The dandy highwayman?

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THIS HASN’T been a very good year for Papa Wemba.

Arguably more image-obsessed than either P Diddy or David Bowie, Wemba is a cultural phenomenon whose coterie of die-hard fans share their idol’s obsessive love of fashion. Wemba is the founder and true father figure of La Sape - La Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Cool and Elegant People) - membership of which requires the wherewithal to regale oneself in designer-labelled glory.

Next month, BBC2 will show a documentary that offers unique insight into the lifestyle of Wemba and his Sapeur entourage. Entitled The Importance of Being Elegant, it reveals their extraordinary obsession with costly clothes, as well as the incredible lengths to which Sapeurs will go to indulge this passion. To a soundtrack of Wemba’s unique brand of soukous dance music, it allows a glimpse inside a world where grown men are prepared to beg, steal, hustle and go without food in order to get their fashion fix.

To be a Sapeur is to live for fashion. Or rather, to live for Wemba’s idiosyncratic take on fashion, which seems to be a matter of amassing the maximum amount of showy designer clothing - juggling and juxtaposing as many different big-name labels as possible. It constitutes, in every possible sense of the term, black power dressing - an extravagant and elitist language of extreme, dandified chic, adopted in key European cities by a small yet highly visible stylistic elite of male west-African migrs. La Sape is not a girl thing.

Devotees speak of Wemba as the father of an invisible nation. It’s certainly true that he comes from a tradition in which musicians are very much more respected and influential than politicians. His personal status has been magnified by an international reputation, gleaned, in part, through his association with Peter Gabriel, with whom Wemba toured and recorded during the 1990s. His stellar status in African music is equivalent to that of Dolly Parton in country and western or Kylie Minogue in pop - two genres whose stars would never allow the level of access achieved for BBC2’s brutally candid film about Wemba.

We see Wemba abuse the generosity of his oldest friends and most stalwart supporters. We see him turn one young woman’s request for a musical dedication into a sexual encounter. We see him lecture his acolytes on the importance of religious faith, assuring them that a little more devotion will increase their chances of avoiding apprehension for their illegal activities. And, of course, we see him labour over his fashion choices.

Eye-popping colour, exuberant decoration and luxurious furs have become the staples of Sapeur style. The only shoes to have are 1,000 snakeskin Westons. Everything a true Sapeur wears, from his sunglasses (de rigueur, day or night) to his carefully chosen socks and underwear, must carry a suitably impressive designer signature.

Sapeurs favour Roberto Cavalli, Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier - plus iconoclastic Japanese designers such as Comme des Garons, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Junya Watanabe. In fact, Sapeurs now champion the work of any fashion star whose creative focus lights on the male peacock. But their choices remain fastidious, and no true Sapeur would ever wear a garment simply because it was emblazoned with a designer logo. Elegance is fundamental. Which means the casual sportswear of Tommy Hilfiger has no currency in La Sape, whose members retain a Brummel-esque appreciation of slick tailoring.

MOVEMENTS WITHIN popular music invariably devise and promote distinctive and influential fashion looks. Mods, punks, Goths and New Romantics have all created their own defining style, which has subsequently influenced mainstream fashion. Sapeurs are no different. And although relatively small in numbers and seldom seen outside their familiar stomping ground, Sapeurs have proved significant in their fashion impact. For, while they certainly love big-name labels, they rarely follow the stylistic diktats of any designer runway or glossy fashion magazine. Instead, they have their own way of putting an outfit together.

Many major league designers have paid tribute to this style. Time and time again, its flamboyance has been captured by Kenzo; its use of vibrant prints has been dutifully served by Miyake; its demand for razor-sharp tailoring addressed by Ozwald Boeteng. I remember spotting a group of extravagantly attired young Sapeurs outside one Gaultier runway show. Their distinctive style, I realised, had surely provided one of the inspirations behind the compelling collection that had appeared on the runway only a few minutes earlier.

Whenever I’ve had occasion to venture into arrondisements of Paris north of the Gare du Nord and far off the tourist trail, I’ve often spotted small groups of Sapeurs on street corners. While Paris is home to their greatest concentration, small colonies also exist in deprived areas of Geneva, Brussels and London too. Whatever the city, the effect is always much the same: against a backdrop of urban squalor, and in dramatic contrast to the apparel of everyone else on their local streetscape, the immaculate grooming and colourful designer finery seems dazzling.

Sapeur style is truly ghetto- fabulous. Yet it was in existence long before this term was coined to describe the over-scaled diamond jewellery and showy furs favoured by American hip-hop artists. Wemba inaugurated La Sape 25 years ago. Almost ever since, ritzy fashion boutiques such as L’Eclaireur in Paris have done splendid business kitting-out Sapeurs happy to spend what would constitute the cost of a house in the Congolese capital on just one designer jacket. But those same retailers probably cannot take an entirely positive view of La Sape as they often find themselves the target of thefts orchestrated by Sapeurs who can’t afford to purchase the costly apparel that defines their look. The truth, of course, is that very few aspiring Sapeurs can hope to indulge their devotion to designer clothes by legitimate means. Most live in abject poverty, having arrived in Europe from the former French and Belgian colonies of Africa without proper visas.

In such circumstances, even educated Congolese professionals are lucky to land jobs as kitchen porters or security guards. Many, it is widely believed, resort to petty crime. Some operate a range of scams to which Wemba himself may or may not be party - even a superstar such as Wemba can’t rely on royalties or concert revenues to generate an income substantial enough to fund a Sapeur lifestyle. In his biggest market (Africa), concert tickets sell for a few pence and royalties are practically uncollectible. So, like many African musicians, he raises cash by selling "dedications". This involves including a name-check on one of his vocal recordings, for which fans are known to part with as much as 5,000. Some proffer gifts of jewellery, clothes, even cars.

To western audiences, this practice may seem bizarre. But it is not illegal. The question, of course, is whether this is merely a remunerative sideline. Has the father of La Sape been funding his love of python shoes and lambskin coats by resorting to the lucrative scam known as ngulu (pig) trafficking?

Wemba invariably performs with a large crew of musicians, dancers and backing singers. At any of his major concerts, he may be accompanied on stage by 40 or 50 people. Yet, suspicions were aroused when as many as 90 Congolese arrived under such auspices at Charles de Gaule airport - without a sheet of music or an instrument between them. Subsequently, they disappeared, swelling the ranks of Les Sans Papiers. Until, that is, the Chirac administration’s clampdown on illegal immigrants ensured that officials became much more vigilant. Scores of Congolese who had initially claimed to be part of Wemba’s performing ensemble duly confessed they’d paid large sums to Wemba’s associates to ensure passage into Europe.

AT THE TIME OF his initial arrest, Wemba is said to have admitted receiving more than 100,000 in such payments. Subsequently, however, he has changed his story - insisting his previous confession was a lie to keep his wife, Amazone, out of prison.

If he ever helped anyone leave the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, Wemba’s story now goes, it was for altruistic humanitarian reasons rather than personal gain. It seems Papa Wemba has become as contradictory as the concept of ghetto-fabulous. And it might just be that the Sapeur look will turn out to have had more in common with gangster chic than anyone suspected.

• The Importance of Being Elegant, BBC2, Saturday, 14 August.