Remembering Wendell Rodricks
The news of Wendell Rodricks’s passing sent shockwaves through the fashion crowd gathered together for Day 1 of Lakmé Fashion Week. Tributes to the designer started pouring in soon after as members of the community mourned his untimely death. The designer, who handed over his label to designer Schulen Fernandes in 2016, was working on an ambitious project that will see his home converted into India’s first costume institute, christened the Moda Goa Museum.
Veteran fashion journalist and author Sujata Assomull hails him as “a creative genius”, crediting the existence of resort wear as a category to his pioneering work. “He was among the first designers to talk about sustainability, or to take the sari and kurta and marry it with Western silhouettes. He was really the man who gave Indian fusion wear its vocabulary. He nurtured the industry, mentoring young designers, teaching, and writing for fashion magazines. He helped grow fashion into an industry. On the retail side, as one of the first Indian designers to work on collaborations with department store like Shopper’s Stop, he worked to make sure fashion went mainstream.”
Stylist and creative consultant Ekta Rajani, who studied under Rodricks as a student at SNDT University recalls the influence he had on her career. “There’s no question that he had a role to play in my success,” she says. “He was one of India’s original stylists. As 19-year-old students, we were not well-traveled and hadn’t really seen anything. But his sheer power of storytelling, knowledge and enthusiasm for what he did brought the entire world to our classroom. There’s nothing better a student can ask for.” Rajani speaks fondly of the designer’s generosity and thoughtfulness. “You would be surprised how many people he’s touched,” she says. It’s these small acts of kindness that stand out the most in conversations about Rodricks. Makeup artist Elton J Fernandez recalls, “There were just these little things he would do, like send me an email of his trip with photographs. In this business, every day is a new day – a new job and a new client. And more often than not you meet people who are doing their jobs either for power or fame, but Wendell was so above all of that. He always spoke his mind fearlessly. I liked that about him.”
Other members of the fashion community remember Rodricks as a visionary who was ahead of the curve when it came to issues that have only recently gained wider momentum. Tina Tahiliani Parikh, Executive Director of multi-designer boutique Ensemble, remembers a conversation with Rodricks over lunch after hosting an event with him at her store. “He spoke about designing for the social good,” she says. “He was very particular about the condition of his tailors, his use of water and dyes, at a time when it wasn’t so common.” Designer Nachiket Barve says, “When we look at the whole idea of resort wear, of the minimal chic aesthetic and eco-friendly fabric, he was a pioneer.” He believes there is a lesson to be learnt in Rodrick’s love for his work—a passion that had him working on the Moda Goa Museum and Research Centre until his last days. He recalls the iconic photos of Malaika Arora by shot by photographer Farrokh Chothia, a close collaborator of Rodricks’s, who re-imagined the look for Verve’s 90s Issue last January.
Besides impeccable design, Rodricks also leaves behind a legacy of being an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community. For him, the personal was political. Photographer Atul Kasbekar says, “He’s been a champion for gay rights. He’s lived his life openly and unabashedly. He and Jerome have been partners for decades now, and their commitment over so many years has been lovely to see.” Kasbekar also weighs in on his design sensibility, which he believes never became caught up with what the market desired. “As a creative person, it’s very difficult to stay true to your form, aesthetic and sensibility and not get swayed by commercial needs,” he says. “You realise that you’re losing a lot of money by doing that. But Wendell said, ‘This is what I do, if you like them, wear them.’”
Indeed, Rodricks was a designer so deeply connected to the thought behind his craft that he could decide, on a whim during a trip to Mongolia to rethink an entire collection for fashion week. In a November 2015 travelogue for Verve, he wrote, “The sky is a light blue and the air is icy. This calm is so inspiring that I decide to change my collection for fashion week. I did not ever dream to find such tranquility in, of all places, Mongolia.” In his passing, he leaves behind the memory of a life lived in pursuit of helping everyone whose lives he touched find this very same tranquillity.