From THE WEEK From Frederick Noronha

SUCCESS STORY: Fashion designer Wendell Rodrigues is doing well for himself and making a splash in India and abroad, even though he operates out of a small village in Goa. Recently, he staged a major fashion show here, and all the themes are local.

What could you possibly do out of a sleepy village like Colvale, located in the northern part of Goa? If you're Wendell Rodricks, from your remote studio there you could make waves in the world of fashion and even build plans for opening an outlet in Paris.

So far, Wendell's clothes have already made him the first Indian designer to be show-pieced at the world's largest ready-to-wear fair at Germany's IGEDO. Besides, he writes columns on fashion, is visiting faculty at a women's university, and clads the rich and the famous from within and outside India.

His clientele ranges from Goldie Hawn at one extreme to over three thousand policemen in Goa. The local police force recently shed their typical khaki for a blue-and-white, leading to a range of different opinions. Soon, Goa's Salgaocar football team is to have new colours with the Wendell Rodricks label.

Wendell (37) does not feel he's lost out by moving to a one-horse village in Goa. "I've profited by moving out (of big cities)," says he, arguing isolation means he is not exposed to what designers in Mumbai or the world over are doing. "So I come from my own space, I create my own space. It's nature that inspires me. And I can do it best in Goa," says he. Being isolated makes his clothes "look very different", he feels.

Today he claims a very strong market in Goa, and also has a strong presence in Mumbai and Delhi. In Bangalore too he has a following.

"I've already made my style. Now if I manufacture my clothes in Timbuktoo, or some slum in a big city, it doesn't make a difference to a client," says he.

Even some among Delhi's diplomatic crowd are tuning in to his designs. "My clothes are Indian in spirit but international in wearability and concept. Lot of foreigners and up-market Indians, who don't want to wear an Indian salwar-khameez in typical Indian embroidery and typical Indian colours, find this a much a better option," says he.

Wendell lists among his achievements the concept of using a very minimalist approach to fabric and style. "If a button could be done without, it would not be there. I would not do more than was necessary, just to sell it. This did not exist when I started in 1988. It was a year of Joan Collins, Dynasty, heavy shoulder- pads, lots of flashy dressing, Madonna," he explains.

"When I first came out, my line was so understated, so much so that people laughed, saying 'Your clothes are so simple, they'll never sell,'" he adds.

But his point is to make garments that, he says, fits into the lifestyle of modern Indians. "Decorative style elements should never overshadow the wearer's personality," he promises.

To him, you wear clothing not just for decoration. First of all, you wear it for comfort, and for function. "I'm made clothes that worked for people's lives. Whether they went to office, or whether they went to a party. I kept it so simple...," he adds. Wendell believes his magic works so well in practice that people get "addicted" to his clothes.

"I invent new concepts of clothing based on Indian clothes," says he. This means strapless tunics. Kurtas made glamourous for evening wear. Pyjamas that look like loin-cloths. Shirts which were half-sheer. Kaaftans that draped like sarees. New fabrics.

"Designer garments need not be expensive," says Wendell. Cotton shirts are priced starting at Rs 700, which, he says, compares with labels like Benneton's. Ladies kurtas cost Rs 800 upwards, and prices never go beyond Rs 9000.

Rodricks has many plans up his designer's sleeve. Firstly, opening a Wendell Rodricks' store in Bombay, possibly next year. "We've been getting many people who've been specially flying down from Bombay just to fly the clothes. Consulate staff, wealthy people," says he. Eventually he wants to go international. With a store in Paris, nothing less.

But while doing so, he says he'd like to promote local artists from Goa -- from artists who design shoes, to hand-painters, pottery artists and even local youth Franco 'Coco' Fernandes, who makes an amazing array of handicrafts out of coconut by- products.

Goa is fertile ground too. There's a lot of money here in Goa for dressing up, he points out. "Goans make garments specially for for 21st birthdays, or even a one year old's party. There's actually a very strong need to dress up," says Wendell. "We've charged Rs 40,000 for a wedding gown and got away with it. That's only as making charges," he says.

Rodricks worked in the catering field in Muscat's Royal Oman Police Officers' Club, where he made up his mind to go into fashion. "It sound very exotic now. That was only due to circumstance," he quips, adding that even nine years back the concept of fashion designers was hardly known across India.

Mumbai-born Rodricks later studied for a fashion degree in Los Angeles, underwent further creative design training in Paris and spent winters in Istambul. "Goa was the final destination in a long and happy journey. I sincerely believe that this land and its beauty opened up my creative talent to make it flower," says he, proudly. He shifted back to his ancestral village of Colvale.

He was in a haste to return to India. In Paris, he had often heard advice: 'If you want to be a good designer, you have to bring the Indian part of you into your clothing. It's no point doing Western clothing, which (others the world over) do very well.'

"I wanted to do a sense of Indian clothing which was more comfortable -- which you could sleep in, dance in, work in. Which Western clothing doesn't allow you," says he.

"Coming from a training in Western clothes, I took a long time to understand what Westerners appreciated in Indian clothes. But then I got on to that secret -- that they were looking for ease in clothing which they don't have in their own clothing, a comfortable fabric and a comfort-level they lack.

"Once I touched on the spirit on what was Indian, and comfortable and worked... when you put a garment together with an Indian sense of design, it looks very spiritually clean. There's no clutter," he adds. Indian clothes, in his view, protect you from the heat and at the same time it looks very ascetic.

Home-base is Colvale, a quaint and sleepy village in north Goa, where his workshop is his renovated home. It houses a master- cutter, six tailors, three embroidery people and a few others whom he job-works with.

Reflecting the influence, his recent couture show had a range of local names sprinkling the collection -- seaweed, zonel (Goan 'windows'), chuttam (woven palm leaf), siesta, palm, San Joao, and the like.

But is Goa ready for Wendell's creations? Does he face problems in a Goa where social mores can be conservative too?

Wendell himself concedes that his revealing outfits at one recent show in Goa drew no whistles, yells or screams. "Nothing like that happened. People were so dignified. They just sat and appreciated it for their aesthetic value or appeal," he argues.

To him "clothing is two or even ten per cent fun". Some such garments are needed to create "a spectacle of sorts". Even if one would never actually wear such clothes, they help gather the headlines, make the papers and "it makes great drama". Fashion shows, says he, are not about selling wearable clothes. --

Frederick Noronha.

Frederick Noronha - Journalist
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