May 14, 2020

How Wendell Rodricks taught me to ‘give it away’

Lisa, I don’t know if you’ve already heard. Dearest Wendell passed away today.’ I saw the message on the evening of February 12th and could not react. Not for entire minutes. When I rechecked my phone the message was still there, along with more, an outpouring of disbelief and grief, ‘I can’t believe he’s gone.’ And I still can’t believe it. Wendell and I share a decades long friendship that at some point leaped over into becoming each other’s chosen family. When I brought my husband to Colvale, his ancestral village, to spend one Christmas Season with the ‘Jendells’ as close friends referred to Wendell and his long term partner Jerome, it was to meet ‘the in-laws’ as we joked. I suspect so much of Wendell has seeped into the way I see the world; his appreciation of the expansiveness of life. This notion that what we do is not a job or career, but a calling. A belief in living out our human expression with gratitude and gumption. Confidence to push against the grain. 

But of course, Wendell had his own unique contract with life. 

How else do you explain the long list of achievements: Pioneer of minimalist resort wear in India, Author, revivalist of the Kunbi saree, Ambassador of all things Goan, environmentalist, unofficial talent scout (everyone from Anushka Sharma to Deepika Padukone) outspoken LGBTQ rights activist, travel and culinary enthusiast, relentless promoter of young, promising talent, recipient of the Padma Shri in 2014 and the Chevalier de l’’Ordre des Arts Et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2015. And frankly, even this list merely hints at his multitudes, at unspoken deeds and the humour and kindness of an elegant soul. 

But, how did he manage to turn over the mind’s terrain and find fresh inspiration again and again? 

And how do you explain his greatest achievement, the ability to “give it away”. 

I wonder if even Wendell understood. 

The Wendell that I know simply did not appear to have the avarice that is a human trademark. By that I mean Wendell would impart ideas, stories and mentorship freely. He let go of his creations, gifting his kurtas and flowing, bias cut dresses to friends. His compliments and critiques, both flowed (opinionated and blunt, Wendell was known to be fearless about expressing himself, consequences and at times feelings be damned!). He stepped back from his eponymous label to allow Schulen Fernandes to carry his legacy forward. Wendell gave away so much of himself and his time, like it was a renewable resource. As he wrote: When I turned forty, Simone Tata told me, “Life has been good to you. Now give back.” The last time we met he updated me on his life’s dream: to convert his 450 year old home Dona Casa, in Colvale, into a Museum of Goan Costume called Moda Goa. And for this, he and Jerome have given their house away. 

Perhaps he found it easier to let go on account of some immense reservoir of ideas that flowed through him and never appeared to dry up. Not to say that success came easy. “I did face rejection many times. I was disappointed not to get an internship at YSL (Yves Saint Laurent). But that led me to India (in 1988) and it became a positive move eventually. In the initial years, I had to fight off requests to add embroidery to my clothes. I stubbornly stood my stand as I was sure my minimalism would eventually get accepted,” Wendell said in a 2012 interview.  

I met Wendell in my late teens. He collaborated as a stylist and designer often with another friend, Farrokh Chothia and shooting in those days afforded the luxury of long conversations and deep bonds. Wendell’s aesthetic was unique to India in the early 90s. He espoused a formal elegance but also an exciting hybridity. He rejected the assembly line approach and OTT sensibility that was so common in fashion then. A model might find herself adorned with a crown of twigs, crustaceans dangling from her finger tips, a pair of shells covering her breasts. Nature was Wendell’s original muse, even as he was looking in all directions for inspiration. I heard a rumour he once made a wedding gown from toilet paper. And it was beautiful. Scandalously beautiful.  

But more than a professional relationship, Wendell and Jerome literally took me in, gave a sense of home and belonging to a lost young woman, “out of place everywhere, at home nowhere” as Nehru once wrote of himself. I will never forget the way he humanized me at the height of my modelling career, seating me next to the smartest person at the dinner table: ‘because she might be pretty, but when you speak to her, you will understand what a beautiful mind she has.’ 

Did he see in me traces of the 22-year-old Wendell who left India for Oman, worked in hospitality for four years before taking a leap of faith to study fashion in Los Angeles and Paris? Someone whose time abroad had grafted onto him a new visual language while at the same time felt a longing for the fullest expression of his own unique cultural roots. Someone who wanted to be stirred by life and not follow the accepted path?  

I credit Wendell with reviving my modelling career multiple times. In the early 90s, I was known as a runaway model and when I would crash land back in Bombay  Wendell would look at me with an appraising yet unjudgemental eye then make a few phone calls, convincing Sathya Saran to put me on the cover of Femina. He was a loyal friend, emotional and utterly himself to everyone he met. In my memoir Close to the Bone, I wrote: Over the years he had styled me, nurtured me, hosted my parents at his home and when his father was in the Tata Memorial Hospital for cancer treatment, we had gone together, an unspoken invitation between old friends. 

Wendell moved to Goa in 1993 with Jerome. It was an audacious, ground-breaking move for the time, met with equal amounts of scorn and awe. ‘Perhaps you have to go away to come back home’ he once shared with me, understanding that village life could catalyse the creative process not thwart it.  

It was also an audacious decision to be living openly as same sex partners in the 90s in India. But Wendell and Jerome imbued their relationship with a version of love and domesticity that eventually transcended narrow mindsets. In fact, Jendell were my ‘agony aunts’, as I often sought refuge in their drawing room to lick romantic wounds and moan about deceitful partners throughout my tumultuous 20s. Wendell himself acknowledged, many of his achievements were built on the strength of his “lover” (in 2002 they entered into a legal same sex union at the French Embassy under French Law) and their singular bond.  

It was in Goa, on his native soil, that Wendell’s political and social beliefs blossomed. I became a frequent inhabitant of the guestroom in Casa Dona Maria, a vantage point over the years from which to observe Wendell transform into a version of himself that was not overtly political but political in the way he subverted the dominant imposed belief system, whether it was campaigning for the environment and sustainability issues, for LGBTQ rights and a wide range of social causes, envisioning fashion as a tool for empowering rather than diminishing women’s confidence. 

But it was in his workshop that I glimpsed the artist in his element: 

‘How do you do it, my dearest Wendell?’ I exclaimed, watching him twist and drape fabric in what appeared a form of wizardry to my eyes. 

The muses really hover at your shoulder more than most ‘ 

‘Tell me about it.’ He shot back. 

‘They come to me like phantoms at all hours of the day and night. Really! At times I feel they will drive me mad’ 

Wendell’s minimalist fashion design aesthetic was inspired by something Coco Chanel said, “Take away everything you can that a garment does not need. But retain the emotion”. His garments are threaded through the narrative of my life, stories articulated by way of the fall of the fabric, the cut, the loving hand behind it all permeating significant events: The red carpet for ‘Water’ ; me, photographed on the roof of his Altinho home, draped in a Kunbi sari sporting a chemo cut, post cancer treatment; my wedding gown (When I told him I was getting married, he rejoiced in a way that made me miss my mother just a little less.) Each of these pivotal events was marked by a Wendell creation I wore. And somehow threaded throughout his garments was his faith: my Wendell had so much faith in me. And not just me. When Wendell pulled out his guitar and strummed ‘You’ve got a friend” the Gaonwallah with his abiding love for his Goan village emerged. In this way, on evenings filled with music and glasses of Krugg, Wendell and Jerome helped many realise their worth and encouraged them to live their best life. And everything seemed orchestrated to frame memories, including the play of shadows in the heirloom filled drawing room, not unlike the timeless black and white photos he shot with Farrokh of his clothes, beautiful women silhouetted against the fields and trees of his village.   

Over the last few years, Wendell sent regular updates, including involved recipes, sustaining my connection to his habitat through food, through describing the first rains in Goa and how the palms danced immodestly. I was thrilled about his writing career; he encouraged my literary ambitions. I’ve been re-reading our correspondence these last few days, wondering how to honour his legacy.  

And I keep coming back to this foundational value; his world pivoted around his mission to learn, cultivate, nurture and let it go.  

Wendell simply refused to believe cultural loss was inevitable particularly for the seat of his soul, Goa. And yet, with a lack of organised conservation efforts it seemed to him that the transmission lines from one generation to the next were in danger of getting cut. And so he took ownership of Goan cultural history, fulfilling his remarkable tryst, by mixing design and collective memory, a worldly perspective and rootedness, as chronicler and bridge, suffusing everything he touched with heart and canny foresight. And most importantly, always with a sense of fun and occasion.  

That is a legacy worth emulating. And celebrating. 

As Wendell himself says: 

‘For the celebration of every single day, I do not have to look very far. My partner of twenty nine years has a philosophy worth embracing. “Do it for yourself and celebrate everything” 

Thank you my Wendelly, for signing off in style and celebration. 

Originally printed in Mint, February 2020.


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