Tennis Ace Elina Svitolina And Textile Designer Cassie Byrnes Talk Personal Style, Sport, and NikeCourt

“Each time you step on the court you create.”

When it comes to sports, we know the clothes can be quite uniform — literally. Over the years, tennis stars like Venus and Serena Williams have fought to bring style to the court, but still… you don’t see a tonne of fashion looks at a tennis match. Usually. But as part of their latest collab in honour of the 2020 Australian Open, Nike has teamed up with Aussie textile designer Cassie Byrnes to create an exclusive NikeCourt Melbourne Collection. Inspired by prehistoric Australia, the feminine form and abstract art, the collection is a modern mix-and-match maximalist take on rock formations in bold colours, allowing the pro players — and tennis fans! — to bring their style to the sport.

And because Nike is all about making the sport more accessible to all, the brand is giving us — whether or not we’re skilled with a racquet — the chance to do the same via the Nike By You activation at their Melbourne Central store over the coming weeks. Using limited edition patterns from Cassie’s designs, customers can hit the shop and customise pieces from the NikeCourt line. So, even if you aren’t ace on the court, you can still look the part.

Last week, joined by our good friend and regular Oyster contributor Byron Spencer, we were lucky enough to hang out with Cassie and a legit Nike tennis pro, Elina Svitolina (currently ranked #5 in the world!), as she tried on her own looks at the Nike Athlete Lounge — a bespoke space set up in a Melbourne CBD laneway for the athletes to come by and style their unique Aus Open looks. Chatting about everything from childhood sibling rivalry to dream gigs with Nike and how both art and sport are forms of creative expression, the two give us a fresh perspective on the intersection of fashion and function. As for Elina in her new outfits for the Aus Open? She’s got game — on and off the court.

Alexandra Weiss: Elina, how does it feel to be one of the best tennis players in the world? Did you ever dream that was an option for you?

Elina Svitolina: It always gives me extra motivation to know that I’m high in the rankings. Every morning I wake up with a goal and that’s what gives me a little push to go on the court again. Tennis is all about repetition, so that’s why you need this small push that will really motivate you every morning!

Cassie Byrnes: Elina, I’m curious — when did you first start playing tennis? And do you still love it?

ES: I started playing tennis from a very young age. My brother is nine years older and he was already on the court when I was born… I wanted to get more attention from my parents and the only way to do that was by trying to be better than him — to, therefore, get more attention than him! I have always enjoyed the process and trying to beat the other players… Of course, there have been some tough times, but I think when you love the sport, you enjoy the fight and the struggle as well. What about you, Cassie?

“I think when you love the sport, you enjoy the fight and the struggle as well” — Elina Svitolina 

ES: Cassie, when did you first start enjoying textile and surface design?

CB: I’ve always enjoyed it, too. In the first few weeks of starting my course at university, I was like, ‘This is my tribe, these are my people.’

ES: And when did you realise you were good at it?

CB: You know, maybe when Nike sent me an email about this collab [laughs] — I was like, ‘Cool, maybe I am OK at this job!’ But I think, as a designer, you are never done — you are always trying to push yourself more.

AW: Every artist has their own style — Cassie, how would you describe yours?

CB: Most people see it as colourful, abstract and vibrant. If I were to describe my style to myself, though, its all about my technical exploration into textiles. I’m constantly trying to push myself and to evolve, and that’s what really drives me creatively – that constant want to keep getting better and to do things that interest me as a designer.

AW: Do you think your work reflects the type of person you are? Do you approach life in a similar style?

CB: I definitely approach life similar to how I design. With everything I do and see, I am constantly capturing and looking for inspiration. I feel like my work is super personal to me and intertwined into my life.

AW: How does it affect your sense of style? Do you wear a lot of prints… is your home filled with them?

CB: It’s full of pattern and colour – it’s really eccentric. And I’ve always been like that, ever since I was little. I love dressing loud and with patterns — my whole life is pretty outrageous and maximalist. So, I definitely live my aesthetic in every part of my life.

CB: What about you, Elina? Every tennis player has their own match style too, so how would you describe yours? 

ES: I think a lot of the time, I am playing defence, but I think that’s also my strength – I’m a fighter, you know. Coming from Ukraine, I think it is one of our strengths as a country — we were always told that we have to fight very hard for our dreams to achieve something. I bring that to the way I see my game style as well – fighting for every single ball, never giving up. I approach my life the same way – you have to put in lots of hours of work to achieve something, and you definitely have to fight for what you want to achieve. I think that’s one of my main mottos in life.

“I’m a fighter, you know. Coming from Ukraine, we were always told that we have to fight very hard for our dreams to achieve something.” — Elina Svitolina 

AW: What about when you’re getting dressed for a match?

ES: Clothing is very important for athletes generally and it’s one of the main things for me. When I put my kit on, I feel that I am ready — I’m ready for the match, I’m ready to bring the fight and it helps me to also find my zone where I play my best. It helps me just to feel good and have this fighting spirit in me.

AW: Why do you think that kind of self-expression is so important to both of you — besides the fact it can land you dream gigs with Nike?

CB:  I think it’s just who I am… it’s just important to me as a person to just constantly be experimenting and painting and doing all these things that bring me joy. Elina, do you see sport as an act of self-expression?

ES: I think sport opens you up from different sides. Tennis players are all creators. Each time you step on the court you create — you create the game and that’s how I think everyone is expressing themselves. For example, some are more emotional than the others, some try to do some amazing shots and others play more solid…

AW: Speaking of kits… let’s chat more about the new NikeCourt Melbourne Collection. It’s the first time Nike has collaborated with an Aussie, and it has a very Australiana vibe to it. Cassie, which aspects of Australia did you pull from to inform the designs? Where you inspired to bring some of Australia to the athletes?

CB: Most of my body of work draws upon the natural world, especially Australia — I find this country incredibly diverse and interesting. From a design point of view, I went back to prehistoric Australiana — Australia when it was a part of Gondwana, during the time of supercontinents — and I imagined what that world looked like in the Jurassic era. When I started designing the collection and putting together my mood board, I was super inspired by rock formations, land diagrams, land mapping… I loved all the old geographical, geological drawings that I found in old vintage books. I kind of put that all together and there was a lot of texture involved. Then I went and had a few trips out to the coast of Victoria, took lots of photos and did a lot of painting around the 12 Apostles, and I love the sedimentary rock formations there… I was just imagining how that land just split apart. And when I looked at the Dolerite rock formations in Tasmania, I was just really looking at how the light captures the rocks and all the different textures involved and shadows when you look at them.

AW: What are you hoping the players will think of the Melbourne Collection?

CB: I feel really proud of the kit and I want it to be like a little memento – a souvenir of Australia to remind them of their time here and this beautiful city that they are playing in.

“I feel really proud of the kit and I want it to be like a little memento – a souvenir of Australia to remind them of their time here and this beautiful city that they are playing in.” — Cassie Byrnes

CB: Elina, what pieces are you loving? Are there any we see you mix and matching on the court?

ES: It depends on my mood and what I want on the day. But this collection is unique because there are so many options and that’s definitely something special – you have the freedom to choose what you want in the end. 

AW: How does the collection make you feel when you wear it?

ES: When you’re wearing something bright and something that you really love — even if something is not going right on the courtit helps you to raise your mood a little bit. So, it’s very nice to have a choice and definitely to see the bright colours.

CB: Will we see you in the outfit you’re wearing now on the court, except maybe minus the frills?! 

ES: [laughs] Yeah, the bodysuit is very comfortable. I feel free and it’s easy to move in. In Melbourne, it can get very hot, and you can play in very humid conditions, so it’s very important to feel that you can move freely. And I also love the colours — I love yellow!  

AW: Cassie, what made you want to work on a fashion and art project involving sport, and specifically, tennis?

CB: With tennis, we have this great opportunity to bring fashion into the player’s kits, because it’s an individual sport – they’re not in a team uniform. Fashion in tennis only really came about in the 80s and 90s, like in the Agassi era, and it made me excited to bring that 80s and 90s nostalgia back to tennis. We approached this project, design-wise, from more of a spectator’s perspective. Looking at how it could be incorporated into the players’ kits, and into an everyday wardrobe. We didn’t want tennis wear to be just tennis wear.

CB: Elina, tell us, the night before a big match, what’s going through your head?

ES: Well, there are lots of things going on in my head… and you are trying to visualise how it’s going to be when you enter the court, when there will be a coin toss, what you will decide on a serve or return at the beginning of the match and how it is going to go…. So, you try to imagine, but as soon as you step on the court, it’s different [laughs]. I mean, then you ask yourself why you were even were bothering getting nervous last night. It’s very different when you are a top player, you’ve done it so many times that you already know that you are ready to go – you did everything that’s in your power to get ready for this big match and now it’s time to just to put everything together and to try to win the match and the tournament.

“The atmosphere that the fans create – it just makes you feel very special” — Elina Svitolina 

AW: Why is it so meaningful to you to play at the Australian Open in Melbourne?

ES: I think it’s about the atmosphere that the fans create – it doesn’t matter which court you are playing on, it doesn’t matter what day – it just makes you feel very special that you are one of the top players, and that you have a chance to play in front of such a nice crowd. And it’s such a big event as well – the first grand slam of the year, so you want to be ready and show that you are here!

AW: Elina, your foundation uses tennis as a tool to teach children the values of hard work and discipline — why do you think these are important lessons?

ES: I think it is very important to introduce sport in general to kids from a young age. I have been playing tennis for many years and I think there are lots of qualities you can gain by playing this sport. It teaches you that you have to be very disciplined to achieve something in life. I love coming back to Ukraine because I get to do clinics and share my experiences with the kids.

CB: Where else are you taking tennis this year? What’s your goal for 2020?

 ES: My ultimate goal is always to win a grand slam – to win as many matches as I can. The year is very long so you have to be healthy and that’s my main goal. I struggled a little bit with injuries last year, so it’s been very tough for me to not play at my best … And you just have to be ready – you have to be fresh mentally, and physically very strong, to be consistently at the top. So that’s my goal: just to be healthy and keep my level as high as I can. Finally, I’ve got to ask — after working on this collaboration, Cassie, will we see you on the court? 

CB: Oh absolutely. I was so inspired by it – I love tennis.

photography Byron Spencer, fashion Thalea Michos-Vellis, hair and makeup Justin Henry 

Produced by Oyster in partnership with Nike.