'No, ma. Not tailor. I'm going to be a designer'
That's what Wendell Rodricks told his mother, Greta, 37 years ago, when he chose the life of a designer over a high-paying job
"His fashion was like the cool breeze," says Tarun Tahiliani in what could be a poetic eulogy to India's masterful couturier, the late Wendell Rodricks who passed on last week at his home in Goa. In a three-decade-long career of designing, Rodricks rarely stopped innovating. He was known to challenge the conventions of Indian fashion and tailoring rules to give a chance to conceptual and imaginative possibilities. It was his touchstone.
Rodricks learned fashion in Los Angeles and Paris. After designing for Garden Vareli, Lakmé and DeBeers, Rodricks established his own label in 1989 with a show at the Regal Room of the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. A collection of 12 ensembles had only six complete outfits. He didn't have the funds to make the remaining six "bottoms" that would be paired with the organza tunics. Funding footwear for the models was out of the question. So he sent his models down the ramp, barefeet. When each of the first six models returned back into the wings, they hurried out of the bottoms to hand them to the next lot.
(Left) Nina Manuel wears a Wendell Rodricks creation from the Empress collection in March 2007, based on the four personas of the ancient Byzantine empress Theodora. The collection celebrated each facet of her life: virgin, mistress, empress and saint; (right) Jesse Randhawa in a design from Wendell Rodricks's acclaimed collection, The Cubist, presented in October 2010. Pic/AFP
Shahab Durazi believes there was a purpose to Rodricks' clothes. "He was the first designer to introduce simplicity and minimalism to Indian design, and create a genre that did not exist [until then]."
The contemporaries first met in 1993 at a show for Glitterati, a multi-designer boutique housed at Kemp's Corner. It also marked the debut of his resort wear line for the discerning customer. "I thought that collection was path-breaking but the audience wasn't ready for him," Durazi remembers.
The collection, in fact, invited uproar. It was a time when Indian fashion was viewed through the prism of bridal or western wear, and colour and embellishment were mainstays. That his clothes were made from simple fabrics and were devoid of embroidery left the audience disappointed. "Wendell was disheartened, and even contemplated quitting. I urged him to stay on and give it more time… And look where conviction took him. I believed in his work, I felt part of his process," Durazi says nostalgically.
In the audience that day was fashion chronicler and author Meher Castelino, who was representing this newspaper back then. "That was India's first beach and resort wear collection, which is ironically now a category in itself, with fashion weeks dedicated to it," she says. "His clothes highlighted fabric and construction, not embellishment, which is what 98 per cent of the designers do these days."
He, in a sense, questioned seasonal temporary fashion long before the sustainability conversation became critical, designing ensembles that were practical, timeless, trans-seasonal and washable.
With new and experimental techniques, Rodricks kept his brand at the forefront of fashion—technically, if not always critically. He was interested in making clothes that could be worn by people in the real world. In other words, clothes that went beyond the frivolous and had a reason to exist. "His strongest looks were realised from the simplicity of white linen and cotton. And he designed for all shapes and sizes. They [his clothes] were not ethnic but still Indian," Tahiliani explains.
His autobiography, The Green Room, references a collection called Comfort Zone which he made in the mid-1990s for Sangita Kathiwada's Mélange. It was crafted from cotton custom-woven for comfort and easy cleaning. The collection was a sellout. Years later in 2007, for the Goa Spa show at Prêt à Porter Paris, Rodricks used eco-friendly fabrics and dyes for a collection entirely handmade in Goa's villages.
Housed in the heart of Panjim, Rodricks' flagship boutique sold garments in Slim, Medium, Voluptuous (for L), Voluptuous Goddess (for XL) and Very Voluptuous Goddess sizes. "I think it's demeaning to slot women in categories, don't you think?" he had told this writer about the sizing chart.
His clothes didn't have that striking hanger appeal. But when you slipped into them, they took on a life, often inspiring interest and discussion. His technique romanced fluidity and surface textures — Indian geometric shapes to form circles, repeated squares and infinity loops. "By looking at [a variety of] treatments including painting, pleating and crushing, Rodricks made pattern-cutting the hero of his clothes," says Durazi.
Tahiliani laughs when he says while most designers "were going mad", drifting in sundry directions, Rodricks didn't waver from his design philosophy. "He was sorted and evolved." It's the reason Durazi admires his courage. "He expressed himself freely. I'm in awe of him and his achievements."
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