Words of Wisdom
An Elm City Fashion Designer Shares His Journey
by Amy J. Barry / photography by Stan Godlewski
It was a roundabout route that brought Neville Wisdom from his small, rural Jamaican village to where he is today as head designer and owner of a thriving New Haven-based clothing company.
But when you look at the whole picture, there is clearly a common thread that began with a young boy’s endless fascination with fashion, combined with a love of learning, street smarts, and a smattering of serendipity – all woven together with the willingness to do whatever it took to capture his dream.
Speaking in a cadence that evokes his island roots, the stylish entrepreneur in his mid-40s, sporting long salt-and-pepper dreaded hair and a jacket of his own design, tells his story. It is a tale filled with colorful characters and plot twists that eventually landed him in New Haven, growing and refining his upscale retail and custom clothing label.
Today, Wisdom’s primary location is 903 Whalley Ave. in Westville, where he manufactures and sells his clothes. He also has a downtown retail store at 1090 Chapel St.
An Early Calling
“Clothing was always interesting to me. It was always about looking good or feeling that I should look good,” Wisdom recalls, “but because of my family’s financial restraints, it was hard to fulfill this desire, this yearning, to be fly.”
Wisdom grew up with the idea that if you can’t buy it, make it. His mother sewed, but having 11 children, she made very basic clothes. She taught her son how to operate a sewing machine, but he wondered, “How was I going to fulfill this burning desire to have unique things nobody else had?”
Wisdom’s fashion exposure broadened when his father, who left Jamaica for America when Wisdom was seven, started shipping clothes to his kids. Poring through his mother’s Vogue magazines also provided him with a source of creative inspiration, as did the glamorously dressed women he saw in old movies when the family finally got a television (one station) in the early 1980s.
His high school didn’t teach sewing, so when a tailor moved down the street when he was 16, he saw it as a perfect opportunity to learn from someone “who could make stuff.” But the tailor wasn’t keen on teaching him to sew. Instead, Wisdom spent hours watching him, until after about a month, the tailor invited him to do an apprenticeship.
Wisdom wanted to impress the tailor with how serious he was about learning, so he spent a whole weekend at home making a pair of pants, complete with back and side pockets.
“When I brought the pants to him on Monday, he took one look at them and he kicked me out of his shop,” Wisdom laughs. “He told me, ‘You are going to learn to sew so well, you’ll take away my business. I can’t teach you anything.’”
At just 17, he went on to become a business partner, handling all the money, at a bar and restaurant that opened up next to the tailor’s shop.
About a year later, Wisdom found a school in Kingston with a government-run program where he could learn to make clothes.
“Jamaica was big in clothes manufacturing and that’s where my love for manufacturing was developed,” Wisdom says. “And that’s where I took a machine operating course and realized there was an actual machine that could make welt pockets, and all these other machines that did specific things. That intrigued me. I always thought everything was made by hand.”
He took classes from a dressmaker at the school named Neville Walker. He went to work for Walker upon completing the six-month program.
“I worked day and night, but it was really fun,” he says. “I became his women’s pants guy. He was impeccable about every stitch and seam and demanded a lot. But he trusted me, and he had some fussy women customers, boy. And so it was an honor.”
By age 19, Wisdom had saved some money and rented an apartment in a Kingston building that had an empty front room.
“I put a door on top of a barrel and my old Singer sewing machine from ‘the country’ on top of that,” Wisdom says. “I bought a Serger, and started my first business in a room I wasn’t paying for. I almost got into trouble,” he smiles.
Arriving in America
In 2000, Wisdom came to New Jersey with his Green Card to live and work with his father, a building contractor. Wisdom was very good with the tools, but it wasn’t a sustainable situation. So he made a go of pursuing a career in the fashion capital of the world, New York City.
“I had really good skills but navigating New York and the lack of communication in the [business] made it impossible,” Wisdom says. “I couldn’t find work.”
That’s when he landed in New Haven. His sister, an educator working in the nursing department at Yale-New Haven Hospital, connected him with a training program and job in instrument sterilization for surgical procedures.
“It was very hands on. I learned very fast,” Wisdom says.
He made enough money working at the hospital to pursue his true passion, purchase the equipment he needed, and open his first clothing shop on Church Street. Meanwhile, he traveled back to Kingston for a few months at a time, where he hired native Jamaicans to sew the clothes.
“But that was a temporary model,” Wisdom says. “I had to figure out how to make clothes here. I knew the equipment was expensive and it was going to be a huge investment.”
After pitching various business plans, he received a grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) for an automated pattern cutting system that streamlines an eight-hour workload into a single hour, affording him a way to produce USA-made clothing.
A Dream Realized
Wisdom describes his designs as timeless with some funk – where the classic meets some interesting lines or patterns.
“Comfort is very important to me,” he says. “I design clothes that a woman can run out of the house in and feel a little stylish, but still be comfortable.”
Clothing that flatters a woman’s figure is also a priority and he affectionately refers to the women who purchase his clothing as the “Women of Wisdom.”
Wisdom’s clothing label is unique in that 30 percent of his business is entirely custom, but even his off-the-rack pieces include fittings and alterations, at no extra cost.
“Many of the dresses are designed to be customized, so everything is custom in a sense,” he explains.
Although it’s only about 10 percent of his business, Wisdom also fashions men’s button-down shirts, suits, coats, and pants, all custom made.
These days, price-slashing and fickle fashion trends are affecting the world globally, which Wisdom says can be challenging.
“People will ask, ‘So when are you having a sale?’ and comment that we’re a little pricier than some stores around here. But we’re not trend-driven,” he says. “We use beautiful fabrics and know what it takes to factor in all of our costs to make our clothing all here in New Haven, in order to stay in business and make a profit.”
Wisdom reflects on how his life-long dreams of designing his own fashions and owning a clothing company have come true.
“The business has grown through a lot of hard work and finding the right individuals to help with that shared dream,” he says. “Right now, we have two very passionate people here, [brand director and stylist] Lauren Sprague and [apprentice] Dwayne Moore. They’re like soul mates. They’re driven by this world, in their own ways. They’re very involved in the process of the company.”
Clester Oswald, head tailor and dressmaker, also plays an integral role in the company. He is known for his patient steadiness in carefully constructing and manufacturing the clothing.
In addition to his full-time job running his business, Wisdom is big on giving back to the community, whether mentoring aspiring designers, teaching children in various New Haven schools, hosting on-site field trips, or curating charity fashions shows. He says giving back was always instilled in him as a child.
“There was never a lot going around, but my mother still somehow made a little plate of food for her friend down the street in worse condition than we were,” he says. “Taking care of all these kids by herself without the kind of support she would have wanted from her husband, she still always found it necessary to give to other people.
“For me there’s a joy in being able to give and I like being happy, so this is part of what you do,” Wisdom says. “Anyone who wants to learn, I’m more than willing to teach.”
For the second year in a row, Wisdom is fulfilling his personal challenge to make “100 Designs in 100 Days,” each piece one-of-a-kind. He launched the effort in January. Follow his journey on Instagram @NevilleWisdom and learn more about him and his company at nevillewisdom.com.