My first designer garment was a Wendell Rodricks. It was a birthday gift from my husband, a white khadi top that had two layers of arms. The outer layer was a bell sleeve of the rough khadi material that danced away from the body, while the inner layer clung to the arm like a delicate creeper, extending out to the wrists, a wispy chiffon epidermis like the long gloves of a Victorian lady. It was genius I thought — arrogantly marrying textures and fits, khadi with chiffon, the loose with the tight. Letting go and holding on.
Wendell’s clothes were cut with a glamour and a confidence that could transfer to the wearer. I loved that about his designs. Something about them was always a little ahead of their times.
Even though he brought a new kind of minimalism to fashion in India, and embodied what fusion could mean between Indian sensibilities and Western cuts, the term fashion designer was too small to fit Wendell.
A consummate fashion historian, a fashion writer, a chronicler of his people, the Goan community… In every interaction he revealed his love for his state, for his community; he ached for the way Goa was being gobbled up by greedy builders and mining companies, he mobilised for new ways of community living and for fighting against a system that was bound to destroy it. He loved his people. His people loved him.
I don’t know when exactly I got on to his mailing list for a while. Through the mid-2000s enraged mails would come from him (and late writer Margaret Mascarenhas) exhorting Goa lovers to write to the Chief Minister on the lack of any waste management infrastructure in the state — complete with list of newspaper editors and their email ids, email ids of the Chief Minister’s office, and photographic evidence of hillocks of garbage. Not the image certainly of Goa that we have in our minds.
Wendell (it feels strange to call him Rodricks, such was his brand) continued in his role of environment activist, later marking his protest to illegal mining in the state by shutting down his boutique in a resort that was owned by a mine owner, and campaigning unsuccessfully against the felling of six iconic ambeani (mango) trees in his village that were 200 years old, to make way for the construction of a highway.
Wendell Rodricks took such pride in being Goan, in his village, in showcasing his state. He was a meticulous chronicler of everything Goan. He was the author of The Green Room (2005), a memoir of his own life but also of the evolution of the fashion industry, and of Moda Goa — History and Style (2012) which brought home why the fusion of Indo- Western design came to him so naturally. Goa was a place that had been influenced by so many different cultures and people that fusion was inevitable.
In the book, he detailed the history of the kunbi sari, the Goan sari that farmers’ wives (of the Kunbi tribe) wore, designed (with shorter length and easier drape) to enable them to work freely in the fields. Wendell worked later to revive the coarse checkered sari and its weaving patterns. His most recent book, Poskem – Goans in the Shadows (2017), was about a darker side of Goa, examining the memories of the last generation of poskim, the practice of wealthy families taking in orphans for their labour, to become servants.
Wendell was serious about being the keeper of memories, whether good or bad. On the cards was another large project — converting his house into the Moda Goa Museum and Research Centre, a collection of international standards that would source and showcase the history of costume and design through artefacts from as far back as the 7th century. Perhaps it was this fierce closeness to his roots that brought him such international acclaim. By being unabashedly local, he was truly universal.
Fifty-nine is no age to go. But if we were to measure a man by his deeds not his years, Wendell would be a centenarian. His passing is a terrible loss not only to his family and friends but to Goa, to India and to the world of design and cultural history.
Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)
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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2020 10:39:29 IST