Ray Cole, the New Orleans artist and fashion designer whose hand-painted silk scarves, dresses and other wearable art pieces are collected around the world, died Tuesday. He was 68.
His bright, colorful and whimsical designs were painted by hand onto silk scarves, dresses, jackets and other fabrics accented and bordered by a latex-style material that Cole applied using a hypodermic needle. He created the rubber finishing process more than 30 years ago and said he even consulted Dow Chemical Company for insight.
“I told them what I wanted to do, talked to a chemist,” he said in a 2008 WWL-TV interview with Angela Hill. “And they would send me things to play around with and to experiment with.” Cole said it took two years for him to perfect his idea, which he called latex lace.
“Ray Cole’s wearable art can make something very ordinary quite extraordinary,” said cookbook author/designer and public relations executive Kit Wohl, who owns more than 100 Ray Cole pieces. “Everything he does is aglow with color and there is a never-ending versatility in his work, not to mention that there is a bit of fun in each one. I also like that there is a unique artfulness in everything he does,” Wohl told Biz New Orleans for a 2014 profile.
Over the years, Cole’s designs helped win him over 50 Alpha Awards for fashion and national recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980. The organization presented him a $5,000 prize. In 1991, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Fashion Group International Inc. of New Orleans.
His wearable art was displayed in fashion shows around the world and he had a strong following locally as well as in New York and on the West Coast.
"While I'm sure there are other New Orleans women who have larger collections, I treasure my many scarves which are just about in every color and assorted variations,” said WYES-TV senior producer Peggy Scott Laborde. “His silk designs with some metallic color touches always made me feel like I was adding a touch of elegance to whatever I would wear.”
A native of Blytheville, Arkansas with the accent to match, Cole moved with his family to San Francisco when he was a child. He told a Times-Picayune reporter in 1983 that his family then moved to New Orleans when he was 17. He took art courses and graduated from the University of New Orleans, but didn’t initially think of fashion or art as a career.
“I knew whatever I did, it would be something creative,” he said in 1983. After working for 12 years at a French Quarter restaurant, he opened his own boutique in the early 1980s. Over the years, he would also come to sell his clothing line (which he produced in his home studio) at several local boutiques. Recently he had been showing his large scale silk paintings at the New Orleans Art Center on St. Claude Avenue.
Cole lost everything to Hurricane Katrina and slowly rebuilt his business after the storm but said he never thought of leaving New Orleans. “It never crossed my mind to leave, no matter what,” he told Hill in 2008. “I have a great clientele here. Why would I want to…(move) when I can stay here and have a nice life and isn’t that what it’s all about? I know what I am supposed to be doing and I follow my heart and do it.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.