Raymond McNeill is running on 13 hours’ sleep in a week. He’s made five dresses, two suits and received more emails and messages than he knows what to do with. Life is good for McNeill, a Hampton, Va., native now living and working in Los Angeles as a fashion designer.
“I didn’t go to church because I was doing all the finishings,” he said. “When I am put into the position of creating and designing, it’s like a fire has been set underneath my rear end.”
The uptick in McNeill’s work is credited to Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of “Hidden Figures” and a childhood friend of his from Hampton.
Chances are if the author has made a high-profile appearance in the last few months, she’s been wearing a McNeill design.
‘Say my name’
As a child, McNeill’s classmates all would wear the same corduroys and sweaters from department stores such as Sears and Montgomery Ward.
He said he was tired of blending in, so he started packing clothes in his backpack to change into at school — vests and shirts he cut from cloth and pinned together with safety pins, two-tone jeans he began to sell for $20.
“Raymond was just like one of these bright shining people that everybody knew,” Shetterly said. “He was just a brilliant fashion designer — somebody who knew what he wanted to do.”
By 13, McNeill was making prom gowns and wedding dresses.
“Fashion was in my blood,” he said. “Everything I have seen in the fashion industry, I had done that already in elementary school.”
After graduating from Phoebus High School, McNeill headed to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.
“There’s a lot I had to learn about pattern constructing. How to draft a pattern and the arm holes and the hip curve,” McNeill said. “Once I got it, I took off.”
One of his first projects was designing a suit for Barry White to wear at the 1988 Soul Train Awards. Still in school, McNeill waited for White to say his name on the red carpet but never heard a peep.
So the Hampton native took a job as a tailor after wrapping up at the Fashion Institute. He continued designing, working for the likes of Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci and Bloomingdale’s.
He designed under the name Nomar Couture, which he coined while living in Hampton, and sewed for Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton. Like Barry White, he found that no one would say his name, or his label’s, on the red carpet.
“I felt like Destiny’s Child’s song ‘Say My Name.’ I would be sitting in my apartment boo-hooing,” McNeill said. “I’m like, ‘Lord, what is this?’”
It would take a childhood friend to finally utter the words McNeill was looking for.
While sitting in his apartment one day, a commercial for “Hidden Figures” caught McNeill’s attention. He traced the movie to the book and sent Shetterly a message.
“I know you need some clothes to wear to the red carpets for the things you’re doing to promote this book,” he said. “Please call me.”
The next day, she did.
“To wear the designs of somebody I’ve known for so long from my hometown, where the story takes place, it means everything,” Shetterly said. “It’s my honor to wear his designs and bring the rest of Hampton with me on this tour.”
Shetterly wore his designs for the premiere of the movie, and later, to introduce First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House before a private screening.
“I got choked up and started crying when she sent me the email of her introducing Michelle Obama,” McNeill said.
Shetterly described the cream-colored dress as one part Jackie Onassis, one part Lt. Uhura from “Star Trek.”
“It felt like I was wearing a glamorous suit of armor with all my hometown and friendships,” she said.
As for the “Hidden Figures” premiere, it was the first time McNeill had heard his name spoken on a red carpet of that magnitude. It put into perspective the years he’s put into his craft.
“God’s timing is not our timing. I know if I had gotten the fame and the fortune back then, I probably would be dead by now,” McNeill said. “If I wouldn’t be dead, I’d be broke by now.”
The designer already has sketched out dress ideas for Shetterly should she be invited to the NAACP Image Awards, scheduled for Feb. 11, and the Academy Awards on Feb. 26.
“It only takes one person,” McNeill said. “I’m moving up, and it’s all because of Margot wearing my designs. I’m so grateful to her.”
Jonathan Black writes for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.