AmbiKA Sanjana refuses to be anyone’s plus one

Writer Vik Chopra talks to the celebrity stylist about her career, going against expectations, and being her own person

AmbiKA Sanjana.

Courtesy of AmbiKA Sanjana

Words by Vik Chopra

If being a stylist were an Olympic sport, all bets for gold would be on AmbiKa Sanjana. With style, grace, and beauty, she has not only forged, but bulldozed her path to the top of the fashion industry. Her work styling models and celebrities can be seen everywhere, from the pages of Vogue, to the red carpets of every major awards show, to Netflix premieres—and this boss is only getting started. In addition to her career, Sanjana is a devout humanitarian who gives back by running the cooking program for The Good Karma L.A. until starting her own nonprofit SevaSphere, which will take over feeding the unhoused community on Skid Row every week in Los Angeles. What makes Sanjana so inspiring is that she continuously sets an example of what is possible in life when you choose to be your most authentic self and stand in your power, and this can be seen in every facet of her life and journey.

Born and raised in India, Sanjana's early life was steeped in the arts. Both parents were musicians and artists, and she had extensive training in classical piano and dance. This artistic foundation set the stage for her eventual shift into the creative realms of fashion and styling. At the age of 17, Sanjana moved to the United States with her father and brother, a transition that was far from smooth. Attending high school in conservative Florida, she faced significant racism and bullying. "It was traumatic to be honest,” she says. “It was a very, very white school, very Republican, very racist." But it was her passion for the arts, specifically dance, that emboldened her to persevere and invest in herself. When her father decided to move across the country to California, she made the decision to legally emancipate herself at 17 so she could stay and dance at her school in Floridaa decision that, despite its hardships, forged her character, resilience and power to shape her own future.

A few years later, after she finished high school in Florida, Sanjana did find herself in California, to study theater at college in Northridge, where she developed a passion for working behind the scenes, supporting those on stage with her creative skills. "[As opposed to being on stage] I just wanted to support people or be part of the creative process in many different ways," she says. She honed these creative skills into costuming and clothing design for theater productions at her school. These came naturally to her from being in dance most of her life, as well as from her love of fashion, which developed during her teen years.

A south Asian woman in an orange swimsuit and green jewelry, stands facing away from a south Asian man in the background.

AmbiKA Sanjana started a swimsuit line in the mid 2000s.

Courtesy of AmbiKA Sanjana

After college, she traveled back home to India to initially work in Bollywood, but soon found herself designing a groundbreaking and controversial line of swimsuits that was launched by Sports Illustrated India in the mid 2000s. Sanjana also found herself in a serious, long-term relationship that turned into an engagement. It was during this time, however, that she had many life-altering realizations that would shape the course of her future. Feeling like an outsider in her home country, she began to understand that she had outgrown the comforts of her life and yearned for something more.

“I just did not envision my life that way,” she explains. “To live monotonously when you wake up every day. You're in the same group. You all are like in this upper echelon of society and nobody does anything for the community. I grew up in an affluent part of the city and friends with a bunch of kids that never had to work. And then I came to America. And this weird dichotomy of working for the first time and being independent financially and then going backyou have these ideas. And I just realized at that point when I left India that there's something much bigger and greater out there.”

“As life has gone on and as I've progressed and matured and developed, I want different things. You know, I want to be an equal. I want to be powerful. I want to stand in my own right. I don't want to be a plus one, you know?” she continues. “There was a phase for me where, like, all our friends were getting married. So I went to 25 weddings in two years. And I was always the plus one. It's, like, so-and-so plus one. I'll be damned if I'm a plus one for the rest of my life. No, I'm not. I'm my own person.”

With her newfound perspective and going against the expectations of almost everyone in her life, Sanjana quickly made the decision to end her engagement and come back to the United States. Like a scene out of a movie, Sanjana’s best friend met her in a parking lot with $2,000 and told her to just go book a ticket and fly out of there. Sanjana left India and came back to L.A. with a newfound sense of freedom, purpose, and power.

She wasted no time in starting her second clothing line, which was a line of athleisure wear and took part in several fashion shows. In the meantime, she also began working in video production in multiple roles, for several network shows including The Voice, Shark Tank, and Celebrity Family Feud, as well as major awards shows. Sanjana also took a job at Regard magazine where they had her style a photoshoot. This led to another styling gig, and then another, and soon her Styled by AmbiKa business was born.

“I never really wanted to be known as a South Asian creative. Just a creative. That was from South Asia.”

In the five years since she launched her brand, her work can be seen everywhere from red carpets to magazine editorials to music videos. Today, Sanjana styles some of the biggest names in entertainment, including South Asian royalty Richa Moorjani and Poorna Jagannathan of Never Have I Ever fame, Sahil Salathia, and more. But Sanjana doesn’t want to be put in a box. “I never really wanted to be known as a South Asian creative. Just a creative. That was from South Asia,” she says. Recently Sanjana launched a line of bindis and skin adornments with designer Surmeyi called Chaand-Tare (Hindi for moon-stars), as well as designed costumes for the  Sa Dance Company. And continues to be a powerful force in the fashion industry.

Sanjana's journey is a testament to the power of authenticity, resilience, and creativity. As she continues to break barriers and set new standards in the fashion industry, she remains a beacon of inspiration for those who dare to be their true selves and forge their own paths in life. With each new endeavor, Sanjana proves that she is not just a plus one, but a force to be reckoned with, redefining what it means to be a powerful woman in today's world. When asked what it means to her to be a powerful woman, Sanjana answers, “Being powerful is being connected to who you are. I think being powerful is being able to make people feel a certain way. I think all that matters in life is how you make people feel. And I think power is making people feel good.”

Published on July 9, 2024

Words by Vik Chopra

Vik Chopra is a filmmaker, writer, on-screen personality, and all-around creative on a quest to change the world through storytelling, particularly through the lens of the queer community and those that have experienced the American carceral system. He has worked for PBS and KEXP, and today is the co-founder and director of production of Unincarcerated Productions. When he's not out fighting the system, he's usually spending too much time in the gym or listening to Britney Spears. He is also the first assistant director for the upcoming JoySauce Late Night, premiering later this year.