Neville Wisdom at his downtown shop

Looks Alive

Couture isn’t supposed to be approachable, but for local womenswear designer Neville Wisdom, approachability is the thread that runs through everything: his personal history, his entrepreneurial vision, his design aesthetic, his extroverted nature and the eponymous fashion label they’ve combined to make. Now, on a high-traffic stretch of Chapel Street between York and High, a retail satellite for the brand’s Westville headquarters has made Wisdom and his couture more accessible than ever.

“The vision really was to create a brand where I as the designer could be in touch with my customers,” Wisdom says. “One of the things I always struggled with was the separation between the individual who makes or designs the clothing and the paying customer…” Personal attention from an actual designer, Wisdom notes, is usually reserved only for the wealthy, but he’ll customize his designs for any customer at all.

As a child in Jamaica, he sidestepped those degrees of separation by learning to sew the clothing he would wear. “I grew up in an environment where we didn’t have a lot,” he notes. He also befriended a local shoemaker and by age 15 was participating in the design of his own custom-made shoes. “I had no excitement to buy shoes in a store,” Wisdom says. “To me, it made no sense, when this guy was a friend of mine and could make shoes for me.”

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Wisdom’s current operation is a far cry from those early days. At his base in Westville, he’s embraced Computer-Aided Design (CAD) technology and automated fabric-cutting, though Wisdom still uses a more traditional draping technique, on live models and forms, to come up with many of his original designs. Once a design is finalized, he digitizes an adjustable pattern of it in the CAD system. If a customer likes a dress in-store or online but wants it in a different fabric, color or size, Wisdom’s brand director and event planner Lauren or his newest employee, Dwayne, a former apprentice in his early 20s, can get the order going even when Wisdom’s not around, using the tech to cut a pattern that meets the customer’s specifications.

This newfangled efficiency has given Wisdom space to envision more. “One of the things I want to do is to start a sewing base factory in New Haven, where we can train people in prison to sew,” he says, noting that ex-convicts, who have a notoriously difficult time finding gainful employment, could have a job waiting for them upon their release. Currently, Wisdom runs a training program for kids, teaching them to sew basic garments while developing fine motor skills.

As for the not-basic garments Wisdom creates, he says he pulls many of his silhouettes from the sophisticated and sleek fashions of classic Hollywood movies. He’s also inspired by his first customers back in Jamaica, who felt driven to develop their individual style and treated going to work like a fashion show.

Wisdom even finds himself influenced by the fabrics themselves. “I have always had a love-hate relationship with fabric, like to control or be controlled,” he says. “There’s always a struggle of, ‘Do I do what I want and not what you want?’ In later years, I’ve learned to accept why certain things don’t work with certain fabrics and not try to conform fabric to do specific things but to find fabric that does the things I want it to do.”

In the past, Wisdom used only custom-printed fabrics and natural fibers. Recently, he’s dabbled in materials not typically seen in the world of high fashion—like fleece, known for its warmth and coziness but also, usually anathematic to couture, its accessibility and bulk. As part of a self-issued challenge to create 100 designs in 100 days early in 2018, Wisdom decided to elevate fleece, creating a series of “architectural” designs—a dress with a ruffle cascade flowing down the front, a sweater with layered sleeves, a color-blocked poncho.

Wisdom’s forthcoming “early 2019” collection, to be revealed this Friday during his Fall 2018 Fashion Show, is also architectural. In fact, it was directly inspired by an architect and his architecture: Louis I. Kahn and the Yale Center for British Art, which rises above Wisdom’s Chapel Street shop. Using textured cottons, wools and fleece to evoke hard structural surfaces, Wisdom says he’s tried to channel the legendary architect’s ability to combine and elevate materials and textures as well as his strong sense of geometry.

Kahn’s willingness to embrace difficult professional challenges has compelled Wisdom to do so “out of respect… I wanted to celebrate him in this collection.” The couturier pulls one such challenge—a full-length collared coat—from the rack, highlighting the experimental nature of its construction. “It’s all one solid of fabric that has cutouts,” he says. “The pattern of this is insane; it doesn’t look like clothes.” Indeed, the coat’s CAD file reveals a pattern like an oddly shaped fence, and unlike many of Wisdom’s designs, this one was entirely computer-generated.

One of the dangers of technology is that it can suck you into a virtual space, but the high real-world foot traffic passing by and into the Chapel Street shop is a good preventative. Wisdom says members of the Yale community and visitors to downtown from around the world are now discovering his clothing. “The location is superb,” Wisdom says. “It acts as a direct link to people coming in and out of New Haven.”

You might even call it highly approachable.

Neville Wisdom
Retail and Design Studio: 903 Whalley Ave, New Haven | Mon-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat 11am-5pm | (203) 745-5009
Retail Only: 1090 Chapel St, New Haven | Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun noon-5pm | (203) 553-1838
Website | Fall 2018 Fashion Show

Written by Rebekah Fraser. Image 1 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 2 photographed by Rebekah Fraser.

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