Chromat’s Becca McCharen on Architecture, Aaliyah’s Underwear, and Her Spring 2014 Collection

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Many people describe boxy jackets or body-con dresses as “architectural,” but when you’re talking about Chromat the word actually makes sense. Designer Becca McCharen was a working architect before she was a fashion designer, and perfectly explains her creations as “structural experiments for the human body.” The clothing itself is equally full of things seemingly incongruous: Inspiration comes from mathletes and Aaliyah, stretch cages look fit for goths playing basketball, and cut-outs propose that the line between underwear and outwear isn’t very important anyway.

Since launching Chromat in 2010 Becca has made Forbes 30 Under 30  list of “People Who are Reinventing the World in 2014″ and chosen as The New York Observer’s one to watch in 2012. But she’s not really a sterile Midtown showroom kind of designer. Her Spring 2014 collection was celebrated on Wednesday night at Bushwick’s humble Bossa Nova Civic Club, a place I haven’t spent much time at outside the hours of midnight at 4am on a Saturday, and I don’t think I’ve seen so many sweaty bodies crammed into one place since after work last August on the 14th Street L train platform. We caught up with the designer yesterday to get more insight into the excellent new collection.

Tell me about your background in architecture and urban design. How did you move from that to fashion design?
I went to architecture school at the University of Virginia. That was my background and my training. I was working as an architect and a planner for years after graduating and when I started doing fashion it was sort of a fun after-work experiment designing for my friends and for myself. Then I met someone who was opening a pop-up shop in New York and wanted to stock some of my pieces and it kind of snowballed from there. But I feel like the transition from architecture to fashion was an easy one. First of all, the risk is so much lower. With architecture, if you mess up a structure, people die. But in fashion, if you need to fix up a seam, it’s not the worst thing. But I really appreciate the timeline with fashion too. You can just conceptualize, design, and build a piece in one day, whereas in architecture, to have your vision realized takes years.

Is a day how long it typically takes you to make one of the cage pieces?
The cage pieces we’re known for takes a couple of hours, really. But we’ve been doing it for so long now. When you’re designing newer structures, sometimes it takes a couple of hours if it’s a simple piece and sometimes we’ll work for days just trying to get it right. It all depends on the complexity.

Do you still make them all in your studio?
We do the initial samples in our studio first, and for production we work with a factory in Long Island City in Queens. We do some manufacturing in the Garment District as well.

How do you push yourself to experiment more with each new collection?
One of my heroes is Björk. What I love about Björk is that each album she produced was totally visually different and sounded totally different, and I just love that each project she did was totally left field and different crazy. That’s something I strive for with each collection. One thing we change is we like to take one or two different materials each season and really go for it. Last season we did lots of LED and programmable, wearable tech. The season before that we did steel, and the season before that we did vinyl. So each season we have totally new materials and new concepts, but the structural element remains the same.

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How did you find working with LED?
I love it, it’s so fun for me. I think the architect in me loves working with computers and programming things. Last season we worked with engineers while developing these pieces, and the LEDs blink and respond to your movement. So as you’re moving they’re blinking in different patterns, and that was really fun. I really want to get more into fashion tech as the seasons go by, I think it’s really fascinating.

I’m weirdly obsessed with it. The other day we wrote about an LED dress that tracks your menstrual cycle. So what was your favorite piece from the collection you were showing last night?
Last night we were celebrating the Mathletes collection. That was inspired by team uniforms, jerseys, thinking about NASA astronauts as the epitome of a mathlete because they have to be not only geniuses and technologically advanced but really in shape and highly athletic. So that was our inspiration for Spring 2014. As for my favorite pieces, we got to develop steel pieces and it was really fun to work with steel, and to powder-coat the pieces. But for everyday use I’m really feeling these pants that we did called the Aaliyah pants. They’re like drop crotch neoprene pants but then they have a cage over the top, because Aaliyah used to wear her pants really low with the Tommy Hilfiger underwear visible up top.

So you can see the elastic? I love that look, I saw it on your Instagram. I love your Instagram, you’re pretty active on that and on Twitter. How does that influence your business?
Yeah, I love the internet. I think that was sort of my first entrance into the fashion world back when I was a young architect. After work I would just go online and I was really into fashion blogs. The internet is fun for me, it’s like a game. And yeah, I get a lot of inspiration from things I see on the internet as well.

Launch party photos by Jena Cumbo and Kelly Kai.


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