by Marie Doyon
In 1999, at the age of 19, Ambika Conroy was working as a photography assistant for a fashion photographer in Manhattan. She recalls arriving on sets only to spend hours twiddling her thumbs, waiting for the models to get ready. Inspired by a picture from the 70s that she had seen on her uncle’s fridge of a woman’s back and bottom in a crochet bikini, she decided to teach herself to crochet so she could make one for herself. She adds with a wry smile, “That was before smart phones, otherwise I’d be Instagramming.”
And so she began crocheting bikinis, at first as she waited on photo shoots, then in her spare time, then in all her time. By the next year her bikinis were being regularly featured in the pages of national magazines. In 2003, she landed a cover on Sports Illustrated.
But as the fashion world grew fonder of her bathing suits, Ambika became disillusioned. She says, “I love swimwear. I love beautiful women, femininity, sexuality, but I hate the swimwear industry. All of my press was Maxim, GQ, Sports Illustrated—all these terrible portrayals of women and their bodies.”
In 2005, Ambika closed up her boutique in Soho. Drawn to all the interesting work being done with food in the Hudson Valley, she decided to move to Rhinebeck. She lived a split personality worklife—part farmer (managing a CSA), part seamstress (working at a hole-in-the-wall dry cleaner, sewing what she calls “shitty fast fashion”). And all the while, she was making and selling bikinis on the side.
For Ambika, the fiber farm and her commitment to sustainable practices all find their roots in food. “I love good food, love to cook. I just wanted to live a better daily life. When you spend all this time eating well and thinking about what you are putting in your body, you eventually start thinking about what you are putting on your body.”
“I never really had a clear vision of what I wanted, so my process has mostly been a reaction to knowing what I didn’t want. And I knew I really didn’t want to be part of fast fashion. So I just started testing things.“ She began using undyed natural cotton for her bikinis and experimenting with hand dying techniques using materials like walnut and indigo. She says, “My obsession with making things and cutting things apart, thrifting and dying took over from there.”
|Ambika poses in one of her signature balaclavas.|
Ambika’s navigation has led her to a 12-acre property in Woodridge (Sullivan County) where she lives with her boyfriend in a home they share with a dog, cats, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, bees, and, of course, her beloved angora rabbits. Here she raises, shears, cards, and spins her own angora wool. Her special house blend wool (equal parts rabbit angora, goat angora (mohair), and lambswool) is milled at a small solar- and wind-powered farm in the Catskills, the name of which Ambika guards as a trade secret.
In all her work, Ambika strives for minimal waste. This is part of the reason for her disdain for seasonal collections and manically changing fashion trends. “I don’t do collections; I don’t agree with it. Trends are all about making money and making people feel bad and insecure enough that they need to buy something new. Then you have people getting rid of something just because it’s not in season any more. So much waste.”
Her approach embraces genuine customer demand, rather than artificially imposed trends that convince consumers that they want something new. She says, simply, “If I have a product people like, it will be there forever. If something is not doing well I might take it away, but I don’t agree with taking away products that people love.” As far as how that affects her ability to “keep up with the times,” Ambika is totally unfazed. “I think pieces that are well made are always going to be relevant. Beautifully made things are timeless. Beautiful cuts, beautiful fibers—that never goes out of style.”
All of her work is hand-crocheted by a team of artisans in the area and sold through her website (ambikaboutique.com). Scalability is a non-issue. “I don’t want to wholesale. I don’t want to make 7,000 copies of a product. I don’t want to push people to buy things. I am not stressed about selling this anymore. Once you create a story like mine, people will want to support you. The products sell themselves.”
Ambika takes great pride in the integrity of her products and process. She recalls, “In 2003, when I had the Sports Illustrated cover everyone told me, ‘You’ve got to sell sell sell! It’s now or never!’ But I just had no interest in that. My next level would’ve been getting investment and going to China. Then I would have just been a manager.”
To those of you that might scoff at the triple digit price tags swinging off Ambika’s furry masterpieces, she says. “Yes, the pieces are very expensive. I totally understand if it’s out of your price range. But if you love the story and you love the bunnies, and you understand how much time and love goes into this process, and you’d like to have a lovely amazing hat that will last you a lifetime…” Still she acknowledges that not everyone can afford her pricing. She advises those folks to “Get a bunny, learn the process yourself. One of my bunnies costs $275. The first time you shear them you get enough fiber for two hats!”
This advice is part of larger dream. “I want to get bunnies into people’s hands. I want every 10-year-old to have an angora bunny. I don’t care about competition—the more the merrier. Initial setup (bunny included) will cost around $400, but you’ll make $1,000 off your bunnies in the first year. It’s an amazing investment and amazing experience.”
Ambika is developing educational projects to spread the knowledge, such as the rent-a-rabbit workshop—a yearlong course for people who can’t have bunnies at home to teach them each part of the process. She is also working on a project to connect textile makers with farmers, designers with makers, and to develop a costed (unsubsidized) model for textile work so that it is realistic for people like herself to have a job in fiber in the US.
Just as the food revolution was born out of people’s frustration with the state of eating, so too is a fashion revolution being born. Perhaps this winter season you will join Ambika on the front lines of that revolution, fully clad in fuzzy, fabulous, fashion-forward knitwear.
For more information or to buy products, visit ambikaboutique.com.