The creative genius behind Chromat lets us into her world of structural experimentation with the human body
It takes a fearless woman to wear Becca McCharen’s corsets, harnesses and face masks; or as the 28-year-old designer puts it herself: “People that just don’t give a fuck”. Trained as an architect, Becca describes her bourgeoning fashion line, Chromat, as “structural experiments for the human body;” where swimsuits leave tan lines in pentagonal shapes, and skeletal body pieces declare your good-girl-gone-bad standing to the world.
In just three years, with no outside investment, Becca has gone from sewing “for fun” while working as an urban planner at Virginia’s City Hall, to watching Beyonce’s back-up dancers perform in her hand-fabricated kimono harnesses for the Super Bowl’s half-time show. Her lingerie-inspired pieces have been featured in Vogue Italia, V Magazine, Elle, and Nylon; artists like Grimes, Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks have worn her cages, crowns and bodycon on tour and in their music videos; she’s now stocked in Barney’s and at the end of this week she’ll be shipping boxes of product to Mis en Cage, a luxury lingerie store in Paris, before shipping to Tokyo’s Harajuku district, and then Hong Kong a week later.
The self-described social media geek (“I love GIFs, I wish I could spend all day making and posting fashion GIFs,” she laughs with nervous excitement), is sitting at a leather work bench looking at Tumblr in her spacious Brooklyn Navy Yard studio – where Gilt Group is one floor below and Brooklyn Grange is one rooftop staircase away. Wearing high-waisted jeans with a distressed T-shirt loosely tucked in, her red hair pulled back into an unassuming braid; Chromat’s avant garde sensibility is evident only in the hooped septum piercing that grazes her bee-stung lips.
Talking to Becca, it’s clear Chromt is a team project. It’s never, “I created this,” it’s always, “we created this.” She may have started the brand from the living room of her Bushwick apartment, but for this architect-turned-fashion designer, the success of Chromat is as much her eight interns’ blood, sweat, and tears, as it is her own.
First of all, where did the name Chromat come from?
I’m obsessed with organizing things by color. In my apartment, all the books and all the clothes are rainbow organized. Chroma is the Greek derivative of the word for color, and when Chromat started in 2008, when it was still an underground side-projecty type thing, I did more color collections. Now it just seems like we do a lot of black. But color did exist! [laughs]
And maybe more color is in your future? I’m looking at a bumblebee-themed yellow and black mood board behind you, which seems suspiciously like spring 2014 inspiration.
Yea, we’re trying to use color! For spring ‘14 we’re thinking about athletes, about competitions, team uniforms, and sportswear.
Does this mean Chromat is making clothes!? You’re evolving the brand from swimsuits, bondage, lingerie and harnesses into a more garment-based territory?
We’ve been flirting with it. We’re thinking about athletic uniforms; sports armor; robotics. We’re actually thinking about jackets for this athlete’s collection, doing this kind of “Chromat team” - basically creating a whole kit. We’re even thinking about weird hockey facemasks – ice hockey and field. I’m collaborating with Kerin Rose, from A-morir; she does crazy sunglasses. And maybe doing some Chromat hats.
Your more conceptual pieces are a stylist’s dream, but the more basic swimsuits are obviously an accessible entry-point for your everyday shopper. Do you think swimwear will be a big growth area for you?
Yea! We are working with a great factory in Queens who have the capability to do high volumes, which is something new for us. When we first started we were just making these crazy cage sculpture creations that were all made in-house, so we couldn’t make more than ten per week. But now I think that swimwear, as well as the lingerie, is definitely a place that we’re interested in continuing to grow.
What kind of woman do you design for – whether you’re making a bikini or a leather harness?
I’m definitely inspired by strong women, and people who aren’t afraid of wearing bold things, being really creative and directional in the way they dress. It’s influential to see people on the street who just don’t give a fuck. When it comes to the collections, sometimes we don’t even thing about ‘wearing’ the clothes or the people, we’re just sculpting these forms based on ideas - a sort of art-based thing.
Last season, for example, was inspired by Arch Graham, one of my favorite architecture theorists from he Sixties, and the ideas of gridded, monolithic buildings; but then in a theoretical way, the anarchy of architecture. When we think about those kind of conceptual ideas, it almost explodes the whole notion of thinking about the wearer.
But the wearer is important, at the end of the day.
Especially with the swimsuits, obviously they have to fit and look good on bodies. We do think about the body and the form, we try things on in the studio all day. For the swimwear in particular, it’s a new place to be creative. People are just starting to wear crazy swimsuits at the beach, by the pool. It’s something that hasn’t been fully explored. We’re still thinking about those creative people when we’re designing swimwear.
Where is Chromat made?
It’s all made in New York. The swimwear is made in a factory in Queens. We get pieces of the leather made in the garment district, and then we assemble them here. We source everywhere from Queens to Global!
Where did you learn how to sew?
In college. I was in architecture school and my college job was in the costume shop for the drama department, I was the seamstress, so I had to sew all kinds of Victorian bustles, and crinolines and, whatever else from a specific costume period. I had couture classes in the costume department where they taught me about corsets and things. That’s where I learned the basics. But all this Chromat stuff is very self-taught. I think that’s why it’s so different; it’s a whole different type of garment. It doesn’t fall into traditional categories of clothing.
Do you miss architecture?
I love architecture and I appreciate it, and I love thinking about it, but the timeline is so long! It takes years to get a project finished and that’s one thing I love about fashion. Every six months you have to come up with a whole new crop of ideas. But hopefully one day I’ll get the chance to design Chromat stores!
I read somewhere that you were initially apprehensive to get into fashion because you were “scared of fashion people.” What were your afraid of?
Coming from being a teenager and reading Vogue and looking at fashion magazines, it all seems very trend-based and, I guess, commercial. It’s hard to articulate those stereotypes that are so ingrained; people seem… fake and snobby. But I was more comfortable working in that field once I realized that the people actually making the clothes are more like craftsmen, they’re interested in material investigations and sculpting on the body. It’s not so much just about image, and frothy trend-based identities.
Chromat emerged at a time when girls seemed comfortable experimenting with bondage themes in fashion. Do you think Chromat would have been successful if you started it, say, five years earlier?
I definitely think the harness thing is very popular right now; it just so happened that that’s what I was doing at the same time, which is lucky for me. I guess when I first started out - I can’t remember what was popular back then - but yea, somehow there was a synchronicity between what people wanted to wear and what I want to make. Which is lucky [laughs].
What has been your biggest hurdle?
Sometimes when I read stories of young designers, it’s all about “so-and-so started with a $200,000 investment from their banker dad,” and I’m just like, “not fair”. So, it’s not so much a hurdle, it’s just having to work within our means. Like we couldn’t afford to do a Fashion Week presentation the last few collections, but finally we’re making enough. We got a crazy last minute order from Beyonce’s team for the Super Bowl, and the windfall from that we funneled directly into the cost of production.
Tell me about Beyonce !
Oh man, that was so fun! I get random emails from people all the time, we don’t actually do any outreach, so when Beyonce contacted us about the Super Bowl, it was crazy. It was a week before our presentation, we were hustling to get the collection finished, there was no sleep, and then we get this call from Beyonce’s people and they wanted 40 pieces by Thursday, three days later.
They were like, “you can say no, we understand”. And I was like, “You can’t say no to Beyonce!” [laughs]. So we stopped everything in house, and everyone was just focused on making 32 pieces in the end, which is what they asked for. We shipped them and went straight back into making our own collection. The night of the Super Bowl we were working, it was two days before the presentation and we were at the shoemaker’s house. He happened to have a TV, so we took a break from making samples and we were just like, “you never know”. You never know if they’re actually going to wear it.
So we were watching, then Beyonce comes out, followed by the back up dancers, and we were just like, “Oh my god!” We were all hugging each other and screaming, trying to get shitty iPhone pictures of the TV. I didn’t have a computer or anything; I was trying to tweet about it on my tiny iPhone. Then we were up ‘til 4am working on the presentation, it was in the midst of craziness. So that was a crazy week!