Class of 2021
Neville Wisdom opened up an eponymous clothing store and fashion house in New Haven. I stopped by his studio to hear about what he’s up to.
I followed him around from station to station as he stitched together an outfit as part of his “100 pieces in 100 days challenge.” Unlike many, perhaps most, couture designers, he actually does much of the sewing himself. King of early 20th century fashion
Paul Poiret proudly proclaimed that he could not sew. But Neville takes pride in the fact that he sews himself, a skill that is mostly self-taught.
He first started making his own clothes around the age of fourteen. He remembers one event in particular, when he went to a party, or a “fete” as he calls it, at a nearby all-girls school. He had a crush on one of the girls so, in an effort to impress her, he sewed his own outfit. As he recalls it, “it was a beige and brown silk ensemble. On the bottom it resembled sweatpants, and on the top it was patchwork pieces sewn together.” His efforts at wooing the girl were unsuccessful, and instead, a boy asked him for a dance, mistaking him for a girl. He laughs and comments that though he’s not gay, his interest in women’s clothing marks him as “other” in his homeland of Jamaica.
This androgyny in clothing continues today. While the brand mainly focuses on inventive womenswear, it also offers men’s clothing, including bespoke suits. He showed me patterns, which looked like blueprints, for some of the suits he and his apprentice have designed. “Once we’ve done the suits, we digitize the patterns so that we can remake a suit for a client if they’d like, and we have them on record. It gives us a lot of flexibility to reference and edit pieces. I don’t use patterns from one suit to another - I want everything to be unique to the client.” His pieces run the gamut from classic silhouettes to outré pieces that don’t look like anything else available on the market.
Neville didn’t have a formal fashion education. He likes being in Connecticut right now, but comments fondly on Jamaica. He mentions that people there are all generally more interested in fashion. “I wish people here, in the States, cared more.” In Jamaica, he ran a small boutique making clothes for professional women, who he says “like to show off a bit, as if it’s a competition in the office for who dresses the best. Here it’s not like that. People all dress the same.”
That’s part of the reason he’s tackling the 100 pieces in 100 days challenge. He says that it allows him to be creative and free without specific constraints. I met him on Day 14, when he was making a pant and top ensemble out of a blue embroidered fabric. He started off by telling me that he was inspired by a recent trip to Mexico City and wanted to make something out of that experience. But over the course of our conversation, he re-pinned the top three times, and, in the end, he thought it looked more like an Indian sari. “I follow the fabric. Whatever the fabric wants to be, that’s what I make. There’s a battle between me and a garment, between what the fabric wants and what I want.”
He buys his fabric from a few local purveyors and also fabric stores in New York’s Garment District. He often takes leftovers from other designers. Right now he says he isn’t interested in producing fabric claiming that “fashion is already the second-most polluting industry” behind oil (a fact that some in the fashion industry dispute). So he prefers to use what is already in existence and “not add to the problems hurting our earth.”
Sustainability and fair treatment are important to him, reflected in his choice of materials and also in the fact that he sews himself. He exclaims, “There are deplorable working conditions and people are being very mistreated in sweatshops in the fashion industry. That’s why we’re operating how we are, against that model. There’s always the idea to mass produce. But I’m really satisfied with growing my business on a limited type of circumstances.” He also mentions that there are “monopoly companies being created. The clothing industry controls us, not the other way around. The industry is all about cost, so I understand why that happens. So I do something different - I make 100 pieces for 100 different individuals. Most of the things we make, we don’t make more than 10, because we buy limited quantities of fabric. “
This small-scale creation underscores the slow pace of his work, a delightful contrast to the frenetic cycle of collections many designers at luxury brands have complained of recently. I was sad to go as I left, getting the feeling that I could stay and talk for hours with this man about the state of the world and of fashion.
The Neville Wisdom Studio is located at 1090 Chapel St, New Haven, CT.