not just about designer suits, more about developing impeccable taste. 

Almost all of them adorn Western brands from Weston shoes to Alexander McQueen scarves.

Behind the image of success these dandies project, there are often stories of significant financial troubles brought about by their extravagant hobby. It seems rather obvious that investing in their image is more important to them than improving their living conditions. Dressing smartly thus becomes a true addiction that is very hard to overcome. 

Ultimately, the group epitomises the intersections between fashion consumption, power struggles and now entrepreneurial emergence. There are also other gender and identity issues emerging among this group such as the rise of an all-female variant (The Sapeuses) – culminating in the intersections of identity, gender and entrepreneurship.

Arts & Culture from the margins to the mainstream

This band of men and women turn the art of dressing into a cultural statement and abide by a code befitting of the courteous. However, while those western brands they have consumed have arguably failed to notice, and engage with this subculture, attention has picked up elsewhere.

For example, La Sape has not only been exhibited in the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London “through exhibits of textile accessories and the reportage photography of Kinshasa-based photographer Junior D. Kannah” in the summer of 2017, but also described in a 2014 report in the UK Telegraph, as a curious sartorial society in the Republic of Congo. As the article reports on the sartorial group:

Their sense of style is one of joyous exuberance, flamboyant colour, polished tailoring and impeccable attention to detail; suits in periwinkle pink, buttercup yellow and poison green, fat regatta stripes, Jeeves-Esque bowler hats, handsome canes, plump bowties, polished brogues and jaunty evening scarves, draped just so. 

It is a sartorial DNA that nods to 1920s jazz age refinement and has its roots in the French colonisation of the Congo in the early part of the 20th century. 

Mostly, it has been reported that Sapeurs in Brazzaville, just across the river from their DRC siblings– were older and male (reflective of age and gender identities previously discussed). Between both groups of Sapeurs, there is an intense ‘sibling’ rivalry epitomised by the regular competitions – a combination fashion show and dance-off.

Teased out from excerpts accompanying the images at the Brunei Gallery and video clips linked to Guinness advertisements, some of these dandies have indicated a quest for entrepreneurial venturing. 

Some are embracing fashion design as a career in addition to Sapeurism and the big brands the currently patronise need to take notice and forge forward-looking partnerships or face the risk of losing what may seem like only a niche market in the current dispensation, but may well be a ‘type two error’ by ignoring the quest for the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’. 

Discussion and Conclusions

As I joined the search and sought to satisfy my curiosity about the behaviour of this subculture, some key elements emerged from Gender & Identities to an entrepreneurial emergence. While the Sapeurs were originally male, there is a growing cadre of women (i.e. The Sapeuses) who don menswear and prance along rubbish-strewn alleys, succeeding in their number one goal, which is to turn heads and/ or be noticed. 

A sample of excerpts from my articles and exploratory research unearthed an oft-missed out entrepreneurial emergence within this subculture. A notable example is that of Musa Umpalaba, ‘Princesse de la Sape’, a 30-year old Sapeuse who doubles as a student seamstress, and also draws inspiration from her a brother.

There is evidently an inter-functional integration of literature (consumer behaviour and entrepreneurship). For example, the assumption that human needs are tiered as hierarchical levels dims in comparison to the more fluid need for power, achievement and affiliation. The exploits of the Sapeurs/ Sapeuses most of whom reside in slums, but nonetheless live flamboyant lifestyles, highlights how an entrepreneurial emergence is gradually taking root at the bottom-of-the-pyramid. 

Overall, it is evident that big fashion houses and/or luxury brands such as Alexander McQueen, Weston, Prada, Luis Vuitton and Valentino amongst others, seem to have either failed to notice or decided to ignore the entrepreneurial emergence gradually taking root at the bottom of the pyramid in Africa. In the absence of such recognition, the Sapeurs/Sapeuses are beginning to take matters into their own hands. 

One notable example being the forward-thinking Guinness leveraging on the brand association provided by this subculture. Arguably, therefore, painting this subculture in “broad brushstrokes” may be akin to taking a myopic view of the entrepreneurial emergence among this group some of whom actually have day jobs. As highlighted in the Guinness advertisement, which “followed the men as they shed their working clothes and transform themselves into polished, hat-wearing, cane-wielding style moguls,” is an indication of how marketers may explore and extend their reach to this group. 

Implications

The main takeaways from this study and implications for marketers are five-fold, but the list is not exhaustive. 

First, and in response marketers and/ or brands such as Louis Vuitton especially need to leverage on the growing knowledge of fashion enunciated by the Sapeurs/ Sapeuses. 

Second, the burgeoning entrepreneurship of this sartorial group can enable brands to leverage the “street cred” of the Sapeurs-Sapeuses as potential influencer marketers. Luxury brands can benefit from the exploits of opinion leaders and/ or influencers. 

Third, besides the street catwalks, radio, according to the BBC World News remains a powerful medium of communication in the Congos and marketers need to recognise this and take advantage of radio advertising and talkshows. 

Fourth, luxury fashion brands cannot continue to ignore the entrepreneurial education taking root at the bottom of the pyramid. This can be mainstreamed into formal fashion schools and perhaps even into hiring or repair outlets for luxury fashion. 

Fifth, the Congos share a common border with a pillar of growth in Africa, Rwanda. As highlighted in the Doing Business 2019 Report “Rwanda and Georgia are the first and second biggest reformers in the history of Doing Business, and Rwanda was again a top reformer this year.” Indeed the report features clothing stalls in the Kimironko market in Kigali.

There have been numerous calls by academics about a re-orientation of marketers towards engaging with consumers in subsistence marketplaces – notable examples include one voice which points out for 

an orientation that suspends preconceptions and enables learning from the dynamics of living and consuming at the level of mere subsistence can help consumer marketers better understand [and] engage marketplaces in these contexts.”

Another voice is that of Uche Okonkwo a renowned scholar in luxury fashion branding: “Luxury is neither a product, an object, a service nor is it a concept or a lifestyle. It is an identity, a philosophy and a culture.” 

Indeed, the gap between theory and practice seems to have found a bridge in this sartorial subculture. It is now up to marketers to rise to the occasion by engaging with these subsistence marketplaces rather than continue to watch the show as a cinematic experience.

References

Madichie, N. (2020) Couture from the Congo, Catalyst, Issue 1, pp. 34-36. Chartered Institute of Marketing.   

Madichie, N. (2019) Measuring Up. Catalyst, Issue 4, pp. 32-33. Chartered Institute of Marketing. 

About the Author:

Dr Nnamdi Madichie is Professor (visiting) at the Unizik Business School, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria, as well as Professor at the Coal City University, Enugu, Nigeria. His research interests span broad areas of Marketing (arts, fashion, media & entertainment), and Entrepreneurship (creative industries, diaspora, ethnic minority & gender). He is also Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (FCIM), and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SfHEA) for England & Wales. He is former Editor-in-Chief of the African Journal of Business & Economic Research a flagship journal of the Adonis-Abbey Publishers portfolio.

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