Late in 1995, a friend called Arjun Reddy had introduced me to a dentist who lived in the quaint Latin quarter of Fontainhas in Panjim. A smiling, happy soul, Abel DeSouza owned a clinic that had seen better days. He was desperately in love with someone in the Gulf and, eager to be near his beloved, he took up a job offer in Yemen.
So eager was he to leave Goa that he had offered his clinic to me. “Listen, Wendell. I am going off to work in Yemen. My mother will be happy if you rent the place from us.”
I had been taken aback. “Let your job come through, then we will talk about it.”
“The job will come through. I have already paid an agent in Mumbai.” That means nothing, I had wanted to tell him. But I kept my lips zipped. I advised him to go to and spend some time in Dubai, which was where the person he loved lived. He did, and then came back and leased his clinic to me. Not willing to pass up on such a wonderful opportunity, I started making plans to launch my own store.
As I had feared, however, Abel was duped by the agent who was to send him to Yemen. That was after he signed off his clinic for rent. I was torn between giving him the clinic back and watching him move into a ramshackle room at the back of the house. Eventually, he was so enthralled with what was happening at the shop that he joined the staff as the manager. Thereafter, he stopped practising dentistry altogether and worked in fashion.
Work was on at top speed to open the boutique by October. Through the monsoon, masons from Colvale toiled late at night, converting the old space into a luxury boutique. I knew what I wanted. Goan flavour, with a modern edge.
I painted a wall laterite-red and created dressing rooms and curved walls with step-like tops. A terracotta wall was painted with Warli drawings. Cartoonist Alexyz’s daughter, Maymoonara, helped me with the painting. Savio Jon had introduced me to a shoemaker called Edwin Pinto at his shop opening in Siolim. Edwin was doing tailoring assignments at the time. I forced him to do what he liked best – shoes.
Edwin created beautiful slippers and mules in fine silk. They were poised on the circular pyramidal steps built into the corners of the shop. While the masons, supervised by my Colvale friend, Victor Paul, chipped away and replastered the walls, a salesgirl-cum-designer from Melange called Sarita Mascarenhas joined us and supervised the boutique. Her husband Mark joined in and introduced us to Vernon Arainha, who faithfully reproduced the curved wrought-iron furniture and seats I sketched on paper.
We interviewed and hired a shy, good-looking young boy called Lauriano from Cortalim and a salesgirl called Ruchila from Siolim. I was exhausted mentally and physically with the boutique work. So Jerome dragged me to New York for a brief break, where my brother Chester joined us. Once Jerome left, Chester and I flew to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
I hooked up with my friend Diana Berkowich from college and we also went to see Eunice and Wes, who now lived away from the city. It was two weeks of fun, fun and more fun. Back in Goa, the studio toiled over the clothes. We were habituated to doing twenty garments at a time; so this was a mammoth task – to fill an entire shop. We completed over 120 pieces.
A range in white cotton, a rack of crinkled polyester wraps and tunics, a line of silks, pastel georgette tunics with pearls, backless cholis, handpainted saris and tunics, twenty men’s shirts, kurtas and churidaars and the footwear by Edwin. A young architect and interior designer, Bruce Fernandes, who worked under Arjun Mangaldas, oversaw the interiors. He put in track lighting, set up the shop window and completed the shop on time. Painted yellow and white, the signature Wendell Rodricks colours, the shop stood out on the street.
The Wendell Rodricks Couture Salon at the Rua de Ourem was finally ready. With the river over the entrance to Panjim flowing gently by the row of old homes and new buildings, the setting was so picturesque that even after we left the shop the owners retained the colours and the 2001 movie Dil Chahta Hai featured the shop exteriors.
Jerome invested money to fly in the media for the opening. Amy Fernandes from the Times of India; Meher Castelino, who now wrote for Mid-Day; Sathya Saran from Femina; Saira Menezes from Savvy; Lalitha Abreu, who was the editor of Society; and Neerja Shah, who was now at the helm of Elle, were invited for the opening. We decided to put them up at a small hotel called Panjim Inn.
The owner’s vision was so limited that he did not see the opportunity staring him in the face. He refused to sponsor or provide discounts for the rooms or upgrade the bed linen. We ended up investing in sheets and spreads for the hotel. Years later, Panjim Inn became one of the trendiest boutique hotels of the capital.
On D-day, I was busy hanging clothes and arranging footwear, yoga mats and bags on the steps in the boutique’s corners. The wrought-iron forms carved beautifully by Vernon Arainha were draped with silk scarves and stoles. The shop was like a little jewel – warm, inviting and with a great ambience. Even now, years later, I feel that it was a beautiful shop!
While butterflies fluttered in my stomach, the Goan press and the cream of Goan society walked in through the doors. The Ranes, the Timblos, the Chowgules, the Salgaocars, Remo and Michelle, Harry and Claudia, Prasad Bidappa, Ritu Nanda, Arjun Mangaldas, Jimmy Gazdar, Corrine and Lucio Miranda – they were all there. Hemant Trivedi, Nestor, Kalindibhen and Jerome’s assistant Yvette had flown in from Mumbai. It was all that I could have hoped for.
Hans and Sucheta from Candolim had generously gifted their yacht Solita for the evening. A few select friends and the press sailed down the Mandovi, champagne trays and snacks within reach. One of the journalists said to me, “Wendell, you must be so proud of yourself. You do know that you are possibly the only designer of your generation to open your own shop?”
When I thought about it, I realised that it might be true. At the time, designers were primarily selling from multidesigner boutiques. Later in the evening, we had dinner and then drove home to Colvale in the middle of a fog. The mist that settled was so thick that one could not see beyond four feet. Jerome dropped Yvette in Siolim and the rest of us sang songs from The Sound of Music to stave off our fear of the fog. When we reached home, we discussed the opening over liquers. It had been a great evening.
The next month, magazines and newspapers carried large articles about the boutique in Goa. A trail of clients invaded the shop. It was unbelievable how quickly the reputation of the store spread to the far corners of India.
People came from everywhere – it became a kind of tourist attraction. Goans, who had nodded sympathetically at the prices for the shop opening, were now lining up to buy the clothes. Within months, we had recovered our investment. We also learnt a lot about shopping and shoppers.
Some women would arrive in a rage and shop in vast quantities; it was apparent that they were seeking revenge on straying husbands. Sometimes, classy hookers or mistresses walked through the doors too. We welcomed them all. And they all partook of the bar service at the shop.
Every designer should have a flagship store. It is a lesson in discipline to keep the shop filled with merchandise. And it is the sanctum sanctorum for lessons in customer tastes, what sells, what not to design and how to become a good business mind.
We spent Christmas in Goa, celebrating the success of the Wendell Rodricks Couture Salon. But Jerome left for Mumbai immediately after as his company was beginning catering at the Lilavati Hospital on New Year’s Eve. I roamed about glumly at Jimmy Gazdar’s party with Mitra Chowgule and Tanaaz Timblo. Bringing in a new year without Jerome was no fun.
If 1996 was a good year, 1997 proved the most creative. We did many special promotions at the shop every alternate month. Even before the shop opened, there would be a crowd outside the doors. Some friends like Vishwadhara Rane, Mitra and Tanaaz would come in the night before and reserve their garments.
In Bombay, I displayed The Suite of Seven Cholis at an in-house show at Melange. One must cope with a makeshift green room at a boutique show. Part of the restroom and office became the green room and six models were squashed into the tiny space. With the audience a wall or a screen away, the green room becomes a mass of whispers, and the camaraderie and conversations between the models, make-up and hair teams and the designer disappear.
Exploring form, texture and silhouette, I titled the seven cholis after their inspirations: Line and Square, Cowl, Kaftan, Dhobi’s Bundle, Dupatta and Mala. The Mala choli was fashioned to resemble a garland of flowers. It was built around a bikini top in white; crinkled polyester was cut on the bias to resemble lotus petals. Strung together, all one saw was a garland, miraculously concealing the bikini top underneath.
Bipasha Basu modelled in that sexy choli for Denzil Sequeira. I wondered if anyone would ever purchase the creative but decidedly risque choli. Not only did it sell (to singer Alisha Chinai, I think) for a music video but the agency also ordered a further three copies in black for the background dancers!
Flitting between Mumbai and Goa allowed me the opportunity to do other work on the side. I did a project to introduce TENCEL, the wonder eco-fibre, to India. Meher Castelino put Tim Eynon from TENCEL on to me and we did a huge show at the Crystal Room at the Taj in Mumbai. And I continued to lecture at SNDT, three classes cramped into a single afternoon.
I also did a few wedding gowns early in the year. The most memorable were the gowns made for Priya Carasco, niece of a yesteryear Miss India; the Goan beauty Iona Vaz; and Souzinha Mesquita, whose artist brother Theodore Mesquita became my best friend. Through Lady Moni Forman, who lives a hill away from us in Goa, I got a call from Yvonne Knightley, whose husband Phillip worked with Newsweek. Their daughter was the famous model Aliya Knightley.
We made Aliya’s dress without measurements. I met her at Camelot, where I “read” her size, and she asked me if I would make her dress and send it to London. We did an ivory bias-cut sheath that was clustered at the bodice with pearls that scattered to the hip. Without a single fitting, the dress fit perfectly, and Phillip Knightly wrote me a touching letter saying how beautiful his daughter looked on her wedding day.
Two other memorable dresses I made were a paper dress for journalist Leela Jacinto and a seven-months pregnant bride who walked the aisle looking slim. Later in the year, I also dressed the beautiful niece of the famous Goan supermodel Anjali Phyllis Mendes. We had worked on Nisha’s gown for four months, sewing tiny pearls and sequins on the Chantilly lace gifted by her aunt.
It was at the wedding in September that I first met the towering Anjali, India’s de facto ambassador to Paris. The first supermodel to break through into the Parisian fashion scene, she had modelled for years for Pierre Cardin. A tempestuous diva as well as a compassionate, intelligent and hard-working soul, she was a Goan success story fit for a book. Anjali and I became friends and remained in touch until she died, all too young, in 2010.
At a party at the Taj Fort Aguada one evening, Raj Salgaocar introduced me to Pratapsingh Rane, the chief minister of Goa, and his beautiful, charming wife, Vijayadevi. I had always imagined politicians were bumbling buffoons – Mr Rane shattered that illusion. He was suave, intelligent and impeccably well-mannered. He asked me to consider designing uniforms for the Goa police.
Everyone laughed it off as a joke; I did not. The next week, I presented to him a line of police uniform options. Impressed, the chief minister green-signalled the samples. In Mumbai, while shooting the De Beers contest jewellery, I went to Crawford Market on the side and sourced fabric for the uniforms. Mr Brar, the inspector general of police, and Mr Rane looked at the uniforms and made suggestions. By 15 August 1997, Goa – and, in turn, India – had the first designer police uniforms of the country.
Other clothes too were flying off the racks at amazing speed. Gone were the days when we did two or three collections a year; it was apparent that we needed a new collection every month.
The Wendell Rodricks White Vision collection at Melange was in my signature colour and featured soft crinkled cottons, buttery satins and exotic cotton-silk blends. It was the last collection we did for them. Melange was not willing to purchase the collections – something I had been pushing for a long time.
All boutiques hung designer clothes on consignment, paying the designer six weeks after the clothes sold. Given the rapid sales, it was impossible to invest in a new collection if we had to wait that long for payment for the previous one. Though Melange was unwilling to buy, I dug my heels in.
They finally relented and offered to buy part of the collection. I was possibly the first designer in India who insisted that store owners buy a collection. Other designers were incredulous: “They are buying from you?” Why not? They had no risk. After all, the clothes were selling at a brisk pace.
It is this advice I give young designers today. Sell on consignment to begin with and, after a few successful collections, insist that the stores buy the collection. We supplied a new collection to Melange. But it was destined to not retail out of the store. I received a call from Maureen Wadia, wife of Bombay Dyeing owner Nusli Wadia and editor of Gladrags magazine. She had become a friend through Meher Castelino.
Meher had written a book called Fashion Kaleidescope, for which I designed the cover: three women emerging from a red kumkum circle. I had met Maureen at a hotel in Juhu when she launched the book.
On the phone, Maureen’s usually clear voice sounded glum. “Wendell, I am very disappointed in the sarong skirts and tie-up palazzos you have done for my American friend.”
“We placed an order ten days ago at Melange. I know it’s short notice, but the silk is of inferior quality and the finish is deplorable.”
“Maureen, I did not make any order for sarongs or palazzos!”
“You mean Melange made these using your garments as samples?”
“Is there not a Wendell Rodricks label on the garments?”
“Um, wait a minute...No!”
I was livid. Maureen was even more incensed. She took the dozen garments and returned them with some curt words. Till date, I do not know what happened and who was responsible. Maybe a salesgirl took the matter in her hand, given the urgency of the order. Maybe everyone knew what was happening and was out to make a quick buck.
I was horrified – my reputation was at stake. Bad satin with poor finishing under my label was disturbing to say the least! I called Jerome in Mumbai and told him what had transpired. He was upset and immediately went to the shop. They had a promotion on that evening.
He calmly walked up to the racks and took off the Wendell Rodricks clothes. “You can’t do that, sir! We will call the police,” threatened the sales staff. “Go ahead,” Jerome thundered. “You haven’t paid for these clothes yet. I am taking away what is ours.” He threw the clothes into his BMW and stormed off.
Excerpted with permission from The Green Room, Wendell Rodricks, Rupa.