“You see the Apple Store, you see L.L. Bean, then you see a black ass store, it’s painted black, it looks creepy as fuck from the outside. It’s kinda like a candy shop, it’s enticing, you’ve gotta look in there,” said Palayo Mais, a multimedia artist from New Haven and a regular at the Neville Wisdom Fashion Design Studio.
I spoke with Palayo soon after my first visit to the Neville Wisdom studio. Before then, I hadn’t spent much time perusing the Broadway conglomerates, and the name “Neville Wisdom” did little to elucidate the purpose of this enigmatic store. From the words “WHERE ARE YOUR CLOTHES MADE?” written in big black letters in the tinted storefront window, decorated with mannequins sporting cocktail dresses and streetwear, I could only guess it was another one of Broadway’s many high-priced clothing boutiques.
What I didn’t know at first was that behind the dressy storefront, undercover in a sea of corporate strongholds, resides the Neville Wisdom Fashion Design Studio, a nucleus and safe haven for creatives throughout the city. Its leading creator and businessperson Dwayne Moore Jr. invited me to see the space myself.
Dwayne’s relationship with Neville Wisdom, after whom the store is named, is tightly knit, sewn with years of built trust and patience. In just about five years, Dwayne went from serendipitously wandering into Neville’s studio to recently becoming a partner at the business. Starting out as an apprentice to Neville, Dwayne developed skills he can put to practice as part of the studio’s business and as part of his own brand. Together, Neville and Dwayne’s income is largely made of clothing alterations and commissions.
As Dwayne now continues to take a more administrative role, Neville Wisdom transitions into retirement. I couldn’t reach Neville himself for this article, as he was on a boat in the Caribbean and had lost his phone.
Dwayne gave me a look inside what he describes as his second home.
“This is the space that keeps [the studio] alive for the most part,” Dwayne said as he led me to the back half of the studio. Behind the storefront mannequins is a regiment of industrial sewing machines and an artillery of fabrics, much of it accumulated thanks to the community of local donors that Neville himself has established throughout his career. Overlooking the studio is a five-foot tall multimedia portrait of Neville, with a black and white base and colorful cloth embellishments. Even further back, through a narrow hallway overtaken by old sewing experiments and works in progress is the store’s photography space. In this studio, shower thoughts become inventive clothing lines, gallery additions, and new prints.
“What pulls people in is the window and the ‘Made in New Haven’ sign,” Dwayne tells me. “I think that’s in part why people come in here, because it feels out of place.” That is, among the surrounding chain stores that boast bright curated facades and imported goods, Neville Wisdom sticks out.
The Neville Wisdom studio is a playground for anyone with a vision. Those interested, like Palayo, pay a fee to use the space consistently, but all visitors are welcome. Drawn to the unique handmade pieces that Dwayne documented online, Palayo brought himself through the doors of the Neville Wisdom studio to discover what he described as a “bat cave.”
Palayo has found solidarity in the community Neville and Dwayne have built. Some days Palayo leaves with armfuls of clothes from Dwayne’s personal line, and one time Dwayne gave Palayo a spare camera to help with his photography endeavors. Palayo can spend hours at the studio, where he and Dwayne will work in the hum of sewing machines and R&B, reflecting on each other’s projects, lives, and anything else that comes to mind. To Palayo, the studio is a sanctuary, a place grounded in creativity and camaraderie that has been conducive to his growth as an individual and artist.
Dwayne and I flipped through catalogs and portfolios of local New Haven artists whose books were proudly displayed on the store’s shelves. Meanwhile, he told me about a well-meaning customer who had reminded him of the trials he would experience, especially as a Black artist and businessman. Sharing racial identity, the customer had told Dwayne to be wary of the personalities he would meet given his business and given its location. “You sound like my mom,” Dwayne had laughed, dismissing the concern. Negative attention, if any, is hardly an issue to him because the individuals that naturally gravitate toward the Neville Wisdom studio are the types of people he’d want to associate with anyway.
“The way the front is set up, it’s as if only the people I think I would engage with come in here. I feel like looking at this place you have to be open to wanna even come in.” As many new faces as he sees, Dwayne feels a strong sense of community at the studio, between New Haven being his home and the storefront drawing in like-minded people. “You’re already curious,” he said, “I like to talk to curious minds.” Dwayne told me that the first time he landed outside Neville Wisdom’s door he was reading a book called Curious Minds, and we marveled at the full-circle moment.
A few times in our conversation, Dwayne shifted his attention to helping another studio regular perfect a waistband on a pair of shorts. The fabric he was working with was one of his own designs, a quadriptych featuring the band Kiss. In the closing hours we spent talking, a handful of visitors leaked in and out of the studio, some customers and local creators looking to take their ideas through the finish line. In the Neville Wisdom studio, the storefront and the design studio exist in symbiosis.
To Dwayne, his responsibilities in the studio are not a clock-in, clock-out ordeal—they’re lifestyle, an extension of his being. In his eyes, the studio is as much a workshop as it is a home. “Some nights I’ll just sleep on that couch right over there,” Dwayne gestured to the satin couch where my coat and tote bag were resting.
By many standards, New Haven is not the ideal spot for exercising creative visions. Palayo believes that the art traffic in New Haven is “nonexistent,” as a product of the population and the lack of diversity. In New Haven, the culture does not seem to demand novelty like other larger cities, where the movement of people isn’t defined by a monopolizing private institution. Meanwhile, Dwayne sees the market differently, “It can feel small, but I think I’d feel smaller in any other city to be fair. It’s about connecting with the people who you think resonate with you. It depends on how you look at it for sure.”
“[My] favorite part [is] how open it is. In a literal sense and also how people perceive it when they walk in. I think I like that so much because I’ve experienced that exclusivity from people not wanting to teach me,” Dwayne reflected on the studio’s function in the community. “The fashion industry seems so exclusive, but we’re more than welcome to anyone that wants to be a part of this.”
The Neville Wisdom Fashion Design Studio has taken a new shape over the years, especially as a result of the pandemic, and will continue to do so with the changing leadership, which Dwayne believes he can use to draw a youthful perspective and energy into the studio. The diversity of people and opinions is what he believes will reignite the space. “I don’t see it going away or moving, as much as we downsize,” Dwayne asserts, “It says a lot about the usefulness to the community.” The studio is one-of-a-kind, a place providing people of all backgrounds and interests with a community that hardly says no and relentlessly gives. “In the industry you serve the person you work for, and the space,” Dwayne explained. “This space serves me.”
—Chloe Nguyen is a first year in Saybrook College.