Cause celebre

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 26, 2009 18:40 hrs

fashion designer Wendell Rodricks, in his activist avatar, keeps the goan cause afloat.

Once upon a time Goa embodied the word susegad. Translated, it means to be laid-back, to be happy and chill — words that even today are apt to describe the once Portuguese-ruled state.

Susegad would also come in handy to describe fashion designer Wendell Rodricks. Even though he has a show as part of the Chivas Studio event in Delhi, he sits as relaxed as he probably is when sailing on the backwaters of Goa in his boat. "There is too much imagined hype and drama in fashion," he says. "I have painstakingly designed the clothes, everything has been planned. I trust the team that is handling the event and I have some of the best models walking the ramp for me. I know that some people thrive on stress, but there is no need for that." That last sentence is accompanied by a shrug.

For Rodricks, his identity as a designer is inextricably linked with Goa, his home state. After working in the hotel business, and then living in Europe, Rodricks returned to India and moved to Goa to start his label. The motivation came when Rodricks went to YSL in Paris with his portfolio. He recounts, "The lady there took one look at my portfolio and said that it was too Westernised. I took it as a challenge and decided to come back to India and do my kind of clothes."

Rodricks also wanted to put Goa on the fashion map. "But how do you do that?" was the question he asked himself, because Goa was and is as much a physical destination as a state of mind. Or, to put it another way, how do you translate susegad into a garment, a collection?

Recalls Rodricks, "Before I came on the scene, fashion meant expensive fabrics and embroidery. When I put linen and cotton on the ramp without any embellishments, people were shocked."

That shock soon turned to awe as Rodricks won a loyal clientele with his flowing and fluid clothes, and won over the critics. "For seven years, we did not look at the balance sheet. We decided that we would just focus on building the brand," he says. This perseverance paid off, and Rodricks says that he and his partner — in both business and personal life — run a profitable venture.

Despite all the fame, the money, the glamour, Rodricks’s first love, in many ways, is still Goa. That feeling of being connected to the state, its culture and its natural beauty has not diminished in any way during the last several years that he has made it his home. And it is this overwhelming emotion that drives him to be an activist. Rodricks took on this avatar sometime in 2000, when he felt, he says, that "Goa was being destroyed". He elaborates, "We felt that we needed to speak up. Goa is a unique place and it is worth preserving."

Rodricks works with an NGO called Natural Dyes and says, "I have always been an activist. It was interesting to work with this NGO." Rodricks says that he and his organisation helped plant trees from which natural dyes can be extracted. And Rodricks is more than happy to use the end product as well. Does his clientele care how the fabric has been dyed? Rodricks points out that the kind of people who wear his clothes have always been very different from the typical zardozi-wearing, logo bag-carrying fashion victim. He opines that "My customer understands and cares about these things. And in the future, people are going to be environmentally aware."

Rodricks is also the chairman of a Goa-based and Goa-focussed NGO called Green Goa Works. The NGO was set up three years ago by leading Goans and environmentalists, and Rodricks was appointed its chairman. The NGO offers environmentally friendly solutions as well as organic produce. Rodricks says that one of the biggest problem the state faces is over-development. Naming a big realty developer, he questions, "Why do we need them in Goa?" Continuing on that theme, he adds, "I think that the state should be given special status, like some hill states. Goa is over-ridden with development and that is a problem with the state."

Rodricks has been at the forefront of other citizen protest movements in the state. He says, "Everyone in Goa knows that if there is a genuine problem, they can contact me." Rodricks mentions how he has in the past also raised his voice against the powerful and often unscrupulous mining lobby. He feels that he, along with other citizens, has managed to stop them by "raising hell."

Goa being a small place, Rodricks does bump into the very people against whom he is campaigning at social dos, but that hasn’t inhibited him. He admits that it is a difficult line to walk, but says, "you have to take that decision even in the face of possible social friction".

Activism in Goa, says Rodricks, is easier to organise than in other states of India. "Literacy levels are so high in Goa that it is easy to communicate."

How does Rodricks find time for all this? He counters, "There is time to do everything. It would be so boring to do just fashion. I enjoy the activism that I do."

Rodricks has also been busy trying to revive the weaving traditions of Goa. "There is just a handful of these weavers left, and we have worked actively with them." He will soon launch a line of stoles and dupattas woven by these weavers. He hopes to start a study programme to teach design and textile students this weaving tradition. In fact, next on Rodricks’s wishlist is to turn Goa into a design hub. "Goa has a special ambience for creativity," Rodricks says.

If all this activism weren’t enough, Rodricks is an enthusiastic traveller. He tells me how he went as a tourist to China in 1983, long before it became a destination of choice. "Everyone rode cycles and wore Mao suits," he recalls. Rodricks hasn’t been back since, but has taken other journeys which were equally exciting. "One year I read From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, and the very next year I got a chance to take a cruise in that region."

Next on his travel itinerary is South America. That will be a two-month-long holiday exploring some of the most famous parts of the region. "Travel is one of my biggest indulgences," is Rodricks’s explanation for all these exotic trips. And fashion has been a kind enough master to help pay for them.

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