With her Chromat fashion label, Becca McCharen is reimagining what clothing is capable of.
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Extended bustier and cutout bottom from the Chromat Spring/Summer 2015 Formula 15 collection.
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Dresses from the designer’s Autumn/Winter 2016 LUMINA collection, which was inspired by the biological function of electroluminescence.
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The Adrenaline Dress senses the body’s release of the chemical, causing the back framework to extend into an imposing shape.
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Chromat’s Asteroid Skirt.
Photos courtesy of Chromat
Would it surprise you to learn that downtown Lynchburg shares design DNA with Beyoncé’s wardrobe?
The common thread is City of Seven Hills-native Becca McCharen, age 31, whose Chromat fashion label features distinctive designs that emphasize structure and shape, as worn on-stage by Beyoncé during the 2013 Mrs. Carter Show World Tour and by her dancers during that year’s Super Bowl halftime show. And that top-tier celebrity endorsement was no one-off—Madonna, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift are just a sampling of other fashion-forward famous names to wear McCharen’s Chromat creations.
“I feel like it’s been a lot of word of mouth,” says McCharen, speaking by phone from her studio in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. “We have stylists and photographers who borrow our pieces for different photo shoots for magazines and, through those stylists and photographers, Beyoncé’s styling team heard about Chromat for the first time, and so that’s how we came to be in contact.”
McCharen graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in architecture in 2006, and in 2008 took a job as a city planner at City Hall in Lynchburg, working on downtown redevelopment. But every night, after 5 p.m., McCharen would go home and sketch and sew designs that were inspired by architecture and urban design, despite having no formal fashion training beyond some costume design in the UVA theater department. “It started out as something I just did for fun after work,” she says.
Not being schooled in the traditional conventions of clothing design may be what allowed, and still allows, McCharen to think a little differently and create such bold and unexpected designs. “Architecture school was sort of the beginning of my training, and that’s where I became obsessed with scaffolding and this kind of potential for structure on the exterior and all the different functions that it could serve,” she says. “I see the architectural design process and aspects from fashion as very similar, but the scale in fashion is so much smaller so you can design and build a dress in a few hours, versus buildings which take years, sometimes decades to really realize your vision.”
Those after-hours efforts were aided by a City Hall connection. Hal Craddock, chief architect of Lynchburg’s riverfront Craddock Terry Hotel, was a colleague of McCharen’s—his daughter, Virginia Craddock, was launching a fashion pop-up shop in 2009 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “They were just doing this little holiday pop-up shop and they asked me to put a few pieces I was working on at the time in the shop, and things kind of snowballed from there,” says McCharen. “People started buying the things and I would go home after work in Lynchburg and sew a bunch of stuff and send it to New York and eventually I quit my job and moved to New York.” That pop-up shop is now known as International Playground, a SoHo showroom and public relations hub for cutting-edge designers like McCharen.
Today, there seem to be two strains to McCharen’s work. There is her high-concept, experimental work featuring revolutionary items like the Chromat Adrenaline Dress, which literally changes shape according to the wearer’s biochemistry. “The dress is totally 3-D printed and has sensors in it that respond to adrenaline. When it senses adrenaline it expands its shape to create this more imposing figure,” explains McCharen.
The Adrenaline Dress was made in collaboration with fellow designer Francis Bitonti, famous for his 3-D printing technique, and with engineers from Intel, whom McCharen met at a fashion technology conference in 2014. McCharen also collaborated with the Intel team to create the Chromat Aeros Sports Bra, which uses a specially-designed chip to open up vents in the bra when it senses the wearer sweating. “We’re really interested in clothing that can adapt and respond to the body’s biodata and environment. I really think that clothing can be the tool to react if you’re hot or cold or lost, or want to communicate with someone.”
Beyoncé’s dress for the world tour was custom-made, and the shape-shifting, adrenaline-sensing dress is not available in stores—McCharen describes it as “editorial proof of concept.” But you don’t have to be Queen Bey or a futuristic cyberhuman to wear Chromat. The staples of McCharen’s designs, including lines of lingerie, swimwear and sportswear featuring the instantly recognizable structural elements—cage-like shapes and straps that form excitingly aggressive angles—are available in both small boutiques and big department stores around the world, including Nordstrom, Barney’s and Bloomingdales in the U.S., and online via Amazon.com. Right now, these retail outlets are the key to Chromat as a business, but McCharen is aware that nothing is guaranteed, and is already thinking bigger.
“I would love to operate sort of like a tech startup where we have our vision and then we get bought by someone like Nike,” she says.
“I would love for Google to buy us and we could still operate as a lab where we’re able to test out new avant-garde pieces, but then the machine is run by someone bigger than myself. To be honest, that’s my goal. I would love to just be able to have the time and space to innovate in fashion 100 percent of the time.” Chromat.com