Studio Visit: Chromat x UO
Becca McCharen, the intelligent, stylish, and badass leading lady behind Chromat and new swim diffusion line BOND, takes some time in her Brooklyn studio to talk about her many inspirations, from 1960s architecture to the one and only Beyonce.
Photographs by Emily Johnston.
Hi! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Hi! My name is Becca, and I design a label called Chromat. We describe Chromat as structural experiments for the human body, and usually when I meet people or run into people at parties I tell them I do architectural swimwear. It’s easier to understand because swimwear is a garment versus a lot of the other stuff we do, like cages, which is not really a garment. It gets confusing, and then I have to whip out my iPhone and show people pictures!
How was Chromat conceived?
I studied architecture at the University of Virginia, and following graduation just sort of worked for architects for several years and started doing these experiments after work with clothes. A couple years later, long story short, I met someone who was opening up a pop-up shop in New York and she liked what I was doing and the pieces I was working on in Lynchburg [Virginia] at the time. She put them in her pop-up shop, which eventually turned into a retail space in the Lower East Side. I started getting more orders so I would just go home after work and sew things and ship them to New York. I started getting more and more orders so eventually, I just quit my job in Lynchburg and moved to New York. I figured I would have to keep doing architecture as my main gig and do Chromat on the side. Three months later, I still hadn’t had time to send my resume out to find out a “real” job, so I figured Chromat was my real job!
What’s a typical day like for you? Has it changed over the years as your business has grown?
I used to do all of the designing and sampling myself, do all of the production myself, every stitch on every garment was mine. And now I barely touch the sewing machines, I’m emailing all day! So I’m sadly removed from a lot of the making processes, which is actually my favorite part. But someone has to run the business!
How does a background in architecture translate to fashion and what you’re creating now?
I think coming from a non-fashion background, there’s a lot of things I didn’t know, like for example, how you’re actually supposed to make a garment. So I made up a lot of processes on my own. But I think it helped me look at things from a different perspective and be innovative when it comes to what can actually be worn, and to make shapes that maybe aren’t traditionally used in wearable clothing concepts. The architecture background really sets the structural foundation for everything we do now.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever made?
I really love the cage pieces we did for fall ’14, which were these giant grids that had a human shape inside the grid. That was inspired by my favorite architectural theorists, Archigram, Superstudio, and the whole 1960s Italian Futurist movement. That was my more theoretical side of what I’ve done with Chromat.
Do you ever feel like you need to scale things back in order to make them more wearable, or is it not that important to you?
In the past we’ve made simpler garments and really simple shapes that are easier to understand and easier to wear, but no one buys those! That’s not what people come to Chromat for, so it’s actually been surprising to realize that the Chromat customer comes to us expecting innovation and expecting to see weird, strange, new volumes and forms. So we’ve had the opportunity to continue pushing ourselves and not worry about making anything basic.
Your personal style is so cool. Do you feel like you embody the Chromat vibe?
Not really, which is funny. I do wear Chromat but I’m also a really lazy dresser. In the beginning stages of Chromat, I didn’t have a big portfolio and wanted to show my work. I think when you’re a young fashion designer, your wardrobe becomes your business card, you’re always wearing your portfolio. But now that Chromat has gotten a bit bigger and people find it on their own, I feel like the way I dress is so minimal because the work speaks for itself.
Who is the Chromat girl?
We always say the Chromat customers are strong, powerful, bold women, so I would say the epitome of that would be Beyonce. She is the ultimate power babe and she wears Chromat well! It’s cool to be inspired by these strong, powerful women. The pieces we make are kind of like armor, they’re like these superhero suits. Making them and being inspired by people like Beyonce and Madonna and then having them reach out to us has been like the ultimate dream.
You do have an impressive celebrity clientele! What was it like the first time you saw your work on a celebrity?
Yeah! The first was Nicki Minaj, that was back in 2010. It was so cool because I didn’t even know she had some of my pieces. A store in LA had bought some stuff from me, and her stylist picked it up there for her to wear on Jimmy Kimmel. I didn’t know it happened, but I got a call the next day from the store telling me to check it out on YouTube! I was crazy excited and I called my mom right away. She was like, “That’s great, honey, but who is Nicki Minaj?” And now Beyonce! Yeah, she is the ultimate! It was amazing to see her tour this past summer and realize that we were a small part of it. Her dancers and her all-female band, they were all wearing Chromat!
So tell us about your collaboration with Urban Outfitters.
Chromat collaborated with UO on a line called BOND, which is Chromat’s first diffusion line, developed for initial release with Urban Outfitters. All the Chromat pieces are very technical, very experimental, very innovative, very strange, and it was interesting to try and simplify those concepts into something that’s more easily wearable and able to scale up. It was really exciting, working with Urban Outfitters and having those new challenges like quantity and scale and wearability to think about. That’s what we tried to do with BOND, to take the innovation of Chromat and make it a little lighter and easier. We came up with the name BOND as both an architectural term, the references to bondage, and of course for the BOND girl association – no one can forget that iconic swimsuit from the James Bond movies. It's all about those strong, powerful women!