Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: fashion

Creative Culture: The Sapeurs


photo by Daniele Tamagni

What is a creative culture? You’re looking at men who call themselves Sapeurs.

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photo by Hector Mediavilla

The group’s persona comes together at the intersection of personal style, body adornment, manner of dress and social touchstones – they all embrace the same values, stylized behavior and sartorial splendor to form their own creative culture.

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photo by Hector Mediavilla

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photo by Hector Mediavilla

The Congolese Sape

photo by Hector Mediavilla

Africa gave birth to this society of well-dressed men who show off their version of street style. But living in poverty, where a year’s salary could go to pay for one pair of alligator shoes, many work for years to afford their elegant outfits.


Scott Schuman from

My previous post explored Scott Schuman, a cool hunter searching for people displaying that sophisticated form of self-expression known as street style. For the most part, the people captured in his lens created their own sense of fashion. The Sapeurs take it to the next level, beyond fashion, to create their own atmosphere of elegance. Sapeurs are part of a creative culture called SAPE – Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People).

At first glance, they remind me of the stylish dancers in Madonna’s video Vogue. Voguing came from dance clubs in Harlem and Madonna’s music video captures the transformative quality that clothes can provide and then celebrates it. It’s all about looking fabulous, knowing you look fabulous, putting that grand feeling out there as you strike a pose and thrust yourself into an elegant ambiance. If you don’t remember Vogue, here it is

When we look at something that seems familiar we “see” it through our own experience, that’s how we make sense of the world. But to do so often means embracing assumptions that are culture-bound. We’re certainly guilty of that in the West when we look eastward – although thinking further – it’s probably a common human trait, to seek understanding by defining and placing what you observe into familiar slots.

So when you look at the Sapeurs, are they voguing or is it something else?


photo by Daniele Tamagni


photo by Daniele Tamagni


photo by Daniele Tamagni

Everyone of them has their own personal style and also a close identification with their fellow Sapeurs. That’s a hallmark of a creative culture. It embraces personal expression and engages you to put it out there, to share it and in doing so, to reaffirm your place in the world and your connection with your creative community.

Danielle from vimeo site

Two photographers have spent considerable time photographing Africa’s Sapeurs. Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni won a number of prizes for his work Gentlemen of Bacongo. 

As he found, being a Sapeur is much more than dressing with style.

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photo by Daniele Tamagni

For what does elegance mean in a land where having a refrigerator is a sign of status?

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photo by Daniele Tamagni

The contrast of Sapeurs living in shacks wearing elegant clothes is so striking – you can see their desire to move beyond poverty and the deadening  struggles of daily life. The impetus for SAPE and the Sapeurs came from modeling French society, or their version of an imagined and idealized French society. With SAPE comes rules about manners, personal behavior, how to dress and carry yourself in public, politics – they’re pacifists – and an effort to create a stylized and idealized ambiance. Sapeurs are also admired by their neighbors and are often invited to weddings and funerals to add a touch of class.

Spanish photographer Hector Mediavilla has also been documenting Sapeurs and offers a detailed history/critique of the group here.


Hector Mediavilla

Hector Mediavilla: “Creativity is very important. It’s not only about spending a lot of money on the clothes, but also the way they speak, the way they move. … It’s a way of presenting their lives and being somebody in a society that doesn’t give you many opportunities… It’s about [being] confident in oneself despite the circumstances… Having the respect and admiration of their community, today’s Sapeurs consider themselves artists.” 

Danielle Tamagni continues the conversation:

In a world where everything is connected, a Spanish photographer’s take on an African creative culture inspired by French elegance was recently featured on America’s NPR and is currently on exhibit in Portland, Oregon. Last year Daniele Tamagni’s photographs inspired recording artist Solange to feature Sapeurs in her music video Loosing You – and she invited him to her video shoot.


Solange and Sapeurs by Daniele Tagmani

The video Solange made with Sapeurs who live in South Africa is just below. It’s joyful and strange at the same time and seeing the Sapeurs in action gives you a totally different view of their sartorial style. My first viewing left me aswirl in the exotica of it all. But when I watched it a second time, I could find some sweet, unguarded moments that made it feel much more lively and fun. Check it out and let me know what think.


Street Style: Scott Schuman’s Search for Grace


photos by Scott Schuman from The Sartorialist

Street style is one way you could define the focus of photographer/blogger Scott Schuman.

Neal Agustin1

Scott Schuman by Neal Agustin

He presents his photography on his fashion blog, The Sartorialist and has two books out featuring his work. But it’s not just prowling the streets for people who dress with style – there’s something more intimate there as well. He’s on a quest to capture that moment when the inner spirit is somehow revealed. What strikes me about his best work is how much his subject’s personality shines through.



I suppose I should add that while I’m not into fashion, I appreciate it – I notice people with a sense of style or who have a flair for presentation. Months ago I watched a documentary about street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. While I enjoyed the documentary and he was a worthy subject, he was quite taken with clothes and accessories themselves and that’s what he searched for. Scott Schuman finds something deeper than fashion.




If street style means more than clothes and accessories for Scott, then what is it? He explains in an interview in Harper’s Bazaar

The only thing I can say that seems to be the thread that runs through all of them is some kind of physical grace. In that sense, it’s very different for each person — some men are very manly, some are more feminine. Some women are more removed, quiet and in a shell, in a way that can be very beautiful. Some are more outgoing. But they all just have some physicality about them that’s not just the clothes, but also the way they hold themselves.



I also like his work because there’s a sense of romance and mystery captured in his images of street style. In his framing and sense of composition – in what’s revealed and what’s abstracted – his images become transformed into portraits. That’s why his work is so fascinating, he plucks people out of their daily lives and places them before you in a revealing moment as if caught in the blink of an eye. Again, from the Harper’s Bazaar interview:

I don’t necessarily get to know the people that I shoot. I shoot them from a distance and see them in the imaginary way that I see them. It’s a dream of who these people are… I’d rather have that mystery.



I’m always drawn to works that open a window into your imagination – it’s the way the photographer or artist draws you into an image that is so appealing.  When everything about the image – the background, the composition, the framing and the lighting serves the subject and reveals some of that inner spirit or emotion – that’s when I get interested in the work. Here’s a bit from another interview where Scott is asked what makes a photo iconic:

 At the end of the day, I think what really creates a strong image is something that doesn’t tell a story but starts a story. So if someone looks at it they are already creating their own ideas, their own images and their own thoughts about the photograph. I think if it tells too much it doesn’t leave room for imagination.



A while ago Intel launched a series about The Visual Life. I wrote about it briefly in an earlier blog post, but didn’t dwell on Scott’s approach to capturing street style. Here’s the video, which I think does a great job of emphasizing the photographer’s quest and the power of the visual moment. It’s also beautifully shot.

One last insight: here’s how Scott describes his journey into photography, from his introduction to The Sartorialist: Closer

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Scott Schuman by Neal Agustin

I’ve always felt like an outsider… I developed a sense of distance and isolation from people. This didn’t affect me in a negative way – I actually became more curious about people. I wasn’t interested in knowing facts about them, but in creating my own vision of how I thought they might be. This emotional distance was at the core of my development as a photographer.

That emotional distance is there in his imagery too, since you can go back and look at the images as just fascinating objects who happen to be people well-posed. I realize his work won’t appeal to everyone. What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Intel’s Visual Life

Still from The Expressionist

I found myself on Intel’s Visual Life site and I want to share.  Especially a video called “The Expressionist” which you’ll find on the site.  

In it, designer Michael Wolff talks about understanding the visual experience, its importance to him personally and its impact upon his vision as a designer.  He speaks so clearly about the importance of seeing and engaging in the world around us.  And how that ability informs his work as a designer.  The visuals that accompany his comments are simple, sparse and elegant.

Still from The Expressionist

I’m seeing more videos in this style these days.  Basically static camera, every shot well composed, action takes place within the frame, each shot placed with the next to tell the story, sparse ambient music.  

When it works well, with purpose, it really moves you thought the moment in a highly visual manner.  Leaving lots of room for the words to have impact.  A huge departure from the often frenetic pace video used to embrace.  But that was then… and if this is what’s replacing it, I applaud.  But do check out “The Expressionist.”  It’s well worth the 5 minutes.

Still from The Sartorialist

I also watched the piece on Intel’s site about fashion blogger Scott Schuman, better known as “The Sartorialist.”  He talks about shooting street style fashion, which he does with aplomb.  

And while I find him personally a little off-putting, as opposed to the engaging and fascinating Michael Wolff, he has a keen eye and a great sense of capturing people imbued with that certain something we call style.  And although he directs and poses his people, his photos have that sense of casual encounter that typifies the street.  I especially liked watching him work with the discovered moment and then seeing what he actually shot.

What I haven’t talked about is Intel’s understanding that it’s not about their chip, it’s about what you can do with it.  And what better way to show that, than to profile people who personify “the visual life.”   I think it’s a great way to re-brand themselves.  And the Intel message only appears at the very end, when you’re ready to receive it.  Marketing magic.