Neville Wisdom Keeps It Fresh

Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Lucy Gellman Photos. 

A little past 7 p.m. on Orange Street, two bright floodlights blinked on with a start. Lionel Richie’s voice sailed over the crowd, hitting the staccato notes on All Night Long. At the far end of the street, Elisha Hazel handed out wax paper bags of vegetable patties. Jimi Patterson served up his last pink drink of the evening before going to find a spot on the sidewalk. Dooley-O spun on, changing the music for the moment attendees had been waiting for. 

A flutter of black and red fabric flapped in the wind, bringing a hush over the street. Ashley Raymond stepped out of a shop at 63 Orange St., and onto a makeshift runway.   

So began designer Neville Wisdom’s annual fall fashion show Friday evening. Transforming Orange Street into a runway between Center and Crown Streets, Wisdom and his team packed the Ninth Square with pumping music, artist-designed mannequins, and food vendors from 116 Crown, Ninth Square Caribbean Market, Amoy’s Cajun & Creole, and Hunan House. As a couple hundred attendees found their seats for the event, Wisdom presented the different theme he had in mind: what his team can do on its own. 

In years past, Wisdom has partnered with Town Green Special Services District for the fall show, usually holding it on an “On9” first Friday. He has then held the spring show elsewhere—recent locations have included Corsair and mActivity fitness center. But this year, Wisdom said that Town Green pulled out as a partner. That meant that he and his team had to raise ticket prices to cover the cost of permitting, city paperwork, and a safety and hospitality ambassador themselves.  

The situation is more complex than that, said Charlotte Eliscu, director of marketing for Town Green Special Services District. 

"Town Green is responsible for the On9 Series events in the Ninth Square and 2017 marked a change in theme and timing for the event schedule for the year," she wrote in an email to The Arts Paper Monday. "The different structure this year was an effort for each event (because the schedule is abbreviated) to engage many merchants in the district as possible." 

She added that this was the case for Plazapalooza, a fundraiser and Temple Street block party held for food justice nonprofit CitySeed during the same hours on Friday evening. (She did not comment on why the event took place during the same time period, prohibiting New Haveners from attending both). "The ticketed events held in 2017 were designed to involve a fair variety of the whole merchant base of Town Green, rather than one merchant or organization selling tickets and collecting the revenue," she said.   

“Town Green’s On9 events have featured amazing merchant headliners like Neville’s fashion show at Fashion On9 and City Seed’s PieOn9," added Town Green Director Win Davis in a follow-up email"For 2017, the abbreviated schedule was designed to showcase the wide variety of merchants based in the Ninth Square, rather than one specific headliner or organization.  We are working hard to ensure that our programming and efforts benefit the entirety of the district and it is still very much a priority to assist everybody that wishes to add vibrancy, and we thank Neville for all of his hard work.”

Wisdom’s response: We’ll do the whole thing ourselves—bigger and better than before.

“This year, I think they [Town Green] had some change in how they wanted to do things and our fashion show didn’t work with what they were doing,” Wisdom said in an interview before the show. “So we decided to take the challenge and do it the Neville Wisdom way.”

Part of that "way," said Brand Director Lauren Sprague, is working through Town Green's absence as a matter of financial survival. In a phone call with The Arts Paper she maintained that the shop breaks even on the event, but does not make money off of it. 

"This is an incredibly time consuming and expensive event that we have put on for six years," she said. "From renting seating, lighting, printing flyers, food, drink, table decor and staffing the list goes on and on."

"We work tirelessly to include other vendors and artists in the area and always allow them sell to sell their own food and products to the hundreds of people we pull onto the street, at no cost to them, and we never take any of those proceeds," she continued. "In actuality, we spend our company's time and money for over a month to put together a positive community event that is inclusive of any and all Ninth Square businesses that are willing to participate. We do this to keep the business fresh."

Friday, the “Neville Wisdom way” also meant keeping the event fresh and a local he said. He added that five years in to owning his Orange Street boutique, he and Brand Director Lauren Sprague are still thinking of how to. After surprising attendees last year with both a new wedding line and runway of customers-turned-models, he returned to the drawing board for a bigger surprise this year. 

His conclusion: keep the citizen models, adding women of all shapes, sizes, and physical abilities to the lineup. Like Brenda Adelson, who has walked with a prosthetic leg for almost a decade, and rocked a red and black print dress similar to Raymond’s. Or Crystal Feimster, a professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies at Yale. 

But also add mannequins—the same headless, small-chested white mannequins that populate his store—to both sides the street. And ask local artists like Kwadwo Adae and his students to decorate them. 

The project was a success. Working with his students, Adae added fluffy white wings, gold paint and the word DREAMER to one mannequin, giving it a sort of haute couture look. His students, as well as other artists, tackled multi-color designs, some painting the mannequins with anti-body shaming messaging. Others, like JC-Arts Ambassador went wild with streaks and paint splatters, dedicating his models to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria. 

As he looked out on the mannequins lining Orange Street Friday night, Wisdom said they had a special way of “representing New Haven for what it is.”

“You know, we always try to push the envelope a little bit,” he added. “I feel spectacular. It was a lot of work, and it was crazy. But I feel really great.”

To view a gallery of photos from the event, click on the images below: