19 Down, 81 To Go
It took Neville Wisdom four decades years to get into his first creative rut. Now it may take him 100 designs to get all the way out of it.
That’s the idea behind the Westville designer’s “100 Designs in 100 Days,” a sort of New Year’s resolution meets Project Runway, New Haven edition. Ensconced in his 903 Whalley Ave. storefront, Wisdom has committed to designing, sewing, and mounting 100 new designs in 100 days, as he also designs his spring collection and takes on new customers.
The project began on Jan. 8 and has excluded some weekends. Now 19 designs in, Wisdom is expecting it to end in April.
The idea goes back to last December, when Wisdom found himself in a sort of creative bind for the first time in almost 40 years. 2017 was a big year for him: in October, he formally said goodbye to his Ninth Square location and moved all operations to Westville. He rolled out new spring and fall lines, and expanded his nascent wedding line as new interest trickled in. He and Brand Manager Lauren Sprague said they were in near-constant motion.
And then, in December, he found that he was “having a mental block in terms of designing.” It was a rarity for him: 46-year-old Wisdom began sewing his own clothes when he was a kid growing up in Jamaica, and hasn’t stopped since. But somewhere between the spring and fall collection and finalizing the move, he’d come up blank.
“I wanted to do something that would drive me into a design atmosphere,” he said on a recent Monday at the shop, having just mounted design number 15 in the window. “I was thinking in terms of: 'How do I make myself more happy?' Pressure is good for an artist, I think. Sufferation [sic]. When I’m in design mode, thinking about how to sew something back together, it’s great. I love it.”
As soon as he sat down with a pencil on his left and sewing machine on his right, he said he knew he’d made the right decision. The basement studio where he works is a kind of treasure trove, filled with bolts of fabric, measuring tapes, naked and clothed mannequins, swatches of raw pink silk and calico cotton. Computers spring to life with Computer Animated Design (CAD) at the ready for new patterns. It’s a controlled chaos, with just enough space to walk around without bumping into anything.
On that first day—cool and bright, with a wind whipping up to the front door—he’d gravitated towards a soft, textured fleece that had come to the store by surprise, when someone called to say he’d found it in a purchased storage locker, and had no idea what to do with it. The store offered to take it, and Wisdom said he quickly fell in love with it. It was soft and luxurious in his hands, a “really hard fabric to dress up” that still seemed just right for the winter months. The mysterious fleece donor let bolts in different colors, with gray, black, blue and an orangey-red featuring prominently.
Each morning—sometimes in the very wee hours—he returns to the fleece. It’s his freehand time: he sketches out whatever’s knocking at the front of his skull, then cuts and sews it into being. He’s set a rough 3 p.m. deadline for himself each day, which gives Sprague time to photograph the piece in natural light, and mount it in the window. In the hours they’re not chipping away at the hundred designs (there are days on which he’ll knock out more than one), he and Sprague are working on the spring collection.
So far, there have been dresses and cowl sweaters, fleecy infinity scarves and muted, blue and gray zippered jumpsuits with layers and external pockets. Each day, Wisdom and Sprague come up with titles for the piece, with names like “Infinity,” “Paradox,” and “Remnant.” Each of them, Wisdom said, has pushed him to learn something new about his craft—and about himself.
Like design number 13, “Paradox” (photographed at top of article). A baggy, oversized dress in gray and black colorblock, “Paradox” had started with the inkling of an S shape, and two colors Wisdom wanted to marry by “making them look like they were woven together.” It was a technique he’d thought about before, but never with a fabric like fleece.
“I think I’m tapping into the wild spirit of Neville,” he said. “Growing up, I used to make a lot of funky clothes. The funk is coming back. There’s still sophistication, but there’s a lot of chaos and interest too. ”
The fleece is just a starting point, he added. As the weather warms up, he is planning to branch out into other fabrics, like the wildly patterned cottons and breezy linens that remind him of home.
“There’s a lot of designs in my head right now trying to push their way to the front of the line, and it’s not time yet,” he said. “When you’re doing something out of pure creativity, it doesn’t feel like work.”