Photos by Miyako Bellizi
In a small studio space tucked away in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, Becca McCharen builds industrial high fashion for her label, Chromat. A prototype of a silver steel dress and photos of past collections plaster the walls as her team sits in the room sewing and measuring new garments. Becca started Chromat in 2010, the line of body cage clothing, swimsuits, and lingerie was born out of her background in architecture and her love for exposing interiors.
Unlike other designers, Becca's design process includes computer-aided design software, laser cutters, and metal platters, creating a space in fashion where functionality, construction, and design have collided in a sexy, badass way. The intricate cages come in various styles and materials, with pieces inspired by cultural icons like the voluptuous silhouette of Jessica Rabbit, the baggy pants sported by Aaliyah, and the ears of Minnie Mouse.
Only four years since Chromat's inception and Becca has already designed custom pieces for artists like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and Madonna. Her most recent and complex collection, Fall/Winter 2014, explores the love affair between a human and a robot, reflected in LED wired capes, and steel corsets. With this collection, Becca is also entering the realm of fashion films with the release of New York Fashion Week footage shot by Tyler Kohlhoff and premiered exclusively here on VICE.
I stopped by the designer's studio to see what's up with her new film, what it's like designing for pop divas, and how she plans to keep revolutionizing the realm of women's fashion.
VICE: Can you tell me more about the video?
It was all shot on VHS. That's what I really love about it. I love Tyler's collage work. I am super into zines and collage stuff, so the video was a surprise. I didn't give him any direction. I just said, you can come backstage and shoot if you want.
What about the actual collection?
The collection was inspired by the love story between a human and robot. It was basically the concept of how people interact with Chromat. A lot of people see it online, but it is expensive so they can't actually purchase it. The idea behind the collection is this person being consumed by their screens and going into this other realm. We incorporated a lot of LED for the first time with the idea that when the body enters the screen it is covered in lights. We worked with metal too. It was the most romantic and girly collection that we had.
How was it working with the LED?
It was interesting. I love tech stuff. Coming from an architectural background, that stuff is very interesting to me. A lot of my architecture friends are playing with robotics and different adaptive environments that change as the user comes into the space. For me, to make adaptive clothing, it is similar to what we learned in school. It is fun.
Was it challenging for you?
We had a guy do all of the LED, so I didn't program it myself. We had an engineer work with us, so we just told him what we wanted and he made it. It wasn't technically hard for me, but I think making LED wearable devices presents a challenge because we made the samples for the runway, but when we put them in the showroom for press pulls, the stylists just mangled them. I don't think they're user friendly. We are actually shipping some to stores, but we will have to figure out ways to make them consumer proof so the wires don't fall out. It's a new level of care for making garments. Someone paid $2,000 for LED, that shit better stay together.
You have a background in architecture. Can you tell me more about that?
I studied architecture at the University of Virginia, that is where I became obsessed with scaffolding. One of my professors had this amazing house in the countryside of Virginia. It was all glass on one side and they built scaffolding that had shades made out of agricultural tarp. That professor in particular got me into the scaffolding game. Also, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which is my favorite building. This 60s futurist architectural firm called Archigram took all of the exterior functions of the building and extracted them so all of the circulation staircases, plumbing, all the wiring is on the façade.
So that's how you were drawn to caging?
It's cool to show all of the functions on the façade, that is what we try to do with Chromat. We take all of the zippers and boning and underwire and extrude that to the exterior.
Were you always into fashion?
Well, I had a subscription to Vogue. In Virginia, there was nothing. I didn't think fashion designer was a real job. There are no fashion designers in Virginia and there was no Project Runway back then. To me, fashion equaled shopping. From where I am from, that is the only way people interacted with fashion. Now it's different. People know what a stylist is. In 1995, they didn't.
What was your style like when you were in Virginia?
It has morphed a lot. I used to play a lot of sports. It's weird to think about. I don't think I had a style, maybe Umbro and Limited Too. I started cutting up T-shirts in high school and I thought I was really artsy and cool. It wasn't until I went to college and I was able to see cities and bigger towns that I understood what artsy people wore.
You mentioned that you made clothes for yourself and your friends later on.
Honestly, when I was in Virginia, I used to go to Goodwill and buy giant leather trench coats and cut them up and make stuff like skirts and bustiers. Lots of T-shirts into dresses, that kind of stuff.
You also worked in the costume department in college?
Yeah, that is where I learned to sew. My freshman year I took a class on costume design and then they hired me. All through college I was a seamstress. It makes sense going back to all of the Victorian crinolines and weird period pieces that I would have to make for the drama department are very similar to the cage pieces we make now.
What is your design process like?
I finished a bathing suit on Friday and wore it to the beach on Saturday.
What about pieces like the steel dress?
That takes a little bit longer. It's a team effort. We spent weeks on it. This one came from a sketch. Honestly, the way I work now, I rarely have a full day of sketch making. It is usually an hour here and an hour there. We have a metal person who is an old Chromat intern, now she is our subcontractor. We have all of the patterns in CAD and then we send them to a laser printer who cuts the metal, then to a platter, and then they start to assemble them here. The metal is fun. I like working with hard surfaces.
What kind of materials do you want to work with in the future?
I like swimwear. Chromat swim has been our economic driver and it has allowed us to do crazy experimental things that no one buys. Also, things that will change colors according to your heat, that is something I want to do. All of the different nontraditional fabrics are very inspiring for us.
Is there anyone you're inspired by?
I think of my Holy Trinity as Frida Kahlo, Missy Elliot, and Björk. Growing up, those were my people. Obviously, we love Beyoncé.
Have you meet Bjork yet? She's been around Brooklyn.
I am afraid to. When you have someone who is your hero, you don't ever want to see them be a regular human with faults. It would ruin my whole life. That is my dream, to design something that she would wear.
Do you like working with musicians?
It is fun for us to work with musicians. It is fun to work with smaller bands. We do the Beyoncés and the Madonnas, but you don't get to hangout with them. We have built things for smaller bands like YACHT. It is fun for us to be based in New York and be inspired and work with cool musicians who are doing cool stuff. I love that there is a big female and gay rapper presence.
How do you want to influence the way women dress?
We want people to feel powerful, bold, and unafraid. Just a celebration of who they are and very girl power-y. I guess it is always a balance between the most tech heavy outlandish, crazy, weird garments and things that people can and want to wear. I think we are lucky because people expect weird things from us. We did basics and no one buys them.
What else are you working on?
BOND by Chromat is our first diffusion line, which is inspired by the badass Bond girl. It launched a month ago. A lot of people have been ripping off of our swimsuits, so we figured, why not do it ourselves and get paid for it? So we developed a line of swimwear and cover-ups for Urban Outfitters. Bond is probably going to be stocked at other places. Instead of $300, suits are $100. We are also doing lingerie and shoes are shipping from our factory next week. They will be available at Solestruck and other places our clothing is sold.
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