Becca McCharen is one of the most interesting people I've ever had the pleasure of interacting with. As the founder of Chromat, she designs complex and exquisitely constructed garments but she herself is very chill - with a bit of that laid-back Pacific Northwest vibe. I met her at her Brooklyn-based studio and quickly fell into an intriguing conversation that covered everything from Seattle architecture to Becca's infatuation with the convergence of tech and fashion. Learn more about her background and NYC experience below:
Lexi: Tell me about your background and how you became interested in fashion design?
Becca: Sure, so I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia and went to the University of Virginia to study architecture. Growing up in Lynchburg I didn't know any fashion designers but I was always interested in it. I learned how to sew in college and took a costume design course which helped me get a job as a seamstress for a costume shop. Looking back now, my work as a fashion designer makes sense considering my background in architecture and my obsession with scaffolding at the time... As a seamstress at the costume shop I was sewing Victorian corsets and creating Shakespeare shit. All of the undergarment pieces from that time period were very structural which makes sense for Chromat and what we do now.
Lexi: What was your next step? Post costume shop?
Becca: I did a lot of random shit... I moved to Portland, I joined the Peace Corps.
Lexi: You lived in Portland? I'm from Seattle.
Becca: Oh really? I love Seattle! I really loved Portland too. It was like this hipster utopia - with bikes everywhere and good coffee. Seattle though - it's actually home to one of my favorite buildings in the world, the Seattle Public Library. I love the red lacquer walls - they're so slick and moody.Lexi: And, after Portland, then what?
Becca: I spent time in El Salvador and joined the Peace Corps. I was doing urban planning and development but then I got really sick... I got bit by a mosquito and got Dengue fever. I was in the hospital for about a month - it was really scary.
Lexi: What happened?
Becca: Well I actually ended up back on my parents couch in Lynchburg. I landed a job at City Hall doing urban redevelopment. I loved (and still love) architecture but the fashion projects I started doing on the side became a huge focus for me. I mean everyone is off at 5PM on the dot there so I had a ton of time on my hands. I would sew clothes for myself and friends and started putting on fashion shows in Lynchburg. There are a lot of technical skills I didn't have so I made a lot of stuff up.
Lexi: But did you ever go to school for fashion?
Becca: No, I never did.
Lexi: Has that hurt you?
Becca: No, I think Chromat is such a different kind of garment and the fact that I didn't go to fashion design school reflects that we don't design traditional fashion garments. It's helped me to differentiate the brand.Lexi: I think you're right.. I remember the first time I saw Chromat, thinking how insane the construction was. I hadn't seen anything as well done, with that kind of look. I think the first time I saw it was at International Playground and then the Upstate girls ended up introducing me to you.
Becca: Oh yea, well the International Playground was a huge starting point for me. It's funny how that relationship started...a co-worker of mine from Lynchburg's City Hall told me he had a daughter who was a fashion designer living in NYC. He said I should go visit her so I went and she was really nice and sweet. She was opening up a pop-up with her friend and she wanted a couple of my designs. It went so well - my pieces got written about on blogs and it sold and they ordered more... Eventually the pop-up turned into a permanent spot and it's still there - in fact they just opened up a new spot in SoHo.
Lexi: So would you call that luck or good timing?
Becca: I got really lucky and fell into this opportunity. It was a funny connection. International Playground went from pop-up to retail and now they even do wholesale so Chromat really grew as they grew.
Lexi: At this point were you still living full-time in Virginia?
Becca: Yes - I would go home after work and pack and ship orders from my apartment. Finally I decided I wanted to live in New York.
Lexi: When did you make the leap and where did you end up?
Becca: It was 2010 and I moved to a tiny apartment in Chinatown. It was one of those weird situations where this one guy had an apartment that he probably had since he was a little kid and it was totally rent controlled. He divided it into tiny bedrooms and rented it out to other people.Lexi: At the time you moved did you have another job apart from Chromat?
Becca: Well I kept thinking I would have to get a real job and send out my resume but I kept getting these orders. I'd tell myself that after I finished making a set of orders I would make a list of places I wanted to work but I kept getting more orders. Three months later I still hadn't had time to look for a real job, so I finally admitted to myself that my real job would be fashion designer.
Lexi: What was your next step?
Becca: I moved to Bushwick and got a bigger space. I also hired interns which was funny because it was like, "Okay I"ll sit on my bed you can sit on the chair and we will share the table when we need to..." Then we moved up and got a real studio space and from there we ended up here in this space. So we've moved a lot.
Lexi: Did you have friends when you moved out to help?
Becca: Actually Astrid [co-founder of Upstate] was one of my best friends when I first moved here. I had a few other friends from school which made my transition to NYC a lot easier. I've heard stories that are far more telling of loneliness and despair than my own.
Lexi: So tell me about the evolution of Chromat and the core of the brand?
Becca: Well we really started with just the caged pieces. At the time they were really popular with performers. Nicki Minaj wore us in 2011 and then Madonna and Beyonce. For me, it's an experimental project of what form can be. It was a mystery at first, like beyond these performers who would want to wear this? When we decided to develop swimwear and lingerie it became more wearable and the customer base grew. The cages are the creative concept but we've been able to channel it into more wearable things. For Chromat, our customer has always been strong, bold women who are intelligent and appreciate the architectural concepts.Lexi: Was there a time where you felt vulnerable or where you questioned yourself?
Becca: Well it's interesting to look back... the first year I think we made only $25K off of orders and it was enough to keep me a float but I didn't realize the struggle at the time because that's the only way it was. I had all my poor artist friends so we just rode our bikes everywhere and ate $1 pizza. It was a fun, cool life.
Lexi: I imagine it's kind of awesome to experience life at that low level of income when you're in the midst of creating something artistic - I guess in a sense I'm romanticizing the life of a "starving artist"?
Becca: Yea... I mean there were times it was scary but there was never a point where I thought "what the f*** is happening?!" I was really just riding it out...
Lexi: Okay so let's switch gears... We've talked about how your business came to be, let's touch on where it is now. One of the ways I've been able to keep up with Chromat is through social media. Can you tell me how that has impacted the business?
Becca: I mean I love the internet. That's sort of my first connection with fashion. When I was living in Virginia, going on fashion blogs and tumblr was really fun for me - I still really enjoy it.
Lexi: And your pieces are very inspired by technology, can you go into more detail about the LED collection?
Becca: Yea! So this collection was inspired by a love story between a human and a robot. I was thinking about how many people interact with Chromat online - they see it on their screens and phones and they love it but maybe can't afford it. There is this desire when you see something or someone on the screen and this collection is about this human who is staring into this screen and actually enters it. She's covered in LED lights as she transforms into this cyber bionic human robot. So... that was the idea!Lexi: Wait, can I photograph this? This is the coolest thing I've ever seen...
Becca: Of course you can.
Lexi: And what retailers are buying this collection? Where will it live?
Becca:In New York the new Chromat collection will be at International Playground, Opening Ceremony and Patricia Fields along with other stores outside of NYC in Toyko, London, Paris, LA...
Lexi: Is there more in store for Chromat in terms of tech?
Becca: Yes. I'm really interested in wearable tech. I love Google glass and even though it's weird to people now, I think it will become part of our world. I'm all about assimilating fashion with tech - if devices could track your movement and environment then eventually we could create fashion that could adapt to your environment. I mean Chromat does lingerie and that's the first layer of the skin so there is so much data you can read in terms of temperature for instance. In the future maybe we could make garments that heat and cool you...or maybe if you're aroused the lingerie goes clear... there's all sorts of weird stuff you can do!Lexi: And what's next? Do you want to stay in New York?
Becca: I don't think I could do it anywhere else. I know if I moved somewhere else it would be really sad. I love the diversity here and everything and anything here. There are so many creative people and it's filled with amazing art and architecture, which of course endlessly inspires me.