Ever attentive to detail, fashion designer Becca McCharen openly admits, “I’m obsessed with organizing things by color. All the books in my home and garments in my closet are rainbow organized.” This meticulousness—albeit not the colorful vibrancy—is also visible in her designs for Chromat, the Brooklyn-based clothing company she founded in 2010. Though the vast majority of the label’s designs are black, they feature ornately constructed cages, painstaking seams, and precise lines throughout. Equal parts web and scaffold, Chromat swimsuits, lingerie, and other garments are recognizable for the way they wrap the body and extend out to create what McCharen refers to as an exoskeleton, providing support and protection for the body.
Explaining her creative approach to work and life, McCharen says, “As a fashion designer I hope to create clothing that empowers the wearer and makes them embody the strongest, most confident version of themselves. As a human, I hope to embody a voice that encourages other women and girls to work hard to realize projects that they love.” In line with these convictions, Chromat features models of all body sizes, ethnicities, and genders. And while empowerment and social justice are fundamental to her life, professional fashion design is still relatively new. In fact, while growing up in Lynchburg, McCharen hoped to be an architect.
As a student in the University of Virginia School of Architecture, she recalls, “My goal was to work on design-build projects focused on social justice like Rural Studio meets Rem Koolhaus.” However, during her time at UVA, McCharen also learned to sew, eventually taking a job as a seamstress for the Department of Drama. “I love architecture and urban planning, but the scale and timeline of fashion appealed to me.” After graduation, she began an urban planning job, but her interest in clothing never waned.
“Chromat began as something fun I did after work.” Collaborating with a crew of fellow creatives, McCharen started co-hosting seasonal DIY fashion shows in an abandoned building in Lynchburg. The shows eventually connected her with a fashion designer in New York, which in turn led to frequent visits to the city’s Garment District, ultimately culminating in an invitation to contribute Chromat designs to a pop-up shop on the Lower East Side. “It all snowballed from there,” McCharen recalls. “The cage bras and corsets I was creating attracted a lot of press in fashion blogs.” With her newfound recognition, she decided to leave Lynchburg for New York. “I kept getting orders from different stores, so after three months of attempting to find an architecture job, I realized that Chromat was my job!”
That was five years ago, and demand for her designs hasn’t waned. In fact, Chromat has garnered enthusiastic attention after her pieces were worn by the likes of Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Madonna. Despite the aggressive silhouettes and high profile figures, wearability and accessibility are important parts of her work. McCharen eagerly anticipates the continued evolution of softer structural materials to be used in equally dramatic designs. She also wishes for a future where the exclusivity of luxury brands is made irrelevant through 3D printing technology, imagining “a world where clothing will be downloaded online and garments will function as data machines to both observe and empower the reality of our bodies. You could adjust the file to custom fit and then print the clothing out in your home.”
Though she’s experimented with the rigid plastics of contemporary 3D printing, that’s just one of the many materials that go into making a Chromat garment. She explains, “Each season we choose a material palette of non-traditional fabrics and apply them to the body in new ways.” These studies have included latex, neoprene, synthetic hair, and LED lights. In the future, McCharen wants to work with medical-grade prosthetics to explore the question, “What if garments made you physically stronger?” This inquiry also features prominently in her collection entitled Mindfiles which debuted during this year’s New York Fashion Week. The series is an homage to social innovator Martine Rothblatt who theorizes that each person constructs their own virtual personhood, a so-called “mindfile.” Rothblatt is interested in the ways mindfiles can be used to create digital immortality after bodily death; McCharen seeks to extend this concept via fashion as an act of empowerment. She explains, “If we can now re-create human consciousness, then we can equally synthesize new, augmented bodies to enhance our natural state.”
This month, McCharen will return to Charlottesville for Tom Tom Founders Festival, an annual week-long event in Charlottesville that celebrates innovators of the region. Though she will be participating in an official capacity, such as in a panel entitled “Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?,” McCharen is also excited to reconnect with some of her favorite UVA professors, including Lucia Phinney, Robin Dripps, and Sanda Iliescu. She enthuses, “They are the professors who planted the original design seeds during my time at UVA and it’s fun to see what new projects they are working on.”
Indeed, McCharen is gracious and quick to acknowledge professors, friends, and collaborators who have helped guide her to success. And though she is the vision behind each design, she admits, “I never went to fashion school, so there is still a lot I don’t know.” McCharen isn’t simply a creative visionary, she’s also a keen entrepreneur and businesswoman. Her work to build Chromat has garnered recognition from the Design Entrepreneurs NYC Program and she’s been recognized as one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30. She notes that, “It’s difficult to balance the creative side of fashion design with the business aspects of running a label. Mostly, I just write emails all day. I actually do most of the creative stuff after work and on weekends, when the studio isn’t buzzing.” After all she’s accomplished, she jokes that, “Chromat is still a fun thing I do after work.”
Becca McCharen will be hosting a fashion workshop at Tom Tom Founders Festival on Saturday, April 18 at Old Metropolitan Hall from 1:00-2:30 p.m. She will also be speaking at the Founders Summit on Friday, April 17. Tickets and full event schedule at tomtomfest.com.