Sunny Dolat is wondrous. He will have you regularly wondering how someone can be so creative and artistic, while also being so entrepreneurial and business-minded and then a hundred other impressive things. Sunny has consistently built and strengthened his role as an important stakeholder in the fashion industry in Kenya, in Africa and globally. His knowledge and fearless persona combined with a personality that you just want to be around has made him a popular expert in various fashion context around the globe. We’re very excited about Sunny’s and The Nest’s new beautiful and important project, the fashion book NOT AFRICAN ENOUGH. Beautiful, because it includes work by extra-ordinary designers, photographers and models. Important, because it is a marvelous slap in the face of many Western and white voices who have given themselves the right to define what aesthetic standards contemporary African art, fashion and design should satisfy. Being African is being more African than enough and we are grateful for this wonderful showcase of the variety and exquisite levels that contemporary Kenyan fashion creatives represent. Meet Sunny Dolat.
How would you describe yourself to someone who does not know anything about you?
SD: I am a Nairobi-based creative director.
You are part of two very interesting organizations, the catalyst fund HEVA and arts collective The Nest. Tell us more about them and what is currently going on there?
SD: The Nest makes artistic work, and HEVA’s really invested in facilitating artists to do what they love. We’re working to continue these things every day – the NEST are thinking through a potential new film project, and HEVA is expanding its curiosities into the regional and continental space, keen to promote trade and growth within our cultural and creative economies.
NOT AFRICAN ENOUGH has just been published. (Yeay!) Could you tell us a bit more about this project? For example, what inspired it? How did you choose the designers to include in the book?
SD: We wanted to challenge the existing narrative of African fashion, which is often examined and analysed using a very singular lens. The designers in the book are people whose voices and vision we deeply admire. For us, their practice opens up new thoughts and creates new visual languages to understand fashion from the Continent for the infinity it is and has always been.
How long has it actually taken from the first idea to now?
SD: The book took about a year and a half to compile.
What has been the greatest challenge with this project?
SD: We’ve realized that this is just the beginning of a process. For a while, unpacking diverse African identities has been happening politically or even in academia. But aesthetics, with fashion in particular, has always been given a back seat. The real challenge is how much of our beauty, culture and intention has gone unrecognized and undocumented, and how many knowledge and history gaps we still have left to fill.
What has been the greatest reward?
SD: Seeing this idea to completion has been pretty incredible.
What happens now? What is the next step, exhibition?
SD: Exhibition? LOL, maybe someday : ) We’re really interested in how this conversation translates in different corners of the Continent, and seeing if people will challenge the thoughts, or agree with them.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane. How did your journey into fashion start?
SD: I started being particularly curious about clothing when I was about 14 – that was about the time I attended my first fashion show. Suddenly I was immersed into this whole other universe that I didn’t quite know existed. That curiosity solidified quite quickly, so when I started my A’ Levels, I picked visual arts as one of my main subjects with a focus on fashion and photography. All this time, I was only interested in design, so there’s a trunk somewhere that has all the stuff I made during this period (cringes). Things shifted when a friend asked me once to style a shoot. I had no clue what styling was or how it was supposed to be done, but I figured it out, and that’s how I got into styling! And now, here I am.
If you would name three highlights of your career so far; which ones would you choose?
SD: Being part of the Sense8 unit in Kenya was incredible. Up until then I had never worked on a production of that scale and that size, and I learned a lot about the mechanics of a serial storytelling for screen. To Catch a Dream and Tuko Macho really helped me explore the connections between character and costume – TCAD had fantastical pieces, more of dreamscapes, reflecting Ajuma’s feelings of loss and wonder, and her learning about new spaces in new ways. TM allowed me to make very deliberate decisions as part of character work. Our supervillain, Kadhu,was always in structured, fitted whites, while the matriarch Mwarabu who took care of the Tuko Macho squad was more nurturing and healing, in headwraps and very organic drapes. And then, this book has been significant for me – the process of putting it together has shown and taught us many new and incredibly valuable things.
How would you describe your personal style? And how has it developed – has it been consistent over the last years, developing gradually or do you change style regularly? (If you have met Sunny you will know that he always looks sublime in a way that conveys that no detail is random.)
SD: I’m not entirely sure what my personal style is. I’ve come to quite enjoy that though, that freedom to charter a kind of unrestricted, undefined space. For me, that kind of unsettledness, feels quite honest and sincere. I’ve had moments of brief stillness that have allowed me to settle into an aesthetic, but that never lasts very long. One thing I will say though is that this freedom to play is allowing me to develop a fluency with clothing that I don’t have with words.
Are style and fashion important?
SD: First of all, I think it’s important to differentiate the two, I think fashion is very much about being on trend; having the new ‘it’ bag, the new silhouette and religiously abiding by the formulas shoved at us often by fashion magazines. Style however, requires a deeper, almost intellectual understanding of clothing and the ways in which clothing translates; easing, hindering or enhancing navigation in social spaces. For this reason, I’ve never quite believed in the idea of people being “not stylish”, I think one might not be fashionable, but because style is a deeply personal expression, I don’t think there’s a way to critique it. We tend to underestimate the power of clothing. There’s a reason you wear a suit to a job interview, that shirt when you’re meeting your partner’s parents for the first time, or that particular dress to a presentation. Many different contexts and circumstances lead people to make their choices.
Does a fashion expert and/or stylist have an obligation to promote local design?
SD: I think so, and it goes beyond fashion. Our wider sector needs visibility because massive foreign marketing and distribution budgets make product from elsewhere hypervisible. So it just makes sense to do it together, with a strategy. You can buy stuff – like Sauti Sol who have and incredible platform and have deliberately had so many of their garments made by Kenyans from day 1 till now. There is also the practice of promoting amazing local and regional product, like the amazing curation by the folk who run the store Ichyulu. It’s all interlinked – the filmmakers showcase the designers who also dress the the musicians, who showcase the illustrators and graphics folk, who visit the shops, etc. We’re all in it together.
Are there elements, details or ways of dressing and accessorizing that you feel are typically Kenyan?
SD: I think we are quite conservative, and that really comes across in the way we dress. We tend to reserve colour for special occasions, and this is clearest with the idea of “Sunday Best” which was always brighter, more fun and more femme. We’re however beginning to see these ideas slowly permeate into the everyday space. Nairobi style remains very utilitarian. We like to look “smart”, without looking like we’ve put in too much work, a kind of ‘effortless chic’.
Does being Kenyan influence and inspire you in your work?
SD: The combination of being from and living in a space will come out in the work one way or another, and that is true for me. Where one is located will definitely influence one’s work. But my work is coloured by everything that colours me in different layers, to different extents. However, there is an aspect here which is what the book addresses – that Africanness is a visible, tangible, immediately identifiable quantity that African designers must pay homage to. For example, there’s a movement of guys here who are obsessed with Japanese cartoons and film. That interaction could colour their thoughts and expression. We’ve become so globalized that the things that influence us are becoming more and more diverse. But artists from the Global South are asked a lot how their work reflects national identity. While on the other hand, who is really out here trying to measure “Spanishness” in the work of Picasso? I want the question to be asked to everyone in the same tone.
While we love all things Kenyan as you know, this is an important topic we wish to give more attention to and we recommend that you read our interview with photographer @thanabster if you haven’t already. He shares the frustration of facing an expectation from non-Africans to create in a style that they find African enough. We also welcome that you share your thoughts on this with us in comments.
Do you think that a responsibility to express things about society comes with artistic excellence?
SD: I think we are lucky when artists let us see or share in their work, because it is not owed to us. There are many artists who have done things that have stayed hidden away forever, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For that reason it is difficult to say what art “should” contain. It creates an odd value system where art is only deemed valuable or useful to people when it addresses social issues in a tangible, immediately accessible way. Artists are always saying something, even with a single drop of paint on a canvas. We need to ask ourselves, instead, if we are able to hear them. Artists should also allowed to create things simply because they are beautiful, and I think there is such a healing and spirituality in consuming it.
You travel a lot but since you’re based in Nairobi, for a day of shopping in Nai, which destinations would you suggest and why?
SD: Maasai Market, The Designers Studio and Urban African Lifestyle Company – different kinds of pieces and diverse experiences. If there’s a craft fair in town, that’s always fun – like Bizarre Bazaar, or Bargain Box. Thrift Social is also really cool, and if there is one burger you must eat in Nairobi, it has to be on from Mama Rocks in Westlands, with a side of plantain (of course!)
How would you spend a perfect weekend in Nairobi?
SD: Reading on my balcony.
Where do you look for inspiration?
SD: Inspiration can come from anything, be it how trees sway in the wind or a thought by a philosopher. So I try to be aware and present at all times.
Which character trait or mindset in you is most influential for your progress?
SD: Allowing myself to try again and not give up when I fail.
What gives you confidence?
SD: Confidence can be many different things, serving many different purposes: settled self-assuredness, or other versions that can be more abrasive. The kinds that are more rooted really appeal to me. The people who are close to me help me access that.
Is there something you consciously do every day?
SD: Sit alone in absolute silence for about 30 minutes.
Your Instagram (we’re obsessed with Sunny’s instagram) has some yoga elements. What role does yoga play in your life?
SD: Yoga enables you to feel your body and be aware of its limits, while also offering the opportunity to challenge them. Additionally, yoga allows me, personally to honour my body, to reciprocate the way it honours me. The body has always been more open than the mind, with many things that the body wants to do but the mind won’t let it. So the time spent on the mat allows for that negotiation to happen.
Now that the epic book has been published, what are you looking forward to particularly in the next months?
SD: You’re too kind! : ) The thing that I‘m looking forward the most is starting to interrogate more deeply the roots and evolution of our aesthetics, both in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa. We’re especially keen to locate more conversations about the Continent within the Continent.
Do you have a dream project?
SD: The next book : )
Why do you love doing what you do?
SD: I love doing what I do just because it makes me happy. I’ve become okay with being a little bit selfish, and so doing things because I want to do them is reason enough.
We always ask this one: what do you wish that people in the world knew about Kenya?
SD: I know the answer should be something about how beautiful and amazing it is, but I feel like that is an attempt to pitch this country and photoshop Kenya, particularly for a global North gaze. The truth is that Kenya is a lot like many other places in 2017 – there’s a lot that’s very messy, and a lot that is really amazing, but there’s no place I’d rather be. You’d have to visit and experience it to find out for yourself.
Last question. What is your best general advice?
SD: Being present to every moment and every person you meet. It is really humbling, and a wonderful learning experience, and can create incredible opportunities.
Thank you so much Sunny for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. Keep inspiring. And we already can’t wait for the new book…
NOT AFRICAN ENOUGH can be ordered through www.thisisthenest.com (get a copy, you will not regret it).