Meet Cassie Byrnes, The Textile Designer Behind The Best Dressed Players At The Australian Open

“Tennis is a sport with so much potential for fashion.”

The hand behind the prints that seem to define a certain Melbourne look, belongs to one Cassie Byrnes. Her painterly dots, stripes and sploshy flowers have appeared almost everywhere — from Verner coats to posh shower gels, ice cream buckets to Penguin books — and have now found a rightful place on the stage that is the 2020 Australian Open. Her splashy-go-lucky prints will emerge on the bodies of the most stylish players, thanks to a bright and beautiful collaboration with NikeCourt — the brand’s first such collab with an Aussie designer.

Referencing the greats like Ken Done, Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, Cassie’s work is true blue through and through — making her an unbeatable match for this collab. “The Australiana vibe of that era has always been a huge inspiration — before I even knew what textile design was,” she tells us.

This time around, with a (nerve-wracking!) brief from Nike on her desk, Cassie found inspo in prehistoric Australia and the rigid and rocky forms that dot the Victorian coast, as well as abstract expressionist art. These ideas that seem to symbolise enduring strength and fluidity in motion speak to athletic ambitions so clearly, it’s genius. So, she took them — along with a very determined decision to let the feminine inform the work — and created prints that cover NikeCourt’s mix-and-match collection for both tennis pros and stylish enthusiasts alike.

It’s an exciting moment for Cassie, as a project two years in the making is finally released — officially debuting on the court this week in front of 700,000-odd people in Melbourne and available to us all through Nike stores nationally. How’d she get so smart? We wanted to know too, so we asked her some Q’s.


Hayley Morgan: You’re an artist, but your work ends up on all kinds of surfaces. Can you tell us a bit about what you ‘do’?

Cassie Byrnes: I wouldn’t call myself an artist, mostly because I feel like I design for a product. So, a textile designer is what I would call myself. I like to think about who I am painting for, where it is going and what its purpose is. I just love designing for an application and how the end-user will perceive it. And I love seeing my designs on clothing and packaging.

How did your collaboration with Nike start?

The team from the US came out for the 2018 Australian Open, they walked around the streets of Fitzroy, and then their whole mood board was just full of super Melbourne-centric images — like of Gertrude, Smith, and Brunswick streets. They saw some of my products in shops and as they researched ‘Melbourne Design’ — my name came up a lot. I only found out recently that they all separately had me in mind as the person they wanted to work with, which was nice to know, because you often doubt yourself. They called me up and asked me what I thought, and I was down to do it. We worked so well together, especially as I got to work with their textile designers — which I don’t usually get to do through other projects — so we spoke the same language. They told me, ‘You do you — we want it to be Australiana and really represent that part of the world in your style.’

Your work is intrinsically Australian, so the collaboration makes sense — it has those relaxed painterly feelings of Ken Done and Jenny Kee. What inspires the core of your work in general?

Yes. I love the 80s and the 90s – I’m super nostalgic. I recently heard someone say that people are nostalgic for the decade in which they were born. I thought that was true – it’s your first entry into the world, and I feel like I have just loved Ken Done forever, and Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson. I think those three were super influential in textiles at the time – they put that career on the map. And that Australiana vibe of that era has always been a huge inspiration — before I even knew what textile design was. Since I was a kid, I think I have just loved colour, and this more-is-more maximalism approach to everything — from what I do, to how I live and how I dress.

Which aspects of Australia did you pull from to inform the designs? What was on your mood board?
I was fascinated at the time with ‘Gondwana’ — the supercontinent Australia was part of when the world’s current continents were connected. And I was really into this idea of Prehistoric Australia, and what we looked like during the Jurassic period — drawing on ideas of volcanic eruptions and landmasses separating. I was really into rock formations at the time, and I still am. I went down to the coast — around where the Twelve Apostles are — and painted a lot. Lots of landmasses and rigid, rocky forms pretty much covered my entire mood board! And then to contradict that, I was also drawing on a lot of abstract expressionist art at the time. So, I kind of merged these two inspirations and that’s what created the style of the patterns.

“I was really into this idea of Prehistoric Australia, and what we looked like during the Jurassic period — drawing on ideas of volcanic eruptions and landmasses separating.”

How long ago did you create the patterns?

We started this collaboration in 2018, and I finished the pattern in May of that year.

It must feel surreal to see it finally out after all that time?

It is. I was thinking about it the other day — I remember finishing it and thinking it must be the longest lead time I’ve had on a project. I was like, ‘Imagine what my life will look like in 2020 when this comes out…’ And now I’m a mum!

Now that the collection is out, do you feel new things about it?

I’m just super happy it came out! Whenever I get a job — especially something like this — I never get excited because you don’t know what might happen and you can get upset if it never comes to fruition. This project was two years in the making, and it was a pretty crazy concept. Now, to see it finally in the store and on athletes, it’s like, ‘OK, this is actually happening!’ — so I can get excited now. I’m really happy to have designed a kit that represents our country… In a way, it is like a memento for the players to have — which I think is really nice.

Working on this project was not just about creating art that we can appreciate and look at — but something that professional athletes are wearing as they compete in a professional tournament. Did functionality and the needs of the athletes play into your creative process?

The function and the form came down to the materiality and cuts of the garments. Aesthetically, I was inspired by the blue courts that the athletes play on at the Australian Open, and thinking about how we could play on those colours. I came to this project from a spectator’s perspective. The Nike team and I were both on the same page in wanting to make tennis more accessible and to make tennis wear something that is not just for the pros. So we were thinking about how we could start to integrate tennis wear into the everyday wardrobes of people who perhaps only play tennis as a hobby and to get them thinking about how they could wear variations of what the players are wearing on the court.

“Tennis is a sport with so much potential for fashion.”

That’s interesting because tennis players now express their styles more creatively on the court, so coming at this from a spectator’s point of view is possibly the perfect perspective for a design collaborator to have — thinking about how it is going to look and feel on the court.

That’s what excited me about this project. Tennis is a sport with so much potential for fashion because there are no logos or names like you see on some sports’ jerseys, so it’s a blank canvas. And being an individual sport, they don’t have to be in a team jersey, so the players can come out and express themselves based on how they feel. I think this collection allows for that because we give the players several styles and customisation options — for example, the women can wear the bodysuit, and then add a skirt or dress or top. And then there are smaller ways to incorporate the prints through things like the wristband. We want them to style it the way they want — it is all about allowing the players to mix and match pieces based on how they want to wear the collection and the prints. We were also really excited to lead with the feminine, which was important to the Nike team and me. A lot of high-performance sportswear leads with the masculine and therefore is quite rigid, so I was excited to bring something more organic and feminine to this collection, and for the lines and patterns to be more in line with the shape of the body and natural patterns.

Where there any challenges along the way with this project?

If I had to compare this to any other collaboration I have worked on, this was the most organic and fluid because we all bounced off each other. Everyone was honest, and we really vibed. There are always challenges, design-wise, within yourself — in terms of being OK with what you are delivering. I feel like I always create my own problems. I had to loosen up a bit at the beginning because I got so tense — being Nike and the Australian Open — thinking ‘I’ve got to make this amazing!’ and of course that means you design something terrible because you are forcing it so hard — pressure! It’s almost like you need to get a bad one out of the way, like a warm-up, so you can start doing good work.

This tension between trying to do an amazing job and having to let go — is that something that you feel across all of your work projects?

Oh, 100%. It’s the hardest part about design or being creative in any form — the constant inner battle, continually pushing yourself and having to review and edit your work, and being honest with yourself. You’re your own worst enemy — everyone is.

When you are creating a piece of work for an exhibition or a client, is there a point, or a feeling you get, where you know you have finished?

Ha, no! You know, it’s funny, I did an exhibition about three years ago, and I hated it. I had to put it out because I was with a gallery and there was a hard deadline, and I just remember thinking, ‘This is embarrassing, everyone is going to laugh at me…’ But no one laughed at me, and it was a success, it sold out. It wasn’t until two years later, though, that I was able to look back and see how much that work had informed my work since then, and how valuable and worthwhile doing it had been. As a designer, I guess you are just always looking for the next thing, and always evolving. So, I think when my work helps me develop as a designer, I appreciate it more… eventually.

Do you think that’s inherent in everyone’s creative process, or do you think you are harder on yourself than others are?

I think a lot of creatives go through the same things, and some are worse than others — I’m pretty bad! I try really hard, but I’ve just learned that you’ve got to get stuff out. Because people can still love things that you aren’t vibing on at the time, then years later you might also start loving it! You’ve just got to let things get out there and evolve.

photography Byron Spencer, fashion Thalea Michos-Vellis, beauty Justin Henry

Produced by Oyster in partnership with Nike.