Congo sapeurs: Is the Guinness ad true to life?

Grab of Guinness ad on YouTube Image copyright Other

The new Guinness ad featuring superbly dressed Congolese men has been getting a lot of attention since its release earlier this week, writes Tanvi Misra. But how closely do the sashaying and stout-swigging characters in the ad match reality?

The ad follows the men as they shed their working clothes and transform themselves into polished, hat-wearing, cane-wielding style moguls - because, as the narrator says, "in life, you cannot always choose what you do, but you can always choose who you are."

Costume designer Mr Gammon took 28 suitcases of elegant kit to the shoot with members of the Congolese Society of Ambianceurs and Elegant Persons (SAPE) - sapeurs, as they are known. The main idea was to be true to the sapeur look, but also, "kind of, heighten it a bit," Gammon says. "I wasn't redesigning them."

Photographer Per-Anders Pettersson who spent five days with sapeurs in Kinshasa in 2012 says the picture portrayed in the ad is pretty accurate.

Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine
Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine

The opening frame of the ad locates the action in Congo Brazzaville. Sapeurs exist both there and in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo - but the ad was actually shot in South Africa.

Hassan Salvador, seen in the ad sporting jaunty Lennon-style dark glasses, says he earns $1,000 (£610) a month working as a warehouse manager, and about 20% of that goes on clothes. Feron Ngouabi - who can be glimpsed wearing a kilt and tam-o-shanter - spends all of his earnings as a fireman on clothes, he says. Fortunately he owns two taxis, which bring in extra cash.

In the ad they wore a mixture of their own wardrobe, and Mr Gammon's.

Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine
Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine

During Pettersson's shoot, the sapeurs held a funeral for one of the movement's pioneers. The red carpet leading to the reception inevitably became something of a catwalk, with sapeurs "performing" - showing off the moves that show off their threads - just as they do in the ad.

Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine
Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine

Sapeurs never wear more than three colours at once (or four, including white). In the Guinness ad, featuring men from Brazzaville, Gammon kept black and grey clothes to a minimum. But Pettersson encountered plenty of monochrome outfits in Kinshasa, capital of DR Congo.

Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine
Image copyright Per-Anders Pettersson/Eyevine

Mr Gammon says he was "blown away" by the experience of working with these men and celebrating their look. "They may not be wealthy," he says, "but they are wealthy in spirit."

Hector Mediavilla, who directed a mini-documentary for Guinness, also released this week, says the ad is cinema - it's not intended to be 100% accurate. "But the spirit of the people? Yeah it's in the ad."

Additional reporting by Sasha Gankin, Brazzaville.

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