Fashion

Wendell in the Bardo

Illustration

Illustration   | Photo Credit: Deepak Harichandan

Steeped in research, fond of repartee, quick to joy and pain, Wendell Rodricks was Indian fashion’s Mr Diehard

For a story published last year in the New York Times, designer Wendell Rodricks, now no more, spoke mystically to journalist Sarah Khan about the house he had lived in for the last 24 years with his partner Jerome Marrel. A 400-year-old structure, formerly called Casa Dona Maria in Colvale, Goa, it had belonged to a lady named Olinda Braganza. Wendell had seen the house in a dream and would later visit it to take Mrs Braganza around her own home and narrate intimate details that no one could have known. No one but someone who had lived there before. In spirit or flesh.

Some years later, Braganza wanted to sell the house, but only to Wendell. “A dream leads to a house. A house leads to a book. A book leads to a museum,” Wendell told Khan. “That doesn’t happen often in people’s lives unless dharma decides it.”

 

Wendell often spoke about dreams intersecting realities. Of the fashion industry and Moda Goa, the museum of Goan costumes and jewellery from pre-Portuguese rule to now, that he was painstakingly and passionately putting together over the years. He would later bring in an architect company, an archiving firm and a board of advisors. Brick by breath, with time and team, ebb or tide, with penitent patience and the perseverance of a man possessed.

Wendell Rodricks with life partner Jerome Marrel

Wendell Rodricks with life partner Jerome Marrel   | Photo Credit: Instagram

State of consciousness

Where is Wendell now, four days after his untimely passing at 59 years? A death that shocked the Indian fashion industry, leaving many wrapped in dark grief. We may not know where he exactly rests but, by existentialist rumination, he will be in his house-home forever — Casa Wendell and Jerome in Colvale. In memories, laughter, warmth, shared or/and secret worries, photos, collectibles, in the silent wails of his bereft pet dogs (some who are dead, others alive), in the emotions of his friends who will visit Jerome.

In spirit, Wendell will also transit to Moda Goa that will house more than 800-plus costumes and articles he collected. When the doors finally open, visitors will feel and miss Wendell.

Nobody really dies as long as they live in the memories of those alive. It applies to Wendell, too. Now though, while he is presumably in ‘bardo’, the intermediary state between death and nirvana, we must rewind thoughts. Bardo, described in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy as a transitional stage between states of consciousness, resembles the idea of the Christian purgatory. “A temporary state after physical death for expiatory purification.” Not everyone agrees with these post-mortem projections.

Wendell Rodricks with Sophie the boxer

Wendell Rodricks with Sophie the boxer   | Photo Credit: Instagram

However, in the days soon after a death, a person is remembered, eulogised, loved, missed and talked about persistently. That places a person in a transitional state. Wendell is in media and in minds. What he stood for, what shaped him, who he shaped, his whims and idiosyncrasies, his devotion to detail and the extraordinary hard work he put in becoming the man he wanted to be.

A friend who has eclipsed, a mentor who taught debutants the shallows and deeps of fashion, an ordinary man who loved food, then dieted and exercised, and loved East European cruises. Who lost no opportunity to proclaim love for his partner Jerome. A designer who created anti-embellished textiles in a country that worships bling. Who spoke for sustainability, simplicity in design and became the most known cultural ambassador of Goa. Who spoke his mind and bared his heart.

Wendell is in bardo because all these things are up in the air. Including the factoid that among Moda Goa’s collections is a seventh century Apsara found in a Colvale field where a Buddhist monastery once stood.

Thinker, designer, revivalist

I spent much of last night, unusually awake, burrowing into the transitional complexity of this theme to locate Wendell’s relevance in Indian fashion. The idea is not unique. I have been morbidly fascinated with death states since childhood due to my writer father’s melancholic personality and his death dialogues. That was why I read and reread George Saunders’ 2017 Man Booker-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, with deep interest.

 

It surprises me in the research of my own work that a large of number of subjects I explored over the last two decades as a fashion journalist led me to Wendell now and again. Gay rights and fashion or unfashion. Size charts in India, the downsides and triumphs of modelling, his discovery of some of India’s top glamour names, textile innovation, authoring books, winning the Padma Shri in 2014. Sending out the reimagined Kunbi sari on the ramp on actor-model Lisa Ray, who was recovering from multiple myeloma. He held back tears when veteran crafts practitioner Jasleen Dhamija (with actor Nandita Das) spoke about the Kunbi project (a loom and weaver revival project that, from 2012, continued at the government polytechnic in Panjim) at the then Wills India Fashion Week in 2010 in Delhi.

Wendell Rodricks

Wendell Rodricks   | Photo Credit: Siddhanth Sheorey

“This is not about commercial gain. Sometimes fashion needs to distance itself from finance that it feeds on so voraciously. When you see a Louis Vuitton or a Hermes Birkin bag, you think of money. When you see the Kunbi sari, you see a culture and a tribe,” he told me for a story for The Indian Express.

Then there was an offbeat story on secret couture owned by Indians for Mint Lounge. I have no idea why I reached out to Wendell. However, there he was talking about the clothes and accessories he was collecting for Moda Goa with pieces from private collections. It included a gold embroidered Bishop’s mitre, a gold coin pendant that dated back to the Knights of Malta circa 1500s, garments and jewellery from the last century.

Conversations would plod on, on the phone and in person. He would continue to send links to new fashion films, news and books via email. I enjoyed his witty, ironic, sometimes sardonic assessments of fashion as celebrity theatre. I loved the way he dressed his models but did not always admire how he undressed his remarks on social media.

Wendell is in bardo as these thoughts have bubbled up in no chronological order. Must have, in other minds too.

With charm in plenty

A poignant one springs from 2015. My close friend, Sharda Ugra, a well-known sports journalist and I visited Wendell and Jerome at their Colvale residence for dinner. Earlier that day, I had picked up my long-ordered Kunbi sari from Wendell’s Retreat & Style store in Panjim, but didn’t have a white petticoat to do justice to its white field. I wore it with a red blouse and a dark petticoat. Sharda wore a hand blocked-printed sari.

We arrived, excited and mismatched. The house is built on different floor levels with an architectural grammar that compels you to look around to orient yourself. The whisky was fabulous, the dogs were delightful, and the irresistible Jerome in a checked lungi was just the kind of husband material one would need to make a case for marriage. I felt lightheaded and funny. Sharda was in great spirits, too. Wendell and Jerome spoke cricket with her and fashion with me. Life and death, Rekha and Sachin Tendulkar, Goa and Paris, masala mussels, multiple sclerosis, his muse Malaika Arora, books and bum trips, it all came up. Wendell talked about the “smallness” of two inches that makes women go mad if they gain that extra and how his fashion teacher in France, who called him “Mr Rodriguez”, asked him to design clothes for women who have hips.

Later that year, the hand-signed New Year card Jerome and Wendell would always send arrived with warm adjectives. An email preceded that. “Take care of the Kunbi. Cool wash on low spin short cycle. And don’t tear the manjistha strips for a wound. Wear with the happiness it was woven with…” wrote Wendell. Manjistha, the red vegetable dye, is derived from a plant with healing properties according to Ayurveda.

Quick to hurt from fashion industry barbs as to healing and moving on, the guru of persistence, Wendell Rodricks was Indian fashion’s Mr Diehard.

Then God cast the die.

Shefalee Vasudev is editor of The Voice of Fashion.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 11:45:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fashion/wendell-in-the-bardo/article30820720.ece

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