How Neville Wisdom Found His Groove

Lucy Gellman Photo Neville Wisdom had done it hundreds of times, the steps running on loop through his head. A clean cut through skin and muscle would expose the skull. Four tiny burr holes would come next, helping to create a white window of bone.

Working together, the two would isolate the bulging, bobbing aneurysm, a ticking time bomb. Then, driven by months of routine, he would help clip the aneurysm, and save the patient from potential catastrophe. 

But now, hours into the procedure — for the first time in his career as a surgical tech at Yale-New Haven Hospital — Wisdom found that he couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t that he had forgotten the process, exactly. Instead, the mental loop had stopped and started and stopped again, catching on a suite of deferred ambitions somewhere at the back of his brain. Like the aneurysm itself, a steady pressure had been building within him for months now.

It was time to make a change: from full-time at the hospital to full-time in fashion, a field that had followed him from his childhood in rural Jamaica to his arrival in the United States at 28. 

“I remember coming out of it — they relieved me — but I was struggling,” Wisdom said of the operation on the latest episode on WNHH radio’s “Open For Business” program. “I’d been struggling for maybe three years with maybe ... the only time in my life when I can say that depression was really overpowering, because I needed to get out of that environment. It was draining me ... the structure of it. I was never that type of person who wanted to work for a company or a firm. I’ve always wanted to be a designer ... I tried leaving a couple of times and my sister talked me back into it, so when I decided I was going to leave I turned my phone off so she wouldn’t be able to call me. I had a meeting with my supervisor and I told her that: ‘I can’t work here anymore.’ I knew I had to do something kind of drastic.”

So he did. He wrote a letter and resigned that day and decided to dedicate himself full-time to the vocation closest to his heart: fashion design. Within a week he had quit his hospital job and had more sewing machines in a studio he had started in Westville.

“I’ve never been happier,” he said.

From Windsor Castle to Kingston

While Wisdom considers that day his defining moment, it was neither the beginning nor the end of his journey to owning two shops in New Haven, but a tailored sort of middle, the waistcoat to his three-piece suit of a story.

Wisdom’s entry into the fashion world found its roots in the durable, multi-use clothing he and his siblings wore during their childhood.

It wasn’t just an affection for these clothes, but an obsession with how they were made. “I wanted to learn the soul of it, and not just the idea of being able to create clothes,” said Wisdom, who was raised in Windsor Castle, Saint Mary, Jamaica.

He remembered a time, somewhere between the ages of 13 and 18, when he stood transfixed outside of a shop window for “five, six hours a day” every day for a month and a half, hoping that the tailor would invite him in. The tailor did, eventually — only to throw him out three days later for making a perfect first pair of pants.

No matter. Wisdom had caught the bug, and he wasn’t letting it go. At the urging of an older sister, he enrolled in a government-funded fashion program that took him to Kingston, where designers were offering post-graduate apprenticeships. One of those people was Neville Walker, who later came to the U.S. in 2002. Head of his own NW brand, Walker offered Wisdom the opportunity to branch out from men’s clothing to women’s, opening him up to a world of sartorial possibility. 

“We fell in love with each other, and I ended up spending a year and a half at his place, and he mentored me quite a bit at that point. The deal was to make clothes for myself to start off. That’s where the making of men’s clothes kind of started. But I’ve always been fascinated by women’s fashion. I learned a lot from him,” he said during the interview.

But, he added, he couldn’t see himself staying in Kingston forever, or moving back home.  There was the uncharted territory of the New York fashion scene, and he had only forward to go.

From Kingston to New Haven

Ultimately, New York wasn’t Wisdom’s first stop in the U.S.; that was a short-lived sojourn with his father in New Jersey. While Wisdom came to the States with a specific interest in the city’s cosmopolitan fashion scene, he found it hostile and hard to break into.

“I remember jumping on a train and going downtown ... as skilled as I am, it should have been a breeze for me to find work in New York especially with the fact that I was so good at making actual clothing. I could construct anything just because of years of having been able to have to do it myself,” he said.

“But life has a way of kind of like directing you where you need to be,” he added. What that meant for him was staying in New Haven with his sister, head of perioperative nursing at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and setting aside his dreams of fashion — just for a little while, his sister assured him — so he could take a job in Yale’s sterile supply, assembling kits for surgery. 

The methodical, minute nature of the work “kept my mind busy,” and he loved that. It was never quite busy enough, however, to forget the career on which he’d prospered in Kingston, the very thing that drove him to the East Coast in the first place. So he self-medicated with fashion. Starting with an antique Singer sewing machine that he outfitted with a motor, Wisdom began to make clothes for women at the hospital, little fleece sweaters that were popular in the early 2000s.  He took technical classes at Eli Whitney and learned to be a surgical tech, spending much of what he made “on high end designer garments, even though I couldn’t really afford it.” He tried flipping houses as a second career. Life was, financially, very good. But he felt a huge void where NW had been in Kingston, and no garment, compliment or successful surgery made it go away. 

Which led, ultimately, right to that aneurysm. After walking out of the surgical arena, and then the hospital, Wisdom dedicated every waking moment to his small studio on Whalley Avenue, in Westville, doing double duty as a full-time dad to his older son. It was hard, but it was exactly what he wanted, he said.

“Even though it seemed like a difficult transition for most people, when they talk about it, it was actually very enjoyable for me to be able to give up things that really didn’t have much meaning to me anyway. I went to poverty to struggle to keep my business alive, and keep my idea of designing alive, and ... I think it took more of a toll on other people than it did on me. It was a very mentoring stage of my life where I really came into myself as an individual and understood who Neville Wisdom was, who I wanted to be around and how I wanted to be as an individual,” he said.

David Sepulvedsa Photo That hardship has paid off. After three years working full-time in his studio on Whalley, he was able to open a property at 63 Orange St., and then another earlier this year in Westville. The location in the Ninth Square gives him the visibility and foot traffic he needs, he said, while the Westville location is cozier, outfitted with cutting-edge equipment for faster manufacturing, couches in case he wants to stay the night, and a shower for when he has.

“People talk about having visions all the time. A vision isn’t gonna just fall in your lap, and then the next day, it’s in your front door,” he said. “You really have to figure out how to get there. There’s definitely always a path to get to where your dream is, and sometimes I think we just have to study that, and make the sacrifices to know the things that will deter you from that.” 

“Whenever it seems like I might have an obstacle or something very bad,” he said, “I just totally analyze it, and let that propel me to another era that I have to go to.”

 

To listen to the full interview, click on or download the audio above.

This interview is part of WNHH-LP’s “Open For Business” series on immigrant business owners and leaders in the nonprofit community. “Open for Business is sponsored by Frontier Communications. Frontier is proud to be Connecticut’s hometown provider of TV and internet for your home and business. Their phone number is 1.888.Frontier and their website is Frontier.com

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