Byline: Roxanne Robinson-Escriout

NEW YORK — Sometimes it really does help to have friends in high places — or at least ones who know the right people. For Ambika Conroy, designer of the new Ambika Bikini collection, the connections she made while working on set as a photo assistant landed her a plum spot in the world of swimwear: a double-page spread in the most recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue featuring model Yamilla Diaz in one of her crocheted bikinis. “I wasn’t even sure I had made it in until I grabbed it on the newsstand the day it came out,” says Conroy.
Conroy didn’t start out with any grand plan to become a swimwear designer. Like many 20-year-olds, she was just exploring things that interested her. Her untraditional upbringing may have added to the unconventional path she’s followed. Raised by bohemian parents, both of whom were artists in their own right, Conroy was constantly encouraged to cultivate her artistic abilities. Her father, Shane Conroy, was a well-known illustrator in Australian advertising before he came to the United States almost 20 years ago. He now lives in Upstate New York, where he works as a fine artist for the SYDA Foundation, an ashram in Hurleyville, New York.
Conroy’s mother, who died when she was 11, was a clothing designer. In fact, her parents met at a boutique in Sydney’s trendy Chapel Street shopping district. “My mother used to make clothes and sell them in the boutique. Ironically I have sold my suits to a friend of hers who owns a shop there now.” Conroy was essentially raised on the ashram, although her father sent her to Westover, a boarding school in Connecticut, for her high school years. It was there that she “tuned into photography,” and began winning awards for her photos.
After high school, she enrolled in the School of Visual Arts, majoring in photography, and that’s when she stumbled upon an old Helmut Newton photo of a model wearing a crocheted bikini. “I loved the bikini and really had to have it. I never found bikinis to fit right, so I thought I could custom-make one for myself.”
Conroy left SVA before graduation and began working as a photo assistant and crocheting during downtime on the set. A friend had taught her the basic crochet stitch, but the rest, says Conroy, is basically self-taught. “Some people can just do it and some can’t. I was one who could.”
Little by little, word of her bikinis spread among models, makeup artists and stylists, Diane Smith, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit editor, among them. Though the fabled swimsuit issue always covers the heavy-hitters, the magazine isn’t afraid to give fresh young talent a page or two. “Anyone who calls me with a suit, I want to see it. And you never know what to expect so I was pleasantly surprised when I saw Ambika’s inventive use of crochet; the sexy cuts, trims and how she combines the elements,” says Smith. “We basically work with a formula here — beautiful models and locations — so new and exciting designs are the one element I can play with. I love showcasing new talent. It gives such a fresh perspective.”
Eighteen months ago, with the help of an entrepreneurial friend, Conroy started her business, traveling around the world to such places as London, Amsterdam, Australia, India, Fiji, Hawaii and Los Angeles to gather resources and contacts for boutiques that might be interested in carrying her bikinis.
In India, she shopped for fabrics and the 23-karat gold jewelry which adorns many of the designs. In fact, Conroy has spent a bit of time in India, and the country has had a big influence on her designs. “Not only do I love the clothes of India,” she says, “they seem very natural to me.” She also plans to expand the line to include a spandex group.
So far, Conroy has done all the crocheting herself, but says she realizes she will need to find production of equal quality if the orders keep coming. “I know I can get it done in China or India,” says Conroy, but she worries that the results will have a mass-produced look. With all the attention this fashion ingenue is getting however, she may not have to search too hard. After all, they may just find her.