In 2008, as the programme for “Mantles of Myth” — a textile conference I was curating — was going to print, Devdutt Pattnaik wrote in saying that fashion designer Wendell Rodricks had a unique story of the first Indo-Western garment that merited attention. Later at the conference, amidst veteran textile historians, revivalists and experts, at every turn, Rodricks’ session more than held its own. There was not a single dry eye in the room as he recounted the tales of persecution and trauma that Konkani ladies underwent in the 16th century under the Portuguese inquisition. Their forced abandoning of traditional garments was to pave the way for the first forms of Indo-Western garments to emerge in the subcontinent. Clothes that both the coloniser and the colonised could accept, keeping their respective notions of ritual purity and modesty intact.
Much before all of this, Rodricks had successfully created an eponymous label that brought a couturier’s precision to resort wear. His clothes were an ode to minimalism and organic fabrics much before these terms reached the average fashionista’s lexicon. His training in fashion, both in California and Paris, were to hold him in good stead and he always surprised women by being able to tell their size without bringing out the measuring tape. He credited the rigour of his education in the US for his great affinity towards costume history besides an ability to illustrate his design ideas. A zest for originality was instilled post his training in Paris, where relentless sessions demanded an ability to create new design ideas and novel structural innovations that allowed a garment to map out the human body and its contours in fresh silhouettes. All of this would later allow any length of fabric to emerge from his design book as a free-flowing sheath that the trade would struggle to categorise as a blouse or a dress or even a gown.
His short but intense years of professional life in Mumbai in the late 1980s, teaching at SNDT Women’s University and working at the Garden Silk Mills, then at the height of its creativity and popularity, were to give him a unique perspective into the mainstream textile industry in India. His creative world was in another silo and it frequently collided with what was happening elsewhere in the fashion industry since he started out in 1990. The trauma and aftermath of the Mumbai riots and serial bomb blasts of 1993 was to see him move base with his team to his native Goa. This allowed him to steer clear of designer traps that others often succumbed to within the ebbs and flows of seasons and colours. It was not as if he didn’t understand any of this, it was just that his metier understood the flow of India in a more deeply satisfying personal way and he chose to manifest his creative impulses in an altogether different manner. Pared down, devoid of fuss, clothes that moved seamlessly from day to night, careful choice of materials and superb tailoring that was rarely visible but needed oodles of innovation for its construction to be realised.
Wendell and Jerome’s (his partner) hospitality became legendary. Their table groaned under the weight of the most delectable food that Goa had to offer, all served with dollops of trademark wit and quick repartee that would frequently catch an uninitiated visitor unaware. His kindness to those in his field and his mentorship of several big names in the fashion industry is oft repeated. He was key in the establishment of the Lakme India Fashion Week in 2000 and was prescient in his ability to see potential amongst the gauche young who thronged such events. A prominent advocate for the LGBTQ community, animal rights and the environment, he was always careful in not allowing his divergent interests to subsume his identity as a designer.
The last decade saw him divert a significant amount of his time towards preserving Goan material culture and heritage. His three books on the subject tackled this from myriad perspectives, with Moda Goa, particularly, being a vanguard in its ability to delineate and tease out the complex history of Goa’s sartorial traditions. It was however his enthused engagement and work with the Museum of Christian Art in Goa that was to help crystalise an earlier idea towards creating a first museum dedicated to the region’s rich costume history and culture. His commitment to this cause led him to vacate his 450-year-old home, now repurposed towards the setting up of the Moda Goa Museum (disclosure: My company Eka is assisting with this project).
A Padma Shri in 2014 was taken in his stride, pretty much like everything else that life threw his way. His decision to appoint a successor, Schulen Fernandes, for his label is a first for any major Indian fashion label. It was also a signal for a pause from the rigours of day to day design and a step towards other creative pursuits. Goa was his forever muse in all her piquancy, joy and colours. At 59 perhaps there was another journey that beckoned.
This article first appeared in the February 17 print edition titled ‘Ahead of the latest’. The writer is managing director of Eka Archiving, a Delhi based museum consulting company
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines