Culture

Wendell Rodricks Put Goa – His First Love – on the World Fashion Map

He was a minimalist designer who lived life to the maximum.

It was just a few weeks ago that Wendell Rodricks kept punching out WhatsApp messages asking journalists and friends to rush to Colvale. The Public Works Department was axing age-old trees to widen the highway in his village and Wendell was beside himself with rage and indignation.

The trees didn’t survive, but the fashion designer made sure the chief minister got a taste of his anger and hurt: You “assured me the trees would not be cut…our village has been cut in half. People cannot cross the highway…You are oblivious to our village’s needs…with all due ‘disrespect’ we can never trust you again,” he wrote to Pramod Sawant.

When he first moved to Colvale in 1993 – Rodricks had acquired the sprawling house, furniture and all, “for a steal” he’d once said, from an old lady who wanted the new owner to love and care for it (Wendell and his partner Jerome had done that with finesse) – Wendell had already made a name for himself in the Indian fashion industry, showing at the Festival of India (1993) in Beijing and Shanghai. But Goa, more a place to let your hair down and take your clothes off, would have hardly seemed like a muse for high-end fashion.

Wendell Rodricks’ ‘Indica’ collection. Photo: wendellrodricks.com

Just 33 then, and back from two years of studying fashion design in the US and France and a stint in the Mumbai fashion circuit, Wendell learnt a bitter lesson abroad when a famous designer cut him to size. He needed to find his own style rather than blindly copy Western designers, he was advised. His own style, “inspired by Goa and India”, as he put it, led him to pioneer the concept of resort wear and stay with minimalist lines, quite the antithesis of the heavily embroidered high fashion in India at the time. “I am more Gandhian. I don’t want the clothes to wear you. You wear the clothes,” he once said.

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In the crisscross of little lanes in the Anjuna night markets and the daytime flea markets, bohemian chic often attracts international designers. Stella McCartney is rumoured to have made a few trips. But that was hardly Rodricks’ scene. His Wendell Rodricks Design Space in an old bungalow in Campal, Panaji is meant for the high-end foreign tourist and the glitterati of India that he unapologetically courted. “It’s good for business,” he’d say.

And indeed, it was his ability to mix with friends in high places, the neighbour next door or just anybody in Goa that set Wendell apart. His parties were known for their odd cocktail of the rich and famous rubbing shoulders with a smattering of family and everyday Goans – stirred up in the end with Wendell belting out oldies and growing teary and sentimental singing the mando (a plaintive, slow Goan Catholic musical form). A video of Wendell singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘Why Not Take All of Me’ at a party for his former teacher last month has currently gone viral on WhatsApp in Goa.

Wendell Rodricks’ ‘Wow Factor’ collection. Photo: wendellrodricks.com

But Wendell, who was already “phasing out” of the fashion industry – he handed over his line to his successor Schulen Fernandes in 2016 – was hardly all about fashion and fame. When few wealthy industrialists dared speak out against government policies, the designer unabashedly waded into environmental activism, lending weight to the Goa Bachao Abhiyan (GBA) movement against large-scale land conversions during the Congress government.

“He was never afraid to speak out,” Oscar Rebello, who had led the GBA, said. Rodricks’ support for the Goa Foundation’s case against illegal mining alienated quite a few of his powerful friends in the mining industry. But he stuck to his guns, saying Goa mattered more than friends in high places.

Openly outspoken about gay rights, Rodricks married his partner Jerome Marrel in Paris in 2002. It was a partnership that endured to the end, Jerome’s quiet reserve and maturity providing the perfect foil to Wendell’s passionate exuberance and creativity. Three years ago, the couple moved out of their 450-year-old five-bedroom bungalow in Colvale to a smaller house in the village. The old house is to make way for India’s first costume museum to document Goa’s indigenous cultural heritage through a collection of over 800 artefacts going back to the seventh century.

Wendell Rodricks’ legacy lives on. So does his abiding love for Goa.

Devika Sequeira is a freelance journalist based in Goa.