New ad-dress for success
Story Hank Hoffman
Photos by Harold Shapiro
“I love looking good. I always did,” says designer Neville Wisdom, chuckling, when asked how he became interested in fashion. Interviewed in his eponymous Orange Street boutique and design studio, Wisdom is suave in a bulky maroon sweater over a white shirt and skinny black tie, his full beard flecked with white. A native of Jamaica, his long hair has grown into tendrils of coppery dreadlocks. He does look good.
Even more, he wants the customers who buy the clothing he designs to look good.
“We custom fit all our dresses here and make sure we’re satisfied with the way a customer looks,” asserts Wisdom. “We will not let anyone leave the store unless we think the dress suits them.”
Wisdom moved his shop from Westville to Orange Street, near Artspace, last spring. The new location has brought him heightened visibility, including a mention in The New York Times.
Wisdom concentrated on custom work when starting out in Jamaica in the 1990’s, making clothing by sketching out one-off designs and then cutting into fabric supplied by his customers. That experience has stood him in good stead now that he works mostly from his own patterns, affording him both an understanding of how designs will look on different body types and the flexibility to make alterations to off the rack dresses to fit individual customers.
Wisdom moved from Jamaica to Connecticut in 1999 after a robbery at his Jamaican store. But he didn’t open his first shop, in Westville, until 2008. In the interim, he worked for many years as a surgical technician. It was a good job but Wisdom says, “I needed to have that honesty with myself to pursue something that I really love.”
His fascination for fashion dates to when he was a young boy in Jamaica, playing dress-up with his sisters and picking out clothing for them to wear.
“It became a part of me,” he says.
“My parents weren’t able to afford to buy me cool clothes. I decided the only way to fix that would be to make my own,” Wisdom says.
He erupts in a hearty laugh recalling his first design piece, a pair of pants he made when he was about 12.
“When I finished, one leg was longer than the other!” he says. “But it was cool.”
His chic styles are inspired by the fashions of the 1950s and 1960s. Wisdom has wholeheartedly embraced the Mad Men phenomenon inspired by the TV show — there is even a vintage desk set courtesy of Acme Furniture in the front of the shop with a teal Royal 440 manual typewriter and a dial phone.
But, he adds, Mad Men did not inspire his clothing designs. Rather, he attributes his affinity for the classic styles to the black and white movies he watched as a child, “the only movies available in Jamaica at that point in my life.”
In a New Haven Independent article, Wisdom described his style as “preppy meets ragamuffin.” I ask how he synthesizes these two concepts.
“My style is very retro — retro-prep. But because of my background — where the ‘ragamuffin’ comes in — that’s where the interesting seams, cuts, and angles are that somehow work together,” explains Wisdom. “Say, for one of my jackets, without that edge on it, it would just be preppy. I describe it as ‘my ragamuffin edge.’ The two aren’t supposed to be together but they’re married because that’s who I am.”
At Neville Wisdom’s Fashion Design Studio, his dress designs are displayed on the racks out front while the design work and sewing is done in the open in the back of the shop. While that arrangement can be distracting — he often works early in the morning and late in the evening when the store is closed, to get things done — he enjoys the one-on-one contact with customers. Their feedback and the fittings he does often lead to tweaks in new designs.
Wisdom is attracted to natural fibers: cotton, wool, and especially silk. Silk, says Wisdom, “is so elegant and classic. The different levels and different types and different combinations of textures — it’s such a versatile fabric to work with.”
Among Wisdom’s most popular designs are the Neville Dress, the Lavern Dress, and the David Dress. First designed about four years ago, the Neville Dress was part of his first collection. He still sells the dress, saying that while the colors may change the aesthetic is the same: “classic, timeless and very cute.” The dress — which usually comes in linen — “is very simple but still has a nice edge to it,” says Wisdom.
He has a couple of different processes for designing the clothes for his collection. In the first, he consults his cache of sketches, settles on some ideas, and then obtains swatches of fabrics he believes will suit the designs. He makes samples to “see if I’m going to put them into the collection.”
But the way he enjoys most is more intuitive: “When I go to buy fabric for samples for designs I’ve already sketched, I run into fabrics that speak to me for a different design,” he says.
“It’s difficult sometimes for me to stay on path because I have this communication with fabric,” says Wisdom. “They hypnotize me, and talk to me, tell me, ‘I want you to make something from me.’ I buy little swatches of different fabrics and when I bring them into my studio they’ll come to life.”