Wendell Rodricks, in his own words: Dressing up Malaika Arora for her wedding, Aishwarya Rai's early days

Updated: Feb 18, 2020, 08:14 IST | A correspondent | Mumbai

In the first of our five-part tribute series to the late Wendell Rodricks, we present you excerpts from his autobiography Green Room, starting with his rejection by Yves Saint Laurent

Wendell Rodricks with Malaika Arora (left) and Aishwarya Rai (right)
Wendell Rodricks with Malaika Arora (left) and Aishwarya Rai (right)

picMummy and Daddy attended my graduation ceremony, then flew to Bombay. And I, portfolio in hand, went over to Yves Saint Laurent. The lady elegantly flipped through the sketches. 'Ca, j'aime bien.' Outside, a bee was crashing repeatedly against the glass of the window. The silence was excruciating. After looking at the sketches for a second time, she looked up, hot pink YSL-colour stained lips parted into a smile. 'You have talent, Monsieur Rodricks. It is obvious that you will be a good designer.

But I have a question. Why can't I see your fabulous country in your clothes? Monsieur Saint Laurent can design these dresses, jackets and gowns, n'est ce pas? Why will he need you? Unless you bring the Indian exotica into your work?'

I realised that I was being shown the door. I sat later on a parapet, over the bridge under which Princess Diana would die so tragically a few years later, looking at the Eiffel Tower with tear-blurred eyes. Madame Saint Laurent was right—I had to put India into my clothes. I needed to go back to my country.

First show in Goa

When the lights dimmed on Saturday, 15 November 1997, and the opening music began, there was a roar. The audience had the Collection Sheet and realised that this was not just a Wendell Rodricks show—it was a Goa show. A plume of smoke appeared on the stage. Through it appeared Malaika in the first garment. It was called Mussel and she wore a long, white silk-organza cocoon-coat shaped like a mussel. At head ramp, she dramatically threw open the coat to reveal polished mussel shells that clung to her breasts, invisible fishing line holding them in place. A long, liquid satin sarong in turquoise-blue hung low on her sculpted hips. The audience gasped.

Wendell RodricksWendell Rodricks

The ensembles flowed down the ramp one by one. Each time a Goan model appeared, there was loud applause from the audience. I was so proud of them. To walk alongside Madhu Sapre is what many seasoned Mumbai models fear. But the Goan models held their own. When the last model, Noyna, walked out in a leather corset, stamped in gold with the design of the altar of the Bom Jesus carved on the bodice, there was one final gasp.

The audience was on their feet even before my name was announced. I was ecstatic. My first solo show had got a standing ovation!

Later, my mother told me, 'When I saw you on that ramp, I remembered you as a little boy on stage for your school plays. Today, seeing all these people and the lovely clothes you have created, I am so proud of you.' It was the first time Mummy had praised me so openly and effusively. Daddy simply clasped my shoulders and looked at me — there was no need for words.

The SNDT Days

The first day I entered the campus of the SNDT College in Juhu, I was terrified. I was certain that my stammer would return to taunt me while I was on the podium in class. A beaming Dr Randheri welcomed me to her office. 'Welcome, welcome, so nice to meet you…' I immediately felt at ease with her. She was sharp, savvy and motherly, and I knew in the first few moments that I could trust her always.

Kalindibhen, as I affectionately called her from then on, showed me around the grey building where I would teach for eight years. I was joining college mid-term, so it was natural for everyone to wonder who I was. The students had expected an old professor; they had got a young man who wore suspenders, carried a slim bag and wore Japanese loafers to class. When I stepped on to the podium for the first time, I could feel 40 eyes watch my every move. I had prepared my lecture in advance and made sketches to show them the trends in Paris. I have no recollection of what I said, but the words flowed. I knew then that I was born to teach, to mentor, to guide. At the end of the lecture, I heard an imaginary applause. They had loved it. I had loved it. SNDT became home.

On reviving the Kunbi

Sheila Dixit, the CM of Delhi, caressed the sari,exclaiming, 'It feels so wonderful! It feels like the hands of the weaver have given it lightness, a softness… How can I thank you enough for what you are doing?'

Wendell and Malaika Arora at the launch of The Green RoomWendell and Malaika Arora at the launch of The Green Room

'Ma'am, wear it with the happiness with which it was woven,' I said.

Over at 10 Janpath and at Lodhi Estate, the Kunbi weave sari enjoyed a similar reaction from the Gandhis.

The weaving project to revive the Kunbi sari began in July 2009. By November, reluctant Goan weavers, who earlier wove only loincloths and ponchas in coarse cotton, were finally producing the first stoles. It was time to move them to the full sari width of 45 inches. Understandably, they were intimidated at the prospect of doing an entire sari. I designed the sari to incorporate Kunbi style lines, checks and ikat.

Soon, we had not just the saris but woven fabric in manjistha red, guava-leaf green, iron-ore black and indigo blue. On some looms, we managed to weave striped fabric for shirts and kurtas. Every time I found my energy flagging, I thought about how everyone said that it was an uphill task and this weaving project in Goa would not take off.

Exactly what I needed to propel me into action — there is nothing like a challenge!

Ash's early days

In one corner of the green room, Aishwarya Rai, Miss India World, was almost in tears. Pre-show nerves were affecting everyone, but Aishwarya had become the target of a group of models who hated her. So vicious were they that their spite—which had begun to show itself in Goa, at the Miss India contest—had forced its way to the Bombay ramp.

All this was over a worthless male model who was courting the then queen of the ramp—she was somehow miffed at the attention Aishwarya was attracting from him.

'Listen,' I told Ash, 'just forget these bitches. You are Miss India. Hold up your head and shine. Ignore them.' Within moments, I saw her pull herself together like the consummate professional. Forcing the hurt away from her grey-green eyes, she braced herself to face the ramp. In the years to come, she would blaze like a comet on the international scene and leave the petty models of Bombay far behind. When she won the Miss World title in Johannesburg, Ash triumphed over all the politics, her star shining brilliantly. Many people think she is cold—an ice goddess. In reality, she is a wonderful, simple girl. Quick to giggle and laugh, she is a good person, grounded, and with strong values. It was her extraordinary beauty and global fame that caused envy and bitterness among others. To Ash goes the credit for opening doors abroad for Indian beauties. Critics may carp, but the Indian presence at Cannes and international advertisements is thanks to Aishwarya Rai.

Malaika's wedding

On 12 December 1998, I arrived at Malaika Arora's home in Bandra, Mumbai, for a very special occasion. It was her wedding, and I had made the dress. A silver off-shoulder gown with a sheer net skirt. I stuck sequins on the tips of fishing line inserted into the neckline; the sequins would appear to float like twinkling lights around her beautiful face and shoulders.

Wendell with Neeta Lulla and Aishwarya RaiWendell with Neeta Lulla and Aishwarya Rai

After an hour-and-a-half of make-up and hair-styling, Malaika was ready to slip on the gown. When she wore it, everything was fine except for the panty line that showed through the tight dress. This, on the most famous butt in the country!

Malaika raised a sexy eyebrow. Typically her! Then, smiling mischievously at my quandary, she said, 'It's okay, Wendell, I will fix it.' I made a mental note to use three layers of lycra the next time we did a fitted gown.

Extracted from The Green Room by Wendell Rodricks, with Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd's permission

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