Neew Delhi: In 1971, before Parisian ramps had seen women of colour, before Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell, a dark, 6ft- 1-inch tall, sari-clad model waited in French designer Pierre Cardin’s salon for eight hours. Cardin’s assistant called a manager, telling him that an Indian princess had come to buy clothes. When Cardin finally met her, she was hired on the spot. He called her ‘a jolie’ (Anjali), and Phyllis Mendes became Cardin’s muse for a little over 12 years. She also modelled for designers such as Ungaro, Scaperelli and Givenchy. But the former supermodel remained a Goan girl who served her sorpotel with champagne at her apartment in Paris.
Mendes, 64, passed away on Thursday in a hospital in Aix-en-Provence after suffering from an unidentified stomach infection. She had just moved from her apartment in Paris to a chateau in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France.
Her friends from the fashion and advertising fraternity in India are shocked. Several of them met her during her last visit to India about three weeks ago. “She was remarkably healthy and disciplined. She did her yoga and prayers everyday and ate carefully. This is all too surprising,” designer Wendell Rodericks said over the phone from Goa.
Mendes returned to India frequently to visit friends and family. She was the fourth of seven children born to Cajetan and Flo Mendes. While in college, she worked as a secretary to ad guru Bobby Sista. “She was extremely sharp, had thick glasses, long limbs and hair that went down to her knees,” Sista recalls. One day, while on a bus to office, a magazine editor suggested that she apply for a forthcoming fashion show.
Mendes went on to walk the ramp with the likes of Zeenat Aman and Shobhaa De, but the Indian fashion industry largely rejected her for being “too tall, dark, gawky and skinny”—all unattractive traits to the industry back then. The press even called her an “Ethiopian princess”. In a 2004 interview with The Times of India, she had said: “I am an ugly duckling who transformed into a swan on her own.”
De recalls becoming fast friends with Mendes from the day they met around 40 years ago at an audition. “Those were the early, heady years when modelling was just about coming of age in India. She was ridiculed here and going to Paris was one of her best decisions,” says De, adding that Mendes rose rapidly to become something of a cultural icon, feted and adored by the press in Europe, courted by visiting royalty, movie stars and the international jet set that famously included the late Princess Margaret.
Mendes never married, but while in Paris, she met an English aristocrat who groomed her for Parisian high society. He succumbed to cancer shortly before they were to be wed.
Friends remember Mendes for her humility and gregariousness. “She may have been the toast of tout Paris and presiding deity at the House of Pierre Cardin for decades, but her heart remained in India,” says De. Ad man Gerson da Cunha adds that though she spoke fluent French, she never attempted to hide her strong Indian accent. “I think she betrayed her most noteworthy quality by getting into modelling,” says da Cunha. “She was so smart and focused that she would have made a great manager.” Cardin believed so too. So, after Mendes quit modelling, he asked her to look after the India side of his operations, which she did for 18 years. When the design house completed 50 years in 2000, it shut down the overseas offices. Mendes then moved on to her other great love—gastronomy. In 2004, she also published a Indian cookbook called Cuisine Indienne De Mere En Fille.
Indian models found substantial work overseas after the 1970s, but the successes of Mendes and later, Shyamoli Varma, were exceptions. The fashion world only really noticed when models such as Ujjwala Raut and Laxmi Menon followed in the 1990s, earning substantial global experience.
De shares that her friend was working on an autobiography. “It is one book I would love to publish,” said De, who’s launching her own publishing imprint with Penguin. “Phyllis was like a rare and precious black diamond, whose real value is only known to connoisseurs and lovers of beauty.”