Designer, activist, writer: Wendell Rodricks wore many hats
The last tweet Wendell Rodricks wrote was about his dream project that was slated to come up in Colvale, the small village of Goa in which he and his partner of many decades, Jerome Marrel lived. Rodricks, 59, passed away on Wednesday.
“Modagoamuseum final plastering at work,” the tweet dated February 9, read, and it was accompanied by a link to a photograph in his Instagram account. It showed a sunlit narrow passage, its space filled with scaffolding, and a staircase with a wooden bannister.
Moda Goa — a fashion museum with more than a hat tip to Goa’s deep heritage — which will open later this year, arose out of Rodricks’ deep wish to celebrate not just Goa, but also his lifelong passion for style, sustainability, design and fashion.
“It is my hope and dream that the Moda Goa Museum becomes what Goa has always been. A stop on the international crossroads of humanity,” he wrote. Not many know that this museum, which already possesses hundreds of artefacts, including some dating back to the 7th century, will open in the home (itself a heritage structure) that he shared with Marrel for over two decades, before moving out a few years ago.
“I am on the threshold of senior citizenship, Jerome is already 62, and we wanted to downsize. To find a home that made fewer demands on us and was more compact. I realised then that selling was not an option. Anyone spending so much would want to tear down parts, extend and build over or along the original walls. And I had given my word that I wouldn’t let that happen,” Wendell told Sathya Saran, the former editor of Femina, in an article published in the Hindustan Times in 2017.
Parmesh Shahani, who heads the Godrej India Culture Lab, has fond memories of that home, which he would visit as a young man. Shahani wrote about Rodricks’ and Marrel’s marriage in his 2008 book, Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India.
“They were such an inspiration. It gave me and a generation of young gay people hope, to have such a template: that one could live with a partner, be married to them. By living an open and unapologetic life, they helped us imagine such a life for ourselves,” Shahani said.
Rodricks and Marrel signed a PACS or Pacte Civile de Solidarite, the French civil solidarity pact that offers legal status to same-sex couples in 2002.In his autobiography, The Green Room, he spoke about how he was outed by columnist Shobaa De. But his family, he said, always knew about his sexuality and — contrary to expectations — was not troubled by it.
A Mahim boy, Wendell grew up in Bombay, but he moved to Goa in the early ’90s. He worked in hotels, and then studied fashion design in the US and France in the late 1980s. When he returned to India, he pioneered clothing categories like resort-wear and eco-friendly garments, long before they became catchphrases in the fashion world. For Rodricks, however, sustainability was always an integral part of his design sensibility.
Filmmaker Apurva Asrani, another close friend of Rodricks, wrote in his tribute on Instagram: “When he was at the top of his game as a designer, he made clothes for plus size women.. He worked bravely for LGBTQ rights and gave people like me hope for long lasting same sex relationships. He was a fine author and created magic with his book, Poskem. He was a reservoir of knowledge and spoke eloquently about arts, politics and culture..”
He wore many hats, observed author Vivek Menezes who knew Rodricks for years. “His career trajectory was interesting: first, as a well regarded fashion designer for which he won the Padma Shri; as a queer activist who always made the appeal that it’s about love; and then, a remarkable third career as a writer. He was always so generous to so many people.”
Journalist Neil Pate, a close friend of Rodricks for close to two decades, recalled the time when Rodricks sent over a dabba of bangra (mackarel) curry and rice, while Pate was shifting in to his own home in Goa. “Wendell was a wonderful cook, but his mother’s prawn curry recipe was delicious. He said that he would serve that in the museum, when it opens.”
One of Rodricks’ last Instagram posts showed a photo of two puppies whom he and his partner had recently adopted, after the recent death of his pets, Sophia and Tyra. “After 28 years of high end breed dogs, we got these adorable stray puppies from @79thepetstop,” he wrote. “The angels have arrived.