Wisdom Bids Ninth Square Goodbye

Wisdom in the Orange Street shop last week. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Wisdom in the Orange Street shop last week. Lucy Gellman Photos.

On Friday afternoon, a New Haven fashionista will raise a glass to five years at his Orange Street shop—then close the doors to his Ninth Square outpost for a final time. He’s in search of a better work-life balance, and thinks he might find it by spending more time in Westville.

That’s the story for Neville Wisdom, a surgical tech-turned designer who has decided to close his 63 Orange St. location as many neighboring businesses move away, or come under new ownership. On Friday, he will hold a goodbye party at the shop, and then move all of his operations to 903 Whalley Ave., while keeping his eyes peeled for a possible new location.

Wisdom at an Orange Street fashion show in fall 2015. 

Wisdom at an Orange Street fashion show in fall 2015. 

“Orange Street is very dear to us,” he said in an interview last week, sun bending around a cluster of painted mannequins in the shop’s windows. “It has so many great memories and it’s done so many awesome things. But I don’t think that leaving this store is going to impact that.”

Wisdom moved into 63 Orange St. in 2012, opening that March with a display that was meant to channel the hit HBO series Madmen. In a move that he said almost cost him the landlord’s trust, he gave the building a revamp, tearing out walls to expose red brick and unfinished plaster. He soaked the space in splashes of deep purple, a color that has come to represent the brand. He also gained an assistant: Lauren Sprague, who heard about his designs through word of mouth. 

The two became a team. Their work caught on, getting local and national press as customers including Mayor Toni Harp came to visit the store, and request both his small-batch and bespoke articles of clothing. 

Then in 2015, Wisdom moved into a second spot at 903 Whalley Ave., opening an upstairs showroom and downstairs studio with computer-animated design programs, fabric cutting material, and a fleet of high-tech sewing machines. As he spent more time there, he found himself forgetting about appointments or meetings at the Orange Street shop, and then losing time as he got in his car, and rushed downtown. It wasn’t resentment that was building, he said, but something close.  

As a Whalley Avenue location came into its own last year, Wisdom and brand manager Sprague quietly took the Orange Street shop to appointment-only. They continued to host Wisdom’s signature fall fashion shows on the street, bringing in business owners and food vendors from the community. For one night a year, the street would fill with hundreds of attendees, many cheering on Wisdom’s bright and quirky new designs.

And then it would empty out. While the two still spent time at the location, they found it was progressively harder to justify—the store had become a small-batch sort of warehouse for fashions from the previous season. They tried hiring people to watch the shop and sell clothing, but “it was difficult finding someone who has that skill base, instead of holding down a store hoping that people will come in,” Wisdom said. 

Other things about the location started to bother him. It was eerily quiet, with foot traffic often at a minimum. On Sundays, Wisdom would spend time in the store without seeing anyone on the street for hours. 

“I’d drive up Chapel Street, and forget that I [the store] was two blocks away,” he said. He added the store’s continued profits came at a price—Neville and Sprague, splitting their time between the stores, kept missing each other. Their working relationship happened on the phone more often than it happened in person. 

And so, on a vacation to the Cayman Islands last winter, Wisdom made a decision. Sprague had called him to talk about workflow. She was tired. So was he.

“Let’s just close it,” he told her. “The idea is for us not to be miserable.”   

The store officially closed in February, when Wisdom’s lease was up, but he’s been paying rent by the month and customers still trickle in from time to time, on an off day when the building’s open.

Wisdom said that the management company, Residences Ninth Sq,  has asked what it can do to keep him there, but that it felt like the right time for him to move on. Reached Wednesday morning, a representative on Residences Ninth Sq. declined to comment for the article. 

“We’ll miss the community for what it is,” he said of the Ninth Square. “There’s nothing other than sadness in leaving. It’s sort of like a child—letting your child go. But it’s ultimately a great thing for the brand.”

“Growth and expansion is very cool, but I also … I believe in lifestyle as much as having a successful businesses,” he added. “It’s not just about making money, but providing a sort of quality of life.”

A Homecoming For Westville

In part, he said, that’s because returning full-time to Westville—at least for now—also feels like coming full circle. Wisdom started his career there, in a small studio on Whalley Avenue, while he was still holding down a job at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

When he moved back in 2015, he said it was like being home. New neighbors at Lotta Studio and West River Arts had moved in next door, bringing new patronage to the block. Wisdom’ faithfuls headed to the Westville store, bringing in new streams of revenue. His larger, high-tech studio meant that he could employ more people, creating a few jobs in the neighborhood.

David Sepulveda for the New Haven Independent. 

David Sepulveda for the New Haven Independent. 

Now, he said he wants to build on that. 

“Westville will be great,” he said. “It already is. Westville is just a kind of different environment. If I wanted a business next to me, I think it would be Lotta Studios. It’s so awesome how many opportunities they’ve given businesses to sort of have an artist.”

“For artists, it’s always a struggle to have their work and sell their work,” he added. “To be able to find a little artspace that is really reasonable in a hip part of town, where there’s people around who are in the same element, is phenomenal.”

He hasn’t ruled out old-new ventures, like trying a Whalley Avenue fashion show or moving back downtown if the right property opens up. But for now, it’s time to let that go.

“This place has brought me so much notoriety and so many incredible things,” he said. “It’s always been my vision to be in a community and be part of a community, and I had that here.”

“I’m excited about what’s going to happen now. I’m excited about where we might end up.”