T he racks at the front of the store are full of possibilities: for New Year’s there’s a little black dress, made of raw silk with an elegant bow that ties at the back of your neck; a vibrant yellow jacket could be a standout staple in your work wardrobe; a jaunty striped crepe number would be great for…well, just because.
For the fashion-obsessed, shopping is almost always fun but also fairly disconnected from the process behind the purchase. The eponymously named Neville Wisdom boutique in the Ninth Square district of New Haven is the rare spot where you might find the perfect little piece and then chat with the man who made it.
“It’s a modern take on a classic look,” Wisdom says of his designs, which run from the exquisite to the adorable, all falling into the “no one else will be wearing it” category. They fill the front of his shop—the sign outside marked by his initials, “NW”—while the back is all sewing machines, scissors and mannequins; this is where he puts his ideas down on paper, and where those ideas travel from paper to reality.
The combination of the retail space and workshop means Wisdom is almost always around during business hours. He prefers it that way because it enables him to ensure customer satisfaction. And he means it: if you happen to fall in love with an item on the rack but it’s not available in your exact size, he’ll do a fitting and create it for you, typically at no extra charge.
Though the shop’s retail space is devoted to his womenswear collections, Wisdom also makes custom clothes for both women and men, often for special events. Many mothers of the bride and groom, for instance, credit their one-of-a-kind looks to his talent.
Ranging from that special event-fanciness to the everyday-casual, at a variety of prices, Wisdom’s pieces average around $275, or $350 and up for custom orders. His designs draw from aesthetic sensibilities he’s had since childhood. “I guess I was inspired by the fact that I never wanted to wear the same stuff as everyone else,” he says. “I decided to make my own clothes and I fell in love with it.”
He’s stayed in love with it, although the road to legit fashion designer wasn’t a straight shot. Born in Saint Mary, Jamaica, Wisdom’s concentration in high school was food and nutrition. As an ambitious teen he started his own restaurant at 17, which he kept up for a few years before getting more serious about fashion. He moved to Kingston, took classes in tailoring and eventually opened up his own shop.
After a robbery shut down that business, Wisdom decided to head to the United States at the urging of family already there. He ended up in Connecticut where his sister, working in the medical field, convinced him to go back to school and become a surgical technician. Wisdom held that title at Yale-New Haven Hospital for seven years. “I was one of the people who wanted to do everything,” Wisdom says, explaining that he sometimes attended surgeries when he wasn’t even required, to expand his on-the-job education.
But he eventually decided it was now-or-never in terms of getting back into fashion, opening up his first shop in New Haven on Whalley Avenue in 2008. He moved to Orange Street this year and says he feels right at home in the neighborhood and very well received by the media and the public.
The naturally outgoing Wisdom—tall, with dreadlocked hair pulled back into a low ponytail, seemingly having to work to keep his borderline-mischievous smile in check—isn’t surprised in retrospect by his freewheeling trajectory to the present. Dutiful assistant Lauren Sprague says, lovingly, that he’s a “free spirit” who she must often remind to stay on task, and Wisdom happily concurs. His life story so far confirms that description, while still evidencing his natural entrepreneurship and work ethic.
Indeed, in addition to everything else, Wisdom also owns a small business in Jamaica where some of his clothes are constructed. Long-term, he’s thinking about starting a manufacturing business in Connecticut, meaning all his garments would be made right here in the Nutmeg state.
In the meantime, he’s back to the drawing board—literally—or he’s designing by “draping,” meaning he places material on one of his mannequins to create a look. He prefers the latter method, as it allows the piece more freedom to come into its own, something Wisdom understands perfectly well.
“I communicate with my fabrics, I have these little voices that talk to me,” he says. “I like draping because then I get a better idea of what the fabric wants to do. Sometimes it has its own mind.”
63 Orange Street, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.