Wendell Rodricks, the designer who dared to tell the truth
Those who follow Indian fashion would know that designer Wendell Rodricks can be credited with many firsts in his career. He was the designer who made resort wear a mainstream idea much before the Herve Leger loving fashionistas in India discovered the sexiness of a kaftan.
In the early days of Fashion Weeks in India, he was the one who put real women across sizes and ages at one of his fashion shows in Delhi, cheekily opening the way for an inclusive fashion debate. More than a decade ago, I remember him offering a chance to model to one of my friends, a proud plus size woman, who couldn’t believe what she just heard.
There are countless stories of Wendells’ kindness. It is well-known in fashion circles how he helped many fashion models, gave them a space to launch which even steered Bollywood careers for some.
Rodricks also brought with him a certain sense of easy fluidity in Indian fashion that one hadn’t really seen before. But the Padma Shri recipient did not keep his activism just to fashion. He openly spoke about gay rights, environmental issues and even in the midst of glam, glitz and hullabaloo Mumbai offers for a designer, he chose to make the quietude of Goa his home.
A state, he loved with reverence and a state he called his happy place. And it is also the truth about this state that he did not shy away from revealing. In the summer of 2017, Rodricks set upon talking about something more about Goa than just the sun and susegad as we know it.
He wrote a commendable book on a secret Goan tradition carefully kept under the wraps; well up until now. In his book titled Poskem, Rodricks wrote about the Goan tradition of keeping Poskims. Poskim (plural Poskem) is a Portuguese term for young children from poor families who were adopted by rich families in Goa and made to stay with them. Forever. And while this sounds like an honourable idea, Rodricks minced no words in explaining that charity ended there. The young children were kept mostly as servants. Denied with a right to education and an inheritance in the family, Rodricks had seen many such Poskims leading a life of unfair, unfullfilment.
Talking to me in the summer of 2017, Rodricks explained that even though the tradition was dying and Goa may be seeing its last generation of Poskims it was important to blow the lid off that shameful past. He admitted that while many agreed that the practice was a cruel reminder of what bonded labour in contemporary world could look like; he was met with scepticism and shock from the locals about his book.
Not many celebrities I know of would want to uncover an embarrassing past from their own families but Rodricks was different. He was unfazed when he told me: “I am ashamed to say there were Poskim in our family history. Though we were friends with them, we knew from the onset that they had a different place in the family and were technically not to be treated as family. They did not sit at the table with us at mealtimes, did not sit near us in church, spent most of their time in the kitchen, did household chores, did not go to school and were always in the shadows, away from our comparatively privileged lives. The worst part was that the entire village called them by that dreaded name. Girls were called Poskem, boys Posko and collectively they were called Poskim.”
Interestingly, even though Rodricks’ life was full of high-profile engagements and glossy events, he did not forget the real reason he wrote his second book – a Poskim named Rosa. Rosa was Rodricks’ neighbour who lived alone during her last years. Treated by neighbours in a condescending manner for her past, Rosa and Wendell struck an unlikely friendship based on kindness. They would chat about their lives and send food to each other. Wendell remembered that Rosa had never seen the interiors of his house. He told me: “If I called her (Rosa) for a cup of tea, she would say, “But you are a Bhatkar (landlord) I am too small a person to have tea with you.” That pained me. When Rosa died, I promised at her coffin that I would write about the Poskim – the forgotten Goans in the shadows.”
Wendell kept his promise, he honoured not just Rosa but many such children who were unfortunate and couldn’t live their best lives. With his book, Wendell remembered them during his best moments.
While most people remember Rodricks for his easy, breezy fashion and cool camaraderie with his Bollywood pals; but he was also a man whose life was touched by the unfortunate. And that is his true legacy.