It's not often that fashion designers have a customer base before even establishing a formal business. But that was the case for the founder of Chromat, Becca McCharen, who was selling her wares to fans at a friend's pop-up shop before she decided to quit her day job at an architecture firm in Lynchburg, VA. Fast forward six years and a relocation to New York City, and McCharen's on her way to becoming a household name with what she calls "structural experiments for the human body" that landed her a finalist spot in the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund and a place on our list of designers to watch (and fangirl over).
We talked to McCharen about her break into the fashion industry and her game-changing creations.
Sweet: How did you get started in fashion?
Becca McCharen: I didn't study fashion, I studied architecture at the University of Virginia, and I think that definitely has influenced Chromat because that structural language is the foundation of everything that we do. The same way that an architect would look at a building site, we look at the body. We're looking at joint structures and intersections.
Sweet: Tell us a little bit about your architecture career.
BM: I was a young architect so I was a CAD [Ed note: ARCHICAD is the most popular 3D architectural software available] monkey—that's the technical term—but I also worked construction, so I built. I was on a carpentry crew, framing houses, residential, and I also did site work—pouring concrete and that kind of thing.
Sweet: So how did you come to make the switch?
BM: Well, it definitely started as something fun I did on the side. I never imagined that I would be here in New York City doing fashion full-time. That was never something that ever crossed my mind as a possibility because I'd never even met a fashion designer in Virginia. For me, it all started just by learning how to sew in college. I took a costume design class, and then following that I was hired to be a seamstress in a costume shop. That's how I learned how to sew, and then I just sort of started sewing things for myself and friends and then started experimenting with it on the side, building strange garments. It kind of evolved into something bigger. I eventually quit my job, and I've been doing it full-time since 2010.
Sweet: How did you end up in New York City?
BM: One of my architecture coworkers had a daughter who was living in New York City, and she was in fashion. He was like, "Next time you're in New York you should definitely go visit her." I went and met this girl, and she actually was about to open a pop-up shop with her friend. She asked me to put a few of my pieces in it, and then it kind of snowballed from there. The pop-up shop turned into a full-time retail space, which is now called International Playground, and as the retail store grew they kept placing orders for more pieces. At the time it was all like kind of scaffolding for the body, like cages and structured harnessy bras and things like that. I was sewing them at home in Lynchburg Virginia and shipping them to New York for this shop.
Eventually I was like, who's buying and wearing these things? I was so curious, so I decided to move to New York. I figured I would have to keep doing architecture and this would be a side thing for me, but when I moved here I just kept getting more and more orders. I would be sewing them and shipping them out. I kept thinking I'll send out my resume, I really need to get a real job, and I just never had time. That's when I realized that this was my full-time thing.
Sweet: How would you describe the Chromat aesthetic in three words?BM: Architectural, empowering, and bold.
Sweet: Does the Chromat aesthetic align with your personal style?
BM: Well, we're lucky at Chromat because we have sort of two sides of what we do. There is the side that's completely based on new technology and conceptual work and sort of pushing fashion forward and experimenting with new materials, like 3D printing and all kinds of adaptable embedded technology garments. Then we also have the other side that's rooted more in the wearable pieces. We're really obsessed with fit and craftsmanship. We do swimwear and lingerie that is made for all different body sizes, and the swim, lingerie, and athletic wear are the pieces of the collection that I would definitely wear.
We are so interested in using new technology to create garments that act as tools for the body. Every lingerie company says that lingerie is empowering for the wearer, which it is, but we are interested not only in that kind of emotional empowerment but how can you create garments that can physically assist and aid in high performance. That's one side of the technology that we're working in that I feel sets us apart.
Sweet: You have said before that you like featuring trans women and plus-size women in your runway shows. Why is this something that means so much to you?
BM: Coming into fashion, there were some things that I didn't like about the industry, and I feel really happy that through our runway shows we've been able to kind of usher in a new norm, in a way. I feel like there is a very narrow, restrictive kind of beauty standard for what has traditionally been seen on the runway. For us, our runway shows are a celebration, and the people in our runway shows are the people in our world that are inspiring us and our inspiration. They're all amazing, strong, powerful women all in their own realms.
Sweet: How do you find them?
BM: One of our first trans models is a more high-profile model that we've worked with, Juliana Huxtable. She is an amazing artist and DJ, and she has walked in a few of our shows and also DJed a few of our shows. She's a personal friend. We know her through our art community, and she is one person that we really have loved working with. There's all different women in our shows that we have just directly asked. We know them from seeing them at parties and we'll be like, "Can you please walk in our runway show?" They're amazing.
Sweet: Have any models approached you asking to be in the show?
BM: Yeah, definitely. Lots of trans women and models of all shapes and sizes. They see Chromat as kind of inclusive force. People who are maybe not featured in other runway shows as much either for whatever reason. It's been great that people know us as being inclusive and celebrating diversity.
Sweet: Major celebrities like Beyoncé and Madonna have worn your pieces. How does it feel to have their support?
BM: It's totally surreal! At Chromat, we are so inspired by these strong, powerful women and to have them incorporate what we do into their own work is beyond incredible.
Sweet: Who else would you like to see wearing Chromat?
BM: Björk! I love that her work never looks back—only forward. She is definitely one of my all-time favorite artists.
Sweet: Are there any new technological innovations that you are currently working on?
BM: The overarching goal for all of our technology collaborations is, How do you make clothing that acts as a tool and how can clothing assist you? Architects create buildings that work with you. They heat and cool, open and close. A building is kind of this living organism that's working alongside its users, and that's kind of how I approach fashion. Garments should be adapting and responding to the body and all different senses. Whether it's from bio sensors, embedded sensors, or the environment around you: there's all different ways to create garments as tools.
Sweet: Are there specific architects or artists whose work has influenced you?
BM: We did a whole collection based on this one architectural group called Archizen Superstudio. They were Italian futurists in the '60s that were really interested in the anarchy of architecture and how they could create non-hierarchical spaces in architecture, and we built an entire season based on the things that they designed.
I love Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid and everything that OMA does. There are so many great architects, and a lot of my friends from school are just now starting to get projects. They are in their early thirties. It takes a while with architecture. It's not like fashion where you can design and build a dress in a few hours. Architecture takes years to kind of realize your vision. It's pretty exciting to see some of my younger friends coming up and doing their own build work.
Sweet: Is there anything that you can share about your upcoming spring 2017 collection?
BM: I don't want to say too much but I will say that our runway in September will be very sport based so we are looking at ways in which athletic wear can basically act as a tool.
Sweet: Is there anything you can share about yourself that most people may not know?
BM: Well, I just got married, and I got back from my honeymoon today. We took a road trip and drove all the way to New Orleans and stopped along the way. We stopped in Nashville, Atlanta, Asheville, we went camping, Savannah. It was super fun. I married my girlfriend Christine Tran. She produces all of our runway shows and she works at a female DJ collective called Disc Women. It's a collective that's based on bringing female identified artists into the greater electronic music stand because it's such a male dominated field. She is amazing. We just got married in Bushwick in Brooklyn. We went to city hall, did a ceremony down in Manhattan, and then had a party. It was really fun.
Shop some of our favorite pieces from Chromat below!
All of these pieces are available at chromat.co. Happy shopping!