Sunny Dolat, has gained international fame and recognition yet remains virtually unknown in his country of origin, Kenya.
The 32-year-old fashion designer has showcased his arresting work on international platforms over the years including London, Netherlands, and most recently the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe.
Yet, what most people don't know about the internationally headlining artist is that he started out rummaging in the brimming bales of Gikomba market.
In a piece he authored on June 7, 2019 on the Elephant, the artist explains how he started out in 2011 rummaging through piles and piles of clothes looking for unique pieces.
“My relationship with second-hand clothing a while back was very intense. By 2011, I knew the second hand Gikomba clothes market in Nairobi like the back of my hand. You could blindfold me, put me anywhere in the market and I would know exactly where I was.
I knew most of the vendors by name, and—despite my severe allergies—still got an amazing rush rummaging through piles and piles of clothes because I would find the most incredible pieces.”
It was these open-air spaces that nurtured his curiosity and allowed him to remain at the heart of fashion trends.
“If cigarette pants were in, the second-hand stalls would ride that wave way before any retail outlets in Nairobi did. The people who wore mitumba (used clothes) were actually the most fashion-forward in the city. Mitumba vendors led these trends, because they always had first access to the best piles. I found amazing treasures there, like a black Calvin Klein overcoat, and a fur stole”
It was from this eclectic collection of clothes that he made his first overtures into the fashion industry. With Kenyan film director, Jimmy Chuchu, they started 'Stingo' where they organised photoshoots, a novelty then. It was here that Sunny's collection found a home as the models would choose from his diverse collection of 'mtumba couture'.
“With my friend Jim Chuchu, I started a project called Stingo—an old Kenyan slang word for ’style’ or ‘mode’. I was the designated fashion stylist. Since there was no budget for shopping, every piece we used was mine: ‘stylist’s own’. I had to cheat by casting models who were my size. We put out the images resulting from the shoots on the project website and on Facebook—this was in the pre-Instagram age—and the response was wonderful.”
As Stingo evolved, Sunny and Chuchu decided to move away from sourcing mitumba clothing that they had and began featuring the work of local designers for the shoots.
From 2012 onwards, they recruited a number of local designers and displayed their work on their online retail experiment, Chico Leco.
Sunny eventually left the job he held at a hotel in 2013 to concentrate on fashion full time. To that end, they started the Nest Collective with Chuchu and went on to organise a number of fashion shows across the years.
The rest, as they say, is history. Sunny has now curated wardrobes for movies and TV series as well as various design shows and museum exhibitions across the world.
The gifted designer is slated to speak at the Design Indaba 2020 in Capetown, which is the continents biggest design conference, not a small feat for someone who didn’t study fashion design.
Contextualising his journey, Sunny expresses his appreciation at being part of an ever changing journey.
“Many things have evolved in the local fashion industry since my early Gikomba days, when designer shop fronts were sparse, and local ones even fewer. With a rise in cultural pride, Kenyan fashion is gaining visibility within the region, expanding possibilities for successful production and retail of local designs.
It is amazing to be part of expanding the collective imagination, as well as my own, with regard to how human beings occupy public space. With every new project I lead or am involved in, I am continually fascinated by and careful to harness the power of garments and their combinations to appease, honour, protest, subvert and transgress.”