A multi-talented fashion icon (1960-2020)

Wendell Rodricks was a consummate Goa-based award winning fashion designer, historian, author and activist. Born into a modest Goan Catholic Mumbai family, Wendell did his graduation in catering. He however, switched to studying fashion designing, in the early 2000s, at Los Angeles and Paris, and completed internships at the National Museum of Costume and Fashion, Lisbon and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City. 

He worked for fashion houses such as Garden Vareli, Lakme Cosmetics and DeBeers, before launching his own eponymous label in 1989. His creative world was in another silo, frequently colliding with what was happening elsewhere. Advocating, he always surprised women by being able to tell their size without bringing out the measuring tape. He advocated eco-friendly and sustainable fashion and brought to his shows thought and precision. His models often were real women…women he knew from high society, an aunt he loved, a friend, an ex-model who had decided to abandon dieting and let herself look like a real woman.

A homosexual, he was an icon of Indian’s LGBTQ rights movement and married Frenchman Jerome Marrel, in a civil ceremony in Paris in 2002. Wendell not only designed clothes for many B-town personalities, but even featured in cameo roles in Bollywood films like such as Boom (2003), Fashion (2008) and Fan (2016) and a television play True West in the year 2002. In 2014, he received the Padma Shri for a collection that showcased outfits with Braille. He was also ordained Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) in 2015. He worked on the planning of the first ever Lakme India Fashion Week in 2000 and was prescient in his ability to see potential amongst the gauche young who thronged such events. He was also one of the speakers at TEDx, Panaji 2019. The trauma of the 1993 Mumbai riots saw him shift base to his native Goa in the 2000s.

A talented writer, in 2012, he brought out his first book, Moda Goa: History and Style, on Goa’s costumes and also his autobiography, titled The Green Room, not only about his own life but also of the evolution of the fashion industry. In 2017, he released Poskem: Goans in the Shadows, a work of fiction about the darker side of Goa – the practice of wealthy families taking in orphans for their labour, to become servants, in some cases even victims of abuse.

An activist, he ached for the way Goa was being gobbled up by greedy builders and mining companies, and mobilised new ways of community living and for fighting against a system that was bound to destroy it. He traced the history of and revived the kunbi sari, the traditional Goan coarse checkered sari and its weaving patterns that farmers’ wives (of the Kunbi tribe) wore, designed (with shorter length and easier drape) to enable them to work freely in the fields, helping the weavers get an enhanced amount of more than ₹ 7,000 from a meagre ₹ 700 and showcased the design at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week.

He restored his 450-year-old home, called Casa Dona Maria in Colvale into a costume museum called Moda Goa Museum. It will preserve indigenous cultural heritage through his 30 years collection of over 800 artefacts dating from the 7th century C.E. to the present, including costumes and accessories ranging from an original pano bhaju, to Reita Faria’s bathing suit (Miss World in 1966), to an apsara found in a nearby field dating to a Buddhist 

In 2016, announcing his retirement from his label, he handed over its creative control to his student, Schulen Fernandes, a first for any major Indian fashion label. Wendell died at his Colvale, Goa residence aged 59 of heart attack. By being unabashedly local, he was truly universal. Hopefully, his legacy will live on.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.