“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.