When sisters Niki and Ritika Shamdasani shopped for dresses to wear to a friend’s wedding two summers ago, they noticed there was a lack of styles that married Indian and American cultures. They searched in New York City, Atlanta and Charlotte for modern Indian clothing. They also called their grandmother in India, who couldn’t find a dress that fit the bill for less than $1,000.
“Nothing was hitting that sweet spot,” Niki says. “We talked to others around us thinking maybe we were missing something, a store or brand in the U.S. that would make this easy, and we couldn’t find it.
Everybody was frustrated with the shopping experience and products.”
That’s why the sisters started their own clothing brand, Sani Designs, in October 2017 with a leadership team that included a high school student: Ritika, 18, graduated in May from Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville and is attending N.C. State University this fall.
Serving as the creative director and lead designer helped her find her passion. “I’ve learned more of what I enjoy, and I think that’s something really valuable going into college,” Ritika says. “I never thought I’d be a fashion design major, but after starting Sani, I learned what I liked.”
Meanwhile, Niki, a UNC Chapel Hill grad, left a venture-capital industry job in New York City a year ago to become Sani’s full-time CEO. She’s 25.
Niki and Ritika are co-founders while their mother, Sapna, provides a second opinion on everything from clothing to website design. Their father, Deepak, owns a small textile business and has answered questions along the way.
The hard work is paying off. A $10,000 NC IDEA foundation MICRO grant in June 2018 helped pay for a fashion show in Raleigh to promote Sani’s brand recognition among the region’s large Indian population. According to the UNC Carolina Population Center, more than half of the state’s 330,000 Asian residents live in Wake, Mecklenburg and Guilford counties, and the largest subset is Asian Indian.
The sisters travel to India several times a year to pick material, which they then design into clothing. Production occurs in a factory in Delhi.
Given the detailed nature of Indian garb, it takes a critical eye to design apparel that people will buy. “We could not get customers on board until people could see and feel and try on the clothes,” Niki says. They’ve shifted their strategy from Instagram marketing to bridal and fashion shows.
“Ninety-nine percent of the clothes will need to be fitted, so we offer custom sizing and hands-on help if you don’t know how to get your sizing, or we’ll help find a tailor for you, or if you’re local, we’ll come measure for you,” Niki says. “We’re still figuring out how to make sure that end-to-end experience can scale.”
The sisters say they’ve had online orders come in from across the U.S. They are excited about creating a community of women unified by their designs. While declining to provide specifics, Niki says the business is profitable, with 50% growth projected this year.
“There are women who have come to us saying, ‘I’ve never seen an Instagram feed with girls who look like me’ and are proud to be wearing this cultural clothing,” Niki says. “It’s so cool to see this community of people. It’s not just a product. That’s what every brand aspires to: to be more than the thing they’re actually selling.”