Renaissance Man – The vivid world of Ray Masters

The vivid world of Ray Masters

By Inga Stracke

On a Thursday night a few weeks ago I dropped by Casanova in Makawao. They had a new English DJ spinning for a special event. The place was packed and everyone seemed to be having fun. Not long after I went to dinner at Café Mambo in Paia. Incredibly colorful and abstract paintings of Robby Naish kiteboarding covered the walls. Later I found out that the guy who painted the Café Mambo pictures and the English DJ at Casanova were the same person.

His name is Ray Masters, and he’s also one of the most successful sports-fashion designers in the world. You may not have heard his name, but chances are you’ve zipped up or strapped on one of his designs. In fact, he was just nominated for the 2005 United States Sports Academy (USSA) Sports Artist of the Year Award.

Today he lives in Sprecklesville with his wife Vivienne and four cats, but he was born and raised in North London. Back then, he didn’t think much about becoming an artist.

In 1970, he started working as a racecar mechanic in London. He did that for about five years, then moved to the island of Malta to work on oil drilling rigs off the coast of North Africa. It was hard and dangerous work. He did that until 1983. Then he moved to Florida to sell used cars.

In 1986, Masters did his first work of art: Six hand-painted t-shirts for his brother’s sports video company. They debuted, if you can call it that, on the backs of models at the 1986 Action Sports Retailer show in Long Beach, California.

“I bought oversized t-shirts which had just started to become trendy in the U.K. at the time and nobody in the U.S. had really seen them,” Masters told me. “I hand-painted them with massive jumbo designs, a big triple sail, an upside-down sailor, pink sails, all totally new to the U.S. A young Fred Haywood, who had just secured the world speed record, wore one. Many people just stared at our gorgeous models wearing those huge t-shirts.”

Representatives from Swatch soon spotted Masters’ bold artwork and contacted him. They asked him to visit them in New York. Two days later they commissioned him to design clothing and accessories–things like wristbands for the company’s insanely popular watches.

“I was just really, really lucky to jump on the right look and have the right ideas at the right time,” Masters said. “And then those companies find me and discover me–that was super lucky.”

Masters hand-drew his first designs for Swatch. Since this was an inefficient way to produce multiple designs, Masters bought his first graphics computer, an Amiga 1000. By today’s standards primitive–its 16 colors pale before today’s machines that can display millions–the Amiga was nonetheless the top graphics personal computer of the day.

Masters began producing works with just five or six colors, but he enlarged them 500 percent. The result was a blocky, pixilated work with no true curves or shading. He already had a surreal style, and the end result was truly unique art–all the more revolutionary since computers weren’t really being used in fashion design at that time.

“From a young age I had loved the art of Joan Miro who was noted for his bold use of color and his humorous characters and subjects,” Masters said. “I am a fun loving kinda guy”–here he winked at me–“and I think I express my extrovert nature through the use of bold colors and shapes. Never be too serious.”

The contracts started rolling in. Neil Pryde, the world’s largest sail maker and windsurf company, asked Masers to design all their clothing. Elho Brunner, who owned the Neil Pryde rights, then commissioned Masters to design ski wear for their up-market clothing line Elho Freestyle.

“I walked into the SIA Show [the largest winter sports expo in the world] in Las Vegas and there was the Elho booth,” said Masters. “It seemed as large as a city block, with photographs of my work 10 feet high and 20 feet wide. My name was plastered everywhere. The next day they commissioned me to design clothing for their entire summer line–a huge honor and task. Later that week I sat in front of my brother’s Amiga in L.A. for almost 36 hours and spewed artwork. I couldn’t get it out fast enough as ideas and visions tripped over each other. I created the entire summer line in that short period, earning over $1,000 an hour in the process.”

This was the first time Masters designed ski wear. By the late 1980s, his neon ski jackets would cover slopes all over Europe and North America.

“I would use amazing graphics and designs that looked great but made the production people hate me,” he said. “They would come back to the bosses and say, ‘This is impossible, we cannot make it.’ It’s crazy but the bosses would just look at it and say, ‘We like it. Make it happen. We don’t care how.'” …continue…