In memoriam: Remembering the iconic designer Wendell Rodricks
A friend pens a heartfelt tribute
The very last conversation I had with Wendell Rodricks was, of all things, about Priyanka Chopra. He knew her (but then, he knew everyone), and had posted about her choice of attire for the Grammy Awards on Instagram. I was miffed about his post and told him: “This is 2020, Wendell. I don’t think anyone should be telling women what they should, or shouldn’t, wear.”
“Look, I know PeeCee, you don’t. She’s super cool and I love her, this is not about her body. All I was saying was that ‘the’ dress in question was not right for her,” he insisted. I didn’t buy that. “Only she gets to decide what is right for her and what is not. It’s not your business or mine,” I said.
We continued to growl at each other and after a while decided to let it go.
“When are you reaching Goa? Jerome and I might be travelling. Possible to change your dates?” That was the very last thing he said to me. I said it looked difficult, but I’d try. I didn’t intend to, but I did end up changing my dates to attend his memorial service. How innocent we were of what was coming our way!
I had known Wendell for over 20 years. We were what could be called good friends, but not ‘very good friends’. The last time we really spent time together was over a year ago in Goa. I was temporarily living in a house that Wendell had found for me to rent, not very far from where he lived. We met for a few short lunches and dinners and then Jerome and Wendell came home after midnight Christmas mass in Colvale church. Both of them took their church and the local community very seriously. We drank champagne and ate yummy goodies and chatted from midnight till the wee hours of the morning. I was living alone, so he insisted that they’d bring food and drinks. I didn’t have to do anything, except stay awake till midnight. We had a few friends over, both his and mine, and we had a wonderful time, on a dark, cold, Christmas night in a small village called Camurlim in Wendell’s beautiful Goa. We laughed, told each other stories and we were happy.
He even brought me a Christmas present—a hard bound cookbook; especially because he knew I hated cooking! That’s the Wendell I will always remember. Wicked and funny, but also thoughtful, kind, sensitive and passionate. Always ready to listen, always ready to learn new things, and always ready to share.
I first met him at work, as a young journalist, and somewhere, soon after, he crossed over from being in my professional life to being a not-so-small part of my personal life. He insisted that we were very good friends since I had been invited to his wedding (and I went, it was amazing). He also insisted on being invited to all the non-events in my non-eventful life. Over the years, Goa for me (and several others) had become synonymous with Wendell. He was the first person I called when I visited. He was my go-to person for anything to do with Goa— animals, environment, fashion, people, and food.
I visited him several times and over the years we ended up spending a lot of time in Goa, Bombay and Bangalore. Like many, many others I fell in love with Wendell and Jerome. They were my favourite couple. I’ve been to their home, played with the numerous puppies that they’ve rescued from the streets. I’ve seen the two of them cook and serve amazing food in their home as well as at the very fancy Aubergine, a restaurant they ran for a while about 15 years ago. They once set up a full-on candle-light dinner for me in their garden because I’d spent my birthday night on a bus travelling to Goa. It was just the three of us and their many cats and dogs. I’ve seen him at work in his studio, cutting fabric quite lovingly,;his favourite occupation, those days was talking about textiles. I wore T-shirts and pyjamas as formal wear and yet he insisted on telling me about the weave and warp of different kinds of textiles and about natural dyes. I always rolled my eyes and pretended fashion was boring, but he was an amazing teacher and was a mentor to so many aspiring designers. He was one of the reasons I reported on fashion for a while, because he taught me that fashion and style was much more than just what beautiful people paraded on the ramp.
I once told Wendell I wanted to buy white pants and he said he would never speak to me again if I did. He called it disgusting, and a ‘fashion disaster’, Jerome laughed in the background. I did buy white pants and wore them frequently (of course I did!). But, never in his presence, I wasn’t that brave. I never got around to finding out what the problem with white pants was. And, now I never will.
The first time I met Wendell (about 20 years ago) he was dressed in silk, like he belonged in some palace. I had just been introduced to him and I told him he looked like a minor Maharaja. “Why minor, you impertinent creature?” he asked, smiling. And, I liked him instantly. I was a very young, and very foolish trainee journalist and he was a well-known designer (I hadn’t heard of him, but everyone else had). “I’m actually here for Sridevi’s wedding,” he told me once we got talking. I gasped, because I’d just read in the papers that morning that Sridevi was indeed getting married to Boney Kapoor. I loved Sridevi, I grew up wanting to be like the Sridevi of Mr. India. The idea that there was a secret wedding in Bangalore made my heart pound (very embarrassing right now, but this was then!) “Please, can I come with you? I’ll stay really quiet, and won’t get in the way, it’ll be the highlight of my life,” I begged, even though I had only just met him. He looked a bit surprised and unsure, but was gracious enough to acquiesce “Sure, come with us, Sree is one of my best friends and, I’m sure she won’t mind,” he said. I was going to Sridevi’s wedding with one of her best friends! I could have died from happiness.
It took me nearly an hour to figure out that it was Wendell’s very close friend Shreedevi Deshpande who was getting married and not ‘my’ Sridevi. After explaining the fiasco, I got out of the car, flagged an auto-rickshaw and went home, even though he kept insisting that I accompany them. He was laughing so hard that he had tears running down his cheeks. I was irritated because I believed I had been misled. I’m sure he judged me as a stupid, star-struck wannabe silly girl parading as a journalist. He was right. He was never tired of telling people this story, every time he introduced me to someone new.
Wendell was a bundle of talent and a born entertainer. I frequently heard people telling him that he should be in show business. He sang very well, he danced beautifully. I remember he designed the bar at the Marriott Hotel years before other fashion designers had thought of venturing into anything besides couture. His home was a testimony to his style and taste. He was also a very sensitive and thoughtful human being. I always admired how respectful he was towards his staff and employees. And, there were several of them, not just at home but also at the studio and the shop. That the same people have been around for over two decades says something about the relationships he built with people. Even at a packed party in his house filled with writers and artists from all over the world, I would see a very senior citizen in a wheelchair. Wendell would stop doing everything he was doing to go outside, receive her and wheel her in. He would then proceed to spend the majority of the time that evening with her. He spread so much joy and happiness with his very presence.
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He was very outspoken so much so that he sometimes ended up upsetting people. I think his outspokenness came from the fact that he cared very deeply. He cared about, and fought for LGBTQIA+ rights and sometimes ended up arguing with friends on the need to include everyone in this fight, and not limit gay rights to a narrow lens. He cared very deeply about animals and his home was a sanctuary to cats and dogs. But most of all he was extremely passionate about Goa and the need to preserve Goan heritage. He moved back to Goa long before Goa became fashionable. He was part of Goa’s clean up drive, fought against mining in Goa, and for the need to conserve the natural fauna and flora that rapid industrialisation would kill. He even gave up his beautiful house (the house he got married in) to create the Moda Goa museum, a one-of-a-kind museum dedicated to showcasing and preserving Goan heritage. He travelled the world to source and collect antiques with Goan stories and historical significance. The museum is almost ready, every stone and tile has been lovingly sourced and restored to its original glory. If Wendell was the life and soul of Moda Goa, Jerome is its body. His commitment to Wendell and Moda Goa borders on the spiritual.
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There are a million stories about Wendell that I’m sure family and friends will carry with them. He had very, very good friends. I was only on the periphery, the outer circle, and yet, he touched my life in so many ways. He was too young to go, he had so much more to give and contribute. Our world (and I don’t just mean the world of fashion) is so much poorer without Wendell in it. But his trademark style lives on, thanks to Schulen Fernandes, who has been instrumental in taking the Wendell Rodricks line forward. And, his love for Goa will always live on through Moda Goa and through everything he lived and fought for. For his friends and family, a Goa without Wendell Rodricks is painful to imagine, but with Moda Goa, we will continue to see Wendell every day, in every artefact, on the floor, in the walls, and in the very breeze that blows through the beautiful building.
Nirmala Ravindran is a writer, theatre director and co-founder of Sandbox Collective, a Bangalore-based arts collective. In an earlier life, she worked as a journalist.
Photographs: Getty Images (Wendell Rodricks); Instagram: (Moda Goa Museum)