Friday, January 20, 2012

The Chap: The Sapeurs

photo by Baudouin Mouanda

The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote for The Chap magazine's April/May 2011 issue on my trip to the Congo to meet The Sapeurs:

...I arrived in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo armed with nothing but a white linen suit and a small French phrasebook. Having spent the autumn traveling in Europe, I'd wisely sent my linen beauty to Abu Dhabi with my mother. When I visited her, I picked it up and handed over the heavy wool, ready for my trip further toward the equator. I disembarked from the plane and was immediately taken aside, along with two non-black South Africans, told we needed someone to pick us up from the airport, and brusquely deprived of our passports. In a room with quite a few of the unsettlingly bored soldiers so common in Africa, a man with a smile like an out-of-tune keyboard slid up to us and gave us the “my friends, this is Africa” line before telling us about his friend outside who could pick us up for $50 each. Bribing someone at an African airport is something a paleface can brag about, but when you've already spent a good chunk of money on Ugandan moonshine and Cuban cigars, the novelty fades fast.
            I had come to Brazzaville to meet the Sapeurs: a group of dandies approaching the seriousness of a cult. Brazzaville is the capital of the Republic of Congo, which is not the dreaded Democratic Republic of Congo, although it lies directly across the strikingly fecal Congo River from the DRC's grey concrete capital, Kinshasa. It is an almost sure thing that the more disclaimers stuck on the front of a country the worse off it is and the less likely it is that any of the labels approximate the reality within its borders: the only thing worse than a “Democratic Republic” is a “People's Democratic Republic.” So, as far as countries with prefixes go, I could be worse off. Brazzaville is poor like most Central-African nations, and it went through a civil war several years ago, the evidence of which is still pock-marked on quite a few facades. This is the reason the United States State Department's profile of the country includes the delightful sentence “In March 2003, the government signed a peace accord with the Ninjas, and the country has remained stable and calm since the signing.”
            Like many people, I'd never heard of Brazzaville. The country itself was only brought to my attention by the Sapeurs. They are the members of an unofficial club called “Le SAPE,” which, in French, stands for “The Society for the Advancement of Elegant Persons.” Recently, a photo book called Gentlemen of Bacongo by the Italian photographer Daniele Tamagini was published to great acclaim. The cover is arresting: a black man in a bright pink suit with matching bowler hat and shoes, striding purposefully toward the camera down a dirt street with crumbling one-story buildings lining it, a cigar clamped tight in his theatrically scowling face. The pictures inside were astonishing: here were men in beautifully-fitted suits in the kind of bright colors which can only be pulled off with conviction by people with the blackest complexions. And they were living amongst squalor...

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rose Callahan's "The Dandy Portraits"

While researching my history book, I was fortunate enough to meet some fascinating present-day dandies of wide variety, each of whom pointed me towards yet more dandies, often in unlikely places. It turns out that at the same time, a photographer named Rose Callahan was meeting these very same people. Strangely enough, none of them mentioned either of us to the other. But Rose and I eventually did cross paths and since then we've worked together on articles for The Chap magazine and the book which will eventually come out of her project.

The Dandy Portraits is a website not to be missed - Rose's photographs are stunning and her subjects are fascinating both visually and personally. I'll be posting her photos often when discussing my meetings with any of these men. Be sure to check it out!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

About "Lives of the Dandies"

For the past several years, I have been researching and writing a book about the lives of dandies of the past 200+ years, some famous, some obscure, all fascinating. The "Lives of the Dandies" blog is an opportunity to share snippets of my work, my research, and various dandy-related topics.

As an undergraduate at NYU, I wrote my senior thesis on Dandyism in the 20th Century, unknowingly setting out on what would later become for me a scholarly obsession. My undergraduate thesis, looking back on it, was just as half-cocked and unremarkable as one might expect. Around that time, I also wrote two articles for one on Beau Brummell's biographer Ian Kelly playing Brummell in an off-broadway play, and one on a dandyism discussion panel in New York City. That was the extent of my dandy-related output for some years.

However, while attending the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, I revisited my dandy obsession, completing a book-proposal and a substantial amount of content for the book. My proposal won the prestigious Lytton Fellowship, which awarded me a sizable grant to continue work on the book. Since then, I have been traveled the world writing and doing research - spending time on Savile Row speaking with world-famous tailors and cutters and looking through archives dating back to the Regency period, conducting interviews both in person and online with the likes of Stephen Fry, Gay Talese, Ian Kelly, and many others, reading hundreds of books, archived newspapers and magazines, meeting some of the most eccentric and extraordinary living dandies, and traveling as far as the Congo to spend a week with the famous Sapeurs.

Since my descent into the world of the dandy, which seems to stretch on through an ever-widening series of caves, canals, and boulevards with no end in sight, I have also become a regular writer for The Chap magazine on dandy-related subjects, the manager of the appropriately-named Against Nature bespoke atelier in New York, and a collaborator with Rose Callahan of The Dandy Portraits - a photo project which will ultimately become its own book. 

This blog is my opportunity to share a few of the bits and pieces I've either collected or generated on my journey. I hope you enjoy it.