La Sape, Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society of Ambiance Makers & Elegant People) is a fashion subculture in cities of Kinshasa, DRC & Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. Someone who follows La Sape is known as a Sapeur (or ‘Sapeuse’ for a woman). This series of portraits are of people who follow La Sape in various districts across the city of Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo.

Most have ordinary day jobs as taxi-drivers, tailors and gardeners, but as soon as they clock off they transform themselves into debonair dandies. Sashaying through the streets they are treated like rock stars—turning heads, bringing ‘joie de vivre’ to their communities and defying their circumstances.

Spending money on ornate umbrellas and silk socks might seem surreal when almost half the population of the Congo 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.

Traditionally passed down through the male line, many Congolese women have recently begun donning designer suits and becoming ‘sapeuses’. Le Sape is growing followers across central Africa with its exuberance and freedom of expression.

—Tariq Zaidi

Editor’s Note: We discovered Zaidi’s series when he was selected as a finalist in this year’s LensCulture Portrait Awards. Be sure to check out all the images by other other winners and finalists here.