Welcome to Creators on the Rise, where each week, we find and profile breakout creators who are in the midst of extraordinary growth.
Niki and Ritika Shamdasani had a problem.
They’d been invited a wedding. An Indian wedding. And normally this wasn’t a problem, because normally the sisters, who live in the U.S., would make trips to visit family in India, and while there, would stock up on traditional outfits to wear to formal events.
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But this time, it’d been a while since they visited. They had no outfits–and no way to get them long-distance, despite trying everything from long-distance shopping via their grandmother to dicey eBay listings.
They realized this had to be a problem other South Asian-Americans face.
So they created Sani.
@sanisisters When our Nani moved here a couple years ago from Delhi, she went from wearing Indian clothes everyday to reserving them for special events. Whenever she walks into clothing stores now, she points out what looks Indian. Today we got to show her actual Indian clothes in a department store @nordstrom. #indianwedding #fashion #fyp ♬ ceilings – Sped Up Version – Lizzy McAlpine
The sisters–who are now 22 (Ritika) and 29 (Niki)–come from a family that has a textiles business, but they had never considered getting into fashion themselves, let alone starting their own clothing company. Niki was a political science major who went on to consult at Deloitte, and Ritika was a computer science whiz who’d taken part in Kode with Klossy and Girls Who Code.
“I was on this path to become a software engineer, because that’s what I thought that I was meant to do,” she says.
But Sani just seemed right. The two of them (with some advice from their dad) began designing small-batch clothes, and at first it was a “side hustle passion project,” Rikita says. Then they landed a deal with Rent the Runway, a subscription service that lets people rent designer clothes, often for a very small fraction of what those clothes sell for. It was a big deal for the sisters, and a sign that their business was about to experience major growth.
Then COVID happened. Their two businesses–weddings, and now designer rentals–tanked.
They had to do something.
That’s where TikTok comes in.
We’ll let Ritika tell you the rest below.
@sanisisters Replying to @bronxsgirl94 cue Take it Off by Kesha #indianwedding #fashion #fyp ♬ original sound – Niki & Ritika from Sani
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tubefilter: First, I’m sorry to hear Niki isn’t feeling well.
Ritika Shamdasani: We usually do these things together, but I told her I’ll take it this time.
Tubefilter: The burden is on you. Big pressure. No, no, I’m joking. Let’s get right into it! I’m familiar with you and your videos, but pretend someone is reading this and they’ve never seen you and your sister’s content. Give me a little bit of background about the two of you, where you grew up, and how you ended up getting on TikTok together.
Ritika Shamdasani: Of course. I am one half of Sanisisters. My name is Ritika Shamdasani and we are both from Fayetteville, North Carolina. It’s a small military town, actually, and we are first-generation South Asian-American. Our parents actually immigrated here in the 90s. Growing up, we were surrounded by this family business because my dad has a business with his seven brothers and sisters. The reason I say that is I don’t think anyone realized how much influence that had on Sani as we were growing up.
That’s early life. When it came to the actual brand, Niki and I started Sani by accident. It was never in both of our paths to be in fashion. Actually, before Sani, Niki had majored in political science. She had gone to do federal consulting at Deloitte and then also was a chief of staff at a startup accelerator. Fashion was not in her bones. Then I was actually still in high school when Sani started to become more of a thing, and I was really interested in computer science. I actually interned at Amazon. I was in Kode With Klossy, Girls Who Code, and I was on this path to become a software engineer, because that’s what I thought that I was meant to do.
Sani really started because of a personal problem that revolved around shopping for Indian weddings. Niki and I were getting to an age where we cared a little bit more about what we were wearing. For the first time, we were going to an Indian wedding, and we hadn’t been to India recently. Otherwise, when we were in India, we would stock up on outfits and then use those outfits for the weddings coming up.
To shop for this Indian wedding that we had, we tried a couple of different things. We traveled to major South Asian hubs 2+ hours away. We video-called our nanny, which means grandmother, in India, to see if she could virtually shop for us, but that did not work out, and then we ordered on eBay and the product did not come like the picture. We talked to a lot of other first- and second-generation South Asian-Americans and realized that the way of shopping for Indian wedding clothes was outdated. It was so behind. We were in this world of the fancy D2C businesses, and yet within this industry, we were still having to do all these different things just to get an outfit that we may like. From that initial problem context, we decided to start tinkering around with Sani. We created our first collection that was 15 pieces all in our sizes.
It very much was side hustle passion project up until 2020 when we launched on Rent the Runway as their first South Asian fashion brand in February. That was amazing. We sold out a booking availability within 48 hours, and then two weeks later the pandemic hit, and being a brand situated for Indian weddings was probably the worst thing that we could be doing. [laughs] That’s actually the fun point, though, because when our Shopify was at zero and we were torn on what we can do, we got on this platform called TikTok.
Niki was actually the one who convinced us to get on TikTok. I may be Gen Z, but she was actually the one who pushed for it. We got on the platform and at first we were just posting videos not really thinking too much of it, honestly repurposing other content, putting it on there. Then one day we were like, “Let’s try and actually make a TikTok video. Let’s just put in an hour and a half and see what happens with this.”
Our first video that went viral showed the inspiration to reality behind one of our pieces. It used the “And it went like” sound. That video got about 3.2 million views and it was the start, I think, of realizing that this platform had the potential to change our business–which it ended up changing it, but that’s the beginning of Sani and how we ended up on TikTok. I can go further but I wanted to stop there.
@sanisisters Which was the fav? #indianwedding #fashion #fyp ♬ original sound – Niki & Ritika from Sani
Tubefilter: Let’s go further! But real quick, you mentioned your family has a business. What business are they in?
Ritika Shamdasani: My dad makes uniforms for the military and law enforcement. It is related to textiles, but not that related to where we’re at now.
Tubefilter: When you guys were first starting to produce, was he able to help you source production or manufacturing?
Ritika Shamdasani: No, but he was able to definitely steer us in the right direction, if that makes sense. He obviously knew the language behind a lot of things. He knew what to do and what not to do, but being in the industry that he is, he was not dealing with people who were making the type of clothing that we ultimately wanted to make and now make today. He was our most amazing advisor and mentor, but finding all those manufacturing partners was something that we had to do on our own.
Tubefilter: Are you still with Rent the Runway?
Ritika Shamdasani: Yes, we are. You can still find our pieces there.
Tubefilter: I gotta say, half weddings and then having Rent the Runway…Both tanked with COVID.
Ritika Shamdasani: Yes. Definitely not the best time for that part of Sani.
Tubefilter: Yes, but you guys adapted. I also wanted to ask how old each of you are?
Ritika Shamdasani: I am 22, Niki is 29.
Tubefilter: Very funny that she was the one to pitch TikTok. Did your first TikTok video do well or did you have some time before things took off?
Ritika Shamdasani: It was the sixth video. The one that I mentioned that showed the inspiration to reality was the one that went viral, but previously, those videos did not do well.
Tubefilter: I feel like that’s pretty normal. Did you commit immediately after that sixth video went viral? Were you like, “Okay, we’ve got to do more?” When did it become a major part of the business?
Ritika Shamdasani: We committed after that first video went viral. I wouldn’t say in a way that it became our be-all-end-all. What was really nice about it, and especially during COVID time, was that Niki and I really looked at TikTok as a fun activity to do together. Sure it was bringing in a bunch of brand awareness, but we had fun literally making the most random videos during that time. I think that’s honestly when our best series also came about. We came up with one series that was Things I Wore to an Indian Wedding that has been one of our best ones till this day. We also came up with a series that took the “random things” trend that was going on but did random things in this outfit. We would take all the trends going on, put our own twist on it. We did an amazing job of making sure that every time we were making a video, it was just a fun activity. We didn’t actually put a lot behind, like, “We need to post once a day or three times a day.” At the same time, I think that’s what also made our content stand out, because you could genuinely tell that this wasn’t just some sort of thing someone was putting together. The energy they were bringing to the video was very genuine.
@sanisisters If you think you should apply you should #indianfashion #indianwedding #fashion #southasian ♬ original sound – Niki & Ritika from Sani
Tubefilter: Got it. Walk me through production on both sides of your business. In terms of producing actual new pieces and then producing TikTok content, what is your split right now?
Ritika Shamdasani: Personally, how much I do of each?
Tubefilter: Both of you and the company overall.
Ritika Shamdasani: Before I answer that question, I think it would be helpful for me to say at the beginning, TikTok started off as just brand awareness. Then TikTok led to product expansions for us and led our brand to actually expand beyond just things people wore to an Indian wedding. Our first segue into casual wear was loungewear for the timing. It was very fitting. That happened because we were constantly getting comments from our TikTok community about how they wanted to find a way to participate in the culture through fashion in a way that was appreciation. This community that we were cultivating was really more than just a one-way, we were putting out videos to put out videos, but a two-way community that really led to the expansion of Sani.
When you say the split of how I spend my time like designing the products and making TikTok content, it’s really weird because they’re so connected. The reason I say that too is we will have comments of people saying they want to see X, Y, and Z, or they want X in a new color, or “What if you design this?” That has honestly become the drivers of our new products. Nowadays we try and post TikToks a couple of times a week and obviously, I’m still heads down in product development as well, but it’s hard to say that my time is really split between the two because there’s so much overlap that happens in the two.
Tubefilter: So TikTok has really become an inextricable part of your business.
Ritika Shamdasani: 100%. I don’t think we would’ve survived the pandemic without TikTok.
Tubefilter: Are you on YouTube too?
Ritika Shamdasani: Yes, we’re on YouTube too. We do YouTube Shorts too.
Tubefilter: But TikTok is bigger for you.
Ritika Shamdasani: 100%.
Tubefilter: Tell me a little bit about the two of you. Do you both work on conceptualizing new pieces? Do you both work on TikTok stuff? What is your split of responsibilities in the company?
Ritika Shamdasani: It’s funny because I should say that we have a very clear split in responsibility, but if I’m being totally honest with you, Niki and I collaborate on both TikTok and design all the time. I would say I’m more on the design and marketing side. I’m the one editing the TikToks and doing all of that nitty gritty stuff, but the actual conceptualization behind each video and even the conceptualization behind every design, we work on that together. I think that’s been a really good asset to our brand because we bring really different perspectives to both sides of TikTok and product development. We can see my influence and her influence on a video or on a product.
Tubefilter: Do you two ever have clashes over designs or over things you want to film?
Ritika Shamdasani: 100%. I think that’s just a part of it. We’re both very stubborn people, and I think I can say that for her because it is true for both of us. There’s been plenty of times when we differ on the video or on the design, but nowadays I think what’s really helped us is, especially for TikTok, if we both have different ideas for a video or a concept, we just do both of them. There’s no harm in trying it.
Tubefilter: Getting down to my last questions here. I wanted to bring up that you and Niki were named to TikTok’s 2023 API Visionary Voices list. How was that for you?
Ritika Shamdasani: Yes. That was very, very exciting. I think what’s just so amazing about TikTok and this list is it’s a list filled with so many amazing creators, small business owners, artists. To be recognized for our mission, which is bringing culture to the mainstream on such a mainstream list like this Visionary Voices list was really really amazing. We’re really grateful for TikTok to also uplift the API community because we are strong and mighty. Sometimes we’re forgotten, but they do a really good job of making sure that doesn’t happen.
They took this community that was like a virtual list and they made sure to try and turn it into an in-real-life community, and you could see that really shine through at the events that they hosted for honoring the list.
Tubefilter: Very cool. You might not be able to say too much, but do you have any projects you’re working on right now? Anything you’re excited about for the rest of this year?
Ritika Shamdasani: Yes, we have a lot of cool things coming up. You’re right. Some things I can talk about, some things I can’t. There’s a lot of new product updates, there’s a lot of expansion with existing distribution and maybe some new stuff coming up. Then we’re also looking to get into menswear by the end of this year, and really build upon also just the collaboration side of the business and doing some more in-real-life events and stuff like that. I think we’re at a really exciting point within the brand to where we are slowly scaling up product. We’re slowly scaling up the distribution channels, we’re getting better at the content side of things too. Now we’re just making all that merge into one.