In an industry that’s still deep in thrall with the idea of collaborations, Prada remains famously picky when it comes to working with other labels or designers. Yes, Miuccia Prada’s partnership with Raf Simons atop the brand is technically something of a collaboration, and the company produces a tightly edited line of pieces with Adidas. But beyond that, Mrs. Prada turns down pretty much every collaboration pitch that lands on her desk. As she once told Vogue, “I’ve been asked to do a collaboration since ages! They always seemed to be just about selling more — about clichés, banality, and not about ideas. I was never interested.”
So when Miuccia Prada told the artist Cassius Atticus Hirst that they should create something for Prada together, Cass, as he’s known, reacted as if in a dream. “Obviously, it didn’t feel real at all,” he recalls via Zoom from his studio in London. But she was serious, and today the 22-year-old's name is on a limited-edition run of Prada America’s Cup sneakers.
Cass doesn’t consider himself a fine artist like his father, legendary British artist Damien Hirst, though he does make paintings. He’s more specifically a consummate Gen-Z creative who has thrown himself into a wide-ranging set of passion projects and pursuits, some of which happen to be art-making. When we spoke, I thought he was in an art studio until he turned his camera to show me the professional grade recording equipment he was sitting next to: this, it turned out, was his beats lab. The studio where he works on visual projects is nearby, and with upcoming free time he’s going to be traveling to Germany to finger-board with friends — the schoolhouse pursuit otherwise known as tech-decking. “Waiting in the morning for your teacher to come in and you're just playing with Tech Decks — well, I’m the kid that never stopped,” he says.
A different sort of teenage pursuit grabbed Mrs. Prada’s attention. Inspired by a workshop Virgil Abloh did with Nike where participants could paint Air-Force 1s, Cass started buying blank white sneakers and spray painting them with trippy, abstract gradients. He didn’t intend for it to become an independent artistic hustle — he was just a kid with a lot of art supplies at his disposal, messing around. “It's just fun for me. As soon as it's fun, then the ideas keep going. I don't really consider what I want from it, other than focusing on the actual shoe that's in my hands at the time,” he says.
Cass grew up skateboarding, and when we spoke he was wearing a Supreme T-shirt and a North Face five-panel hat. He has an intuitive nose for hype, and when he started posting his custom kicks on Instagram, the likes of A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti got in touch to buy them. Cass’s real breakthrough, though, came when he showed his dad one of his more ambitious designs: an AF1 wrapped in tape and vinyl, which he then painted over to create a textured, almost lunar colorscape. (Father, like son, is a hardcore sneakerhead.) “I was speaking to my dad about it and he said, ‘You should try and make them,’” meaning produce a proper line of his custom kicks. Being, you know, a teenager whose hobby project was only just beginning to feel serious, Cass didn’t know where to start. So Damien contacted a family friend who knows a thing or two about fashion production for advice. “[My dad] was like, ‘Oh, maybe I'll just send a photo to Miuccia.’”
Miuccia was impressed: “She was just into it, really, and said, ‘Let's do something,’” Cass recalls.
After a trip to Prada’s Tuscany production facilities, Cass’s art studio was filled to the rafters with boxes of America’s Cup sneakers, the iconic design Prada introduced in 1997 for members of Prada’s Luna Rossa sailing team. His mandate was simple and open-ended: to come up with a collection of painted shoes. “The game plan was initially for me to paint 3,000 pairs,” Cass says, an idea that only makes sense when you consider he’s the son of our time’s most prolific mega-artist. “I thought, ‘Yeah, let me just get the shoes and get it done.’ I thought it would be fun. It would be chaos, but definitely a learning experience,” he says. Eventually, he acknowledged that Prada would “have a much better system to do it than I would probably have.”
Instead, Cass painted 80+ pairs of sneakers to come up with four final designs (in 22 colors) that showcase his eye for silky-smooth gradients and subtle textural embellishments. As a fan of Prada’s nylon pieces—“There’s one jacket, it’s sleeveless with a hood, that I saw and I thought, ‘Wow, that's unbelievable”—he was immediately drawn to the funky blank canvas that is the America’s Cup. “It's an amazing shoe, really. It was a lot of fun to paint and it's got so many beautiful contours,” he says. Compared to the straightforward AF1, the America’s Cup called for a more abstract approach: “The America's Cup feels a lot more organic, and I think that came through in the process. I realized that I could be a lot more free with it.” It took the greater part of a year before Cass felt ready to send the final designs to Milan. “It was nerve-wracking, for sure,” he says.
So, did he ask pops for feedback as he worked on the sneakers? “He’s a good person to have” around, Cass says. “If something's shit then he'll probably say so.” But his most important focus group was his London skater pals, a demographic with a keen sense for cool, and the one that will likely be lining up to buy the Cass x Prada kicks. “Whenever my friends would come to the studio and I'd just go, ‘Which one's your favorite?’ And if one stood out in particular, or if one of them doesn't get mentioned by anyone, then I took that into consideration,” Cass says.
Cass, who says he practically grew up in London’s white-cube galleries, does credit his father as a source of inspiration. “Naturally, he's pretty dark and I think I have a bit of that as well,” he says. More importantly, though, is how Damien has encouraged Cass to follow his pursuits wherever they may lead him: “He doesn't care what I do. He doesn't want me to be an artist. If I'm skating, it's the same thing as art. I think he can always see the relation between everything,” he says.
Now that the sneakers are out in the world, Cass is looking forward to getting back to finger-boarding. And the Prada collaboration no longer feels like a dream. “It's becoming real now,” he says. “It's like, Okay, the whole world's going to see it, really.”
This interview originally appeared in GQ.
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