A map of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: iStock
A map of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: iStock

Adventurous organizers of the four-day Hong Kong International Fashion Fair, starting this Wedneday in Wan Chai, should screen the The Congo Dandies. A friend in Kolkata alerted me to this astonishing documentary, of how love for fashion soars out of life’s rationality scale.

The Congo Dandies (from RT) chronicles “La Sape” – abbreviation for the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (French for “Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People”), one of the strangest legacies of World War II.

World War II soldiers returning home to Congo from France brought with them the latest Parisian fashions, and formed La Sape to put fashion above all. Like Sapeur Maxime Pivot who saved money for nearly two years to buy a pair of JM Weston shoes, while admitting the savings could have bought him land to feed his family.

The gentlemen of La Sape provide one of the mind-boggling experiences filling our myriad adventures of existence; adding spectacular variety to what makes us an unique species, with quirks, thought-patterns not maybe found in other sentient beings in the cosmos:

The Congo Dandies (25 minutes) appears below:

YouTube video

In a global fashion industry worth an estimated US$3 trillion, Americans spend about $250 billion annually compared with Asia’s $238 billion invested in dressing well. But not even the biggest spenders in Oscar de la Renta on New York’s Madison Avenue – considered the world’s most expensive fashion store – compare to the colorful spirit that gaudily clothes La Sape.

The Sapeurs say they go beyond expensive clothes, and their motto is living with dignity, gentlemanly conduct. But deeper within the “Congo Dandies” seems a basic human craving for attention, admiration of fellow beings.

Embed from Getty Images

A member of La Sape parades in a street of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on April 24, 2017. 

The Sapeurs appear to be an XXL-size version of the universal pining for applause of peers, in professional and personal dramas in the theatre of life. Such approval-dependency deepens in a social-media-enwrapped world, and sometimes the ego games played with scoreboards of “followers.”

It is good to share honest views and thoughts from the heart. But the more it plays to the gallery by falling victim to perceptions, the more the mind loses touch with reality – and a sense of who we really are.

To live in reality, more people worldwide are practicing the scientific self-realization process of Vipassana (not “Buddhist”, as it is commonly misunderstood), including business leaders like Twitter co-founder and chief executive officer Jack Dorsey.

Inaccurate perceptions cause delusions, wrong decisions. Freedom from hoodwinking perceptions needs the analytical, experiential understanding of the mind such as that comes with Vipassana practice (taught free of cost in residential 10-day courses worldwide).

Vipassana involves very hard work and crossing pain barriers, but the rewards are immediate and long-term, with the training to face reality with a balanced mind.

Being with reality needs awareness of four basic workings of the mind – as experienced with Vipassana that is the core of my life since 1993:

  1. Cognition of six sensory inputs (vision, smell, sound, taste, touch, thoughts).
  2.  Perception, evaluation of those inputs as “good” / “bad” etc – based on past experiences.
  3. The resultant pleasant/unpleasant biochemical flow of sensations in the body.
  4.  Blind reactions to these sensations with craving or aversion – thereby setting deep-rooted habit patterns.

The devil is in the second part of the mind – the perception or evaluation. In ancient India, it was called saññā.

A quality life needs freedom from this saññā matrix of entangling, entrapping perceptions, the self-belief not to give disproportionate importance to other people’s evaluations of our work and how we live, work, dress.

Self-confidence can be unearthed from within, with right efforts to pierce, penetrate through apparent realities – and be with reality of what is this mind-matter phenomenon called ‘I’, not fickle perceptions.

With their besuited antics, followers of La Sape deliver us a crucial message – an inadvertent legacy to a world looking to the left, looking to the right, looking to see what others think: Just be yourself. Live free.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.