PORTRAIT: Neville Wisdom
A neighborhood fashion designer invites you into his studio, past and future.
I walked into the Neville Wisdom retail store in Westville Village, and the door beeped. Nobody was upstairs. I was alone with the culottes and coats in yellows, grays and reds, stacked and racked about the store. Then somebody called out from the basement. I called back, and within seconds, Neville Wisdom bounded up the stairs. He ushered me into his studio — down in the bowels of the store — where a familiar rap song blared from a speaker in the corner. He was working on a summer dress.
“Today I’m feeling pleats,” he told me, picking up a terrifyingly humongous pair of scissors. He snip-snip-snipped the air and got back to work.
Neville Wisdom’s clothing designs live under the white words “Made in New Haven” in the windows of unoccupied storefronts on Broadway. He has retail locations on Chapel Street and in Westville Village, and until recently owned one on Orange Street. He is a neighborhood designer, which is not to say that his designs don’t circulate beyond the bounds of this city. (He was recently featured in the New York Times.) Rather, he wants his art to affect and be affected by the local. He’s dressed Katalina Riegelmann from Katalina’s Bakery; Daniel Parillo and Derek Bacon, partners and owners of the restaurant Nolo; and Toni Harp, the mayor of New Haven. Not everyone Wisdom dresses, though, is a New Haven celebrity. “I had a new customer last week that has been waiting for an opportunity to come here,” he recalled. “She doesn’t usually spend this money on clothes. She came in and got a dress, and it was perfect.”
Although Wisdom has built his fashion community and clientele in New Haven, the designer’s creative journey began in his hometown of Saint Mary Parish, Jamaica. “Sewing is something that I stumbled upon,” Wisdom explained as he swiveled a mannequin to begin working on the back of his pleated summer dress. “There was a tailor — One Sun, that was his name — in our area. I just would stand at his doorway while he was in the shop and just watch him for many weeks.”
Eventually One Sun asked Wisdom if he wanted to learn to sew. Wisdom answered yes, and the tailor invited Wisdom to return to the shop the next morning. When Wisdom arrived, One Sun handed him a waistband and asked him to recreate it. The waistband is the most difficult part of a man’s pant to sew. “He tried to show me up,” Wisdom told me. And then he shrugged: “I did the waistband.”
Wisdom went on to continue his education at a six-month Garmex Heart Academy program in Kingston, Jamaica. The version of Wisdom that stood before me with graying dreads reaching down the back of his violet and turquoise striped collared shirt was a mellowed version of the young boy he remembered. “I had my ears pierced, both of them. I wore a lot of interesting clothes. My hair was bleached blonde. I was a favorite for making fun of. I was way ahead of my time.” The clothes that surrounded Wisdom in the studio captured his youthful craving for the atypical and extraordinary. “I express myself now more through the clothes that I make and design, than the clothes that I wear. My fashion sense is whatever I can find in my closet.”
Wisdom’s innovative dresses range from $200 to $800. “We are not trying to compete with making the most economical clothes,” he said of his retail philosophy. “We understand that people like to buy things cheaper. But at the same time, what we do here is economical in terms of what you are getting.”
Wisdom does not expect or desire for his customers to buy 10 new pieces at a time. He pointed out that the prices of his clothing fit into his vision for environmentally friendly designs. His minimalistic attitude about clothing production is rooted in his Jamaican upbringing. “Our contribution to our planet is not over-producing just to make people feel like they’ve made it in life because they can buy a new wardrobe every season. This idea of going out and buying all these clothes and then forgetting what you have in your closet — I never grew up like that. Things were limited.”
He makes a particular effort to be environmentally conscious beyond urging clients to be sparing in their purchases. Four years ago, Wisdom decided to forgo dress patterns for his designs. He instead works completely from the vision in his mind’s eye, cutting fabric and shaping it directly onto the mannequin, effectively eliminating paper waste in his studio. In most New York fashion houses, “they have entire rooms of patterns hanging from the ceiling,” Wisdom said.
Instead of printing new fabrics, Wisdom’s fashion house buys and uses whatever the local fabric store is selling at the moment. Wisdom uses at least eighty percent of all the fabric he buys, even without patterns. Committing to that benchmark is not easy. “Even though it’s not cost-effective, we will sit for 10 minutes trying to move from [using] 77 percent to 80 percent,” Wisdom said.
After 30 minutes or so of our back-and-forth conversation, Dwayne Moore, Wisdom’s apprentice, descended the stairs with a takeout dinner in his hands and resumed work at the sewing machine adjacent to where I stood. Moore grew up in New Haven and Georgia. He began working for Wisdom three years ago, after spending a semester at the Art Institute of New York City before the school’s closing in 2017. Reminiscent of Wisdom’s own fashion journey with One Sun in Saint Mary, Moore showed up at the Neville Wisdom location on Orange Street, where the brand director and stylist for Neville Wisdom Designs, Lauren Sprague, was working. Sprague invited Moore to come in to the studio to meet Wisdom. Moore remembered: “Nev was testing the waters to see where my head was at. He told me to come by. And I just never stopped coming.”
Moore showed me a jacket that he had finalized the day before. It was made of a black work-wear material and stitched with red thread, with two breast pockets on the front and the back of the jacket. The jacket was youthful, practical, cool. I would have liked to wear it out of the studio. Wisdom teased Moore that his clothes will be considerably more expensive than any of Wisdom’s. “Dwayne’s got the owner’s hours. He doesn’t get in until 12,” Wisdom told me. “He doesn’t have to be concerned about time as much, so his clothes are going to be much more expensive than mine.” Both of them laughed. Although Wisdom and Moore joke together about their dynamic, Wisdom devotes much of his time and money to making space for Moore, a younger black male artist, to succeed in an industry that is so heavily white. “I’ve already bought this equipment, so Dwayne’s not ruled by some of the stuff that I am. I have to make sure that my employees get paid. That this place stays open,” Wisdom said. “Dwayne doesn’t have to. He’s just a lucky kid, and he had an opportunity, so I encourage him.”
Wisdom’s relationship with Moore goes beyond supplying him with a top-notch workspace and bountiful materials. He has taught Moore the attributes that he believes make a good artist and a good boss. Currently, Wisdom is a third of the way through completing a challenge that he created for himself to produce one new garment every day for 100 consecutive days. Wisdom’s “One Hundred Day Challenge” is the manifestation of his belief that creativity takes industry. It takes discipline. It also takes hopefulness. Wisdom said to me, “You have to be careful that you don’t limit your dreams. Now that I am a designer I have so much more dreams. I always say to young people, dream past your dream.”