BY ZACHERY EANES
The News & Observer
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A company founded by two North Carolina-based sisters is helping bring South Asian fashion to a large national platform for the first time.
Beginning this month, Sani, founded by Niki and Ritika Shamdasani, had three of its designs featured on the popular fashion website Rent the Runway, which lets customers rent designer clothing that often retails at a high price point.
The two sisters started the company in 2017 to help satisfy their own fashion needs. Often, when looking for formal clothing to wear at events like weddings, the sisters found it difficult to find styles that honored their Indian heritage but also had modern sensibilities.
So, the Shamdasani sisters, who grew up in Fayetteville, came to the conclusion that they would need to design their own clothing.
“It was really born out of a personal need,’’ said Niki Shamdasani, who left a venture-capital job in New York to start the company in North Carolina.
“We weren’t finding cultural clothing that we wanted or a shopping experience that worked well,’’ she said. “When we started asking other South Asian friends and their moms, we realized people were settling for subpar designs and experiences just because there wasn’t anything better out there.’’
The sisters thought there could be a huge market for their own designs. A large number of South Asian women, for example, still choose to get their formal clothing abroad because it can be more convenient or there are more options, said Niki Shamdasani. But that can mean high costs. The business opportunity, they believed, was to bridge that gap between cost and availability.
So Sani was launched out of their parents’ home in Fayetteville, and then got a $10,000 micro grant from the NC IDEA Foundation. At first, the company’s customers mainly shopped in-person at pop-up events.
But now the company has a steady stream of online customers from around the country. All of Sani’s clothing is made of Indian fabric and manufactured in India.
“We are trying to make it the best experience’’ there is to buy South Asian fashion, said Niki Shamdasani, a 2015 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. Ritika is currently studying fashion at N.C. University.
The South Asian demographic is one that is growing significantly, a fact that bodes well potentially for the brand.
The Asian population is the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group nationwide and in North Carolina. From 2010 to 2017, the ’s Asian population grew from 209,400 people to more than 303,000, an increase of 44.7%, according to the group Carolina Demography. In comparison, the ’s total population grew by just 7.7% over this period.
More specifically, in the ’s two largest counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, the largest share of Asian residents identify as Asian Indian, according to Carolina Demography.
With the new partnership with Rent the Runway, the Shamdasani sisters hope to both increase their company’s reputation as well as make it easier for people to access their clothing, which retails around $400 to $500 for most pieces.
It also just feels significant to have South Asian fashion represented on a mainstream platform, they said.
“Rent the Runway is about creating visibility for a lot of clothing designers,’’ Niki Shamdasani said. “It started off with more established designers and now new ones as well. For us to be in that group of people says (Sani) is a legitimate fashion business.’’
The partnership came about after Niki Shamdasani cold-emailed Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman, after hearing Hyman describe on the “How I Built This’’ podcast how she had cold-emailed designer Diane Von Furstenberg to help launch Rent the Runway. Hyman answered and helped connect the sister with her team.
“Rent the Runway has always been a destination to get dressed for special events and celebrations, which made expanding our inventory with Sani feel like a natural extension for us,’’ Rent the Runway’s Chief Merchant Officer Sarah Tam told the online news site Insider. “We gravitated towards Niki and Ritika’s modern take on South Asia’s timeless styles and are excited to offer this female-founded brand to our community.’’
So far, Sani has two lehenga pieces, which is an ankle-length skirt, and one anarkali design, a full-length dress, available on Rent the Runway.