“To dress with class.” This is the mantra of the Congolese sapeurs, whose flamboyant style remixes European elegance with an added dash of personality. It’s a style that’s been around for more than a century, originated by slaves whose colonizers paid them in clothing, and it’s still changing now: not only is its influence trickling across borders, women have made it their own, too.

Highsnobiety Fashion Director Corey Stokes’ first real exposure to the sapeurs came during a shoot in Paris. “A couple of the guys were laughing and joking about something,” he recalls. “I asked, and they said the models looked like sapeurs.” Stokes was already familiar with the term, but he dug deep into research and fell in love with the “very loud, very colourful, very dandy” style. When it came to shooting a wedding-themed menswear editorial, sapeur style was an instant fit.

The result is an arresting set of stylish, character-driven portraits, driven by the documentary-style instincts of photographer Justin French. It’s a fresh take on menswear, too; suit hemlines cascade into layers of shredded ruffles, and pinstripe pants peek from beneath tailored shorts. Here, in conversation, French and Stokes explain how the shoot — originally conceived to inspire creativity in grooms — snowballed into an expansive celebration of Blackness, charisma, and under-represented histories.

Corey, tell me about bringing in Justin as a photographer for the project — how did that come about?

Corey Stokes: There were a handful of photographers I thought made sense, but none lived in New York. I knew I had to go to London to shoot with Justin. His images are so strong, and the way he captures bodies in those moments feels so special; surreal, but stoic and simple. I shared the references, and Justin said, “I want to have all Black models for this.” I think, based on the references, it would have been a huge injustice not to. We’re talking about an African community, a Black community. It’s important to show it on those bodies.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Highsnobiety / Justin French, Highsnobiety / Justin French

CS: It’s important to acknowledge that Black people across the world have always attached themselves to dress when finding ways to express themselves. The sapeurs are specific to Congo, but that concept reaches Black people globally — I’m from Michigan, but parts of my family dressed similar for occasions. There were elements that felt familiar to me.

Justin, was it fun for you to have that freedom to play around with that?

Justin French: I thought it was a really good opportunity. I love clothing as self-expression, but I hate the dictation that sometimes comes with fashion shoots. This felt interesting, playful and creative — more creating art than selling clothes. Everything was crafted from the perspective of, “this has to be beautiful,” not “we have to get this advertiser.” Sometimes, when that’s the dominant force in creating imagery, you can tell.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Hat by CELINE Jacket by PAUL SMITH Sweater by MISSONI Shirt by GUCCI, Suit and tank by DRIES VAN NOTEN Shirt by PIERRE-LOUIS MASCIA Shoes by MARNI
Highsnobiety / Justin French, Highsnobiety / Justin French

For me, we’ve always had this idea of the picture-perfect model, which is fine, but it’s unrealistic and not very representative. When I see things that aren’t picturesque, I like to bring that in and get interesting elements which make the person — like scars, or in this case, a cast. It’s not often you see that in images, because most people try to hide it.

Do you think the momentum of the BLM movement will make people take note of that whitewashing from now on?

CS: It’s performance art to me. I’ve been actively shooting Black bodies, stories and references — and I’m sure it’s the same for Justin. It’s not something we’re exclusively doing, but we always keep it in mind. I’m not mad actually, I’m excited that for whatever reason — be it guilt or curiosity — people are highlighting and talking about Black people more, but I do think a lot is performance. I want to acknowledge the creatives that have had Black people or people of color at the forefront of those conversations, and not just as a cool reference on a mood-board.

JF: I agree completely. It’s not that these things didn’t exist, it’s just that people simply aren’t aware of much in the world; they aren’t curious. In truth, if these institutions looking to change now already had a curious mind for culture, we would have seen the results of that. You can’t teach that. I’ve seen people in significant positions asking the public to help them find references and artists. These are people who are hired to perform specific functions that they are considered experts in. If you have to draw on the public for resources that puts into question their ability to perform their job.

With Corey, we were able to make this shoot work by bringing in different elements, and that comes from innate curiosity; we wanted to do this beautiful story justice, and make it feel compelling, make people curious about the sapeurs. I know change is slow and I’m not expecting it overnight, but I am hoping to see an effort being made.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Suit and shoes by BERLUTI Shirt by CMMN SWDN Belt by MARNI, Hat by EMMA BREWIN Jacket and pants by DRIES VAN NOTEN Shirt by CMMN SWDN
Highsnobiety / Justin French, Highsnobiety / Justin French

There were conversations this year about the pandemic prompting an overhaul of the fashion system, but things have largely stayed the same. Do you think long-term promises of diversity will hold up?

JF: No, I don’t. Some of the values this industry is based upon are exclusionary; that’s the DNA of fashion. I would be interested to see what this "change" looks like; I feel like it just means changing the occasional shoot here and there. I’ve been on-set where horrible things have been said about models’ bodies. It’s just fashion, you know? You can’t be upset with this human because their body isn’t going to do what you want this made object to do on their body. You see people degrading models that can’t fit sample size. You have to figure it out, make it work. It’s already a toxic environment in a way, which is why I want to shy away from the "fashion" aspect and celebrate the people we’re photographing.

CS: That’s why I’ve been so adamant about working with certain creatives. Fashion is built on this classist system that was never intended for people like Justin and I, so if we’re looking to change this industry, it’s also about dismantling it; everything else feels like big band-aids to a bullet wound. If we’re looking for systemic change, it has to go deeper than holding brands accountable.

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Glasses by GUCCI Jacket, scarf, and shoes by CELINE Sweater vest by LANVIN Shorts by CMMN SWDN, Jacket by PAUL SMITH Sweater vest by BERLUTI Shorts by CMMN SWDN Shirt and tie by GUCCI Pants and shoes by HERMES Chain by CELINE
Highsnobiety / Justin French, Highsnobiety / Justin French

JF: What could really help is allowing for new, spontaneous visuals that aren’t just caricatures of what’s already been done. It’s important to consider what we think of as art, because a lot is just commerce. There’s not a lot of risk being taken because there’s so much fear swirling around some shoots, but a few artists are breaking through that, and they’re usually artists of color.

CS: That’s what’s so special about photographers like Justin. Their work feels so new and fresh; that’s who I want to work with, because they’re forming this new wave of photography and storytelling. I think there is going to be a new world. It might not be tomorrow or next year, but I do feel like it’s coming.

  • PhotographyJustin French
  • Fashion byCorey Stokes
  • ProductionThe Production Factory
  • Executive ProducerJames Gear
  • ProducerGregory Farmer
  • CastingTroy Westwood
  • GroomingPaul Donovan
  • Photography AssistantLucas Bullens
  • Styling AssistantStevie Gates
  • Grooming AssistantGrace Hatcher
What To Read Next
  • Travis Scott is seen in Tribeca on November 29, 2023 in New York City.
    Cactus Jack x Audemars Piguet Is Travis Scott at His Best
    • Style
  • KITH & Birkenstock's braided London sandals in beige and black suede leather
    KITH's Braided Birkenstocks Are Bluntly Beautiful
    • Sneakers
  • Fear of God Athletics' first collection, designed by FOG founder Jerry Lorenzo & adidas
    Up Close With Fear Of God Athletics, Its First adidas Collection
    • Style
  • Pharrell Williams wearing a white suit and Tiffany sunglasses stands in front of models on the Louis Vuitton Pre-Fall 2024 runway in Hong Kong
    Pharrell's Louis Vuitton Pre-Fall 2024 Runway Made Hong Kong (More) Tropical
    • Style
  • District Vision x New Balance FW23.
    EXCLUSIVE: District Vision Made New Balance’s Tastiest Trail Shoes Yet
    • Sneakers
  • Madison Bailey Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 33 Frontpage Feature
    Madison Bailey Amplifies Herself
    • Culture
*If you submitted your e-mail address and placed an order, we may use your e-mail address to inform you regularly about similar products without prior explicit consent. You can object to the use of your e-mail address for this purpose at any time without incurring any costs other than the transmission costs according to the basic tariffs. Each newsletter contains an unsubscribe link. Alternatively, you can object to receiving the newsletter at any time by sending an e-mail to info@highsnobiety.com

Web Accessibility Statement

Titelmedia (Highsnobiety), is committed to facilitating and improving the accessibility and usability of its Website, www.highsnobiety.com. Titelmedia strives to ensure that its Website services and content are accessible to persons with disabilities including users of screen reader technology. To accomplish this, Titelmedia has engaged UsableNet Inc, a leading web accessibility consultant to help test, remediate and maintain our Website in-line with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which also bring the Website into conformance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.


Please be aware that our efforts to maintain accessibility and usability are ongoing. While we strive to make the Website as accessible as possible some issues can be encountered by different assistive technology as the range of assistive technology is wide and varied.

Contact Us

If, at any time, you have specific questions or concerns about the accessibility of any particular webpage on this Website, please contact us at accessibility@highsnobiety.com, +49 (0)30 235 908 500. If you do encounter an accessibility issue, please be sure to specify the web page and nature of the issue in your email and/or phone call, and we will make all reasonable efforts to make that page or the information contained therein accessible for you.