Interview with Becca McCharen of Chromat
One of the things I love about New York is the people. And, perhaps especially during Fashion Week, it’s rather amazing to have such incredible style walking all around you. So it wasn’t too surprising that I met an extremely friendly (and brand new) New Yorker that had incredible style. It was, however, surprising that I met this person in the darkest of dark basements, surrounded by people who feel more comfortable talking from behind a keyboard (of the QWERTY persuasion) than in person. Also, our initial conversation was sparked by things we were wearing, mine being an Artlab harness, and hers being a design of her own making that I had recognized from the Internets. Turns out, a blog post I had read by Queen Michelle unknowingly put me in the path of Becca McCharen, designer for the label Chromat. While we both eagerly awaited Susie Bubble’s appearance on stage, Becca handed over a couple of her previous Chromat lookbooks/zines, and I immediately wanted to take out a pen and grill her on her fantastic designs. But instead, I enjoyed our brief (and very dimly lit) encounter and followed up online with the following interview, as well as some brand new photos of the Chromat S/S 11 collection. Enjoy.
What is your background in design?
I studied architecture design at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. What I learned in architecture school that I have since applied to fashion is definitely the process and rigor of design. Architecture school was very process-oriented. We did a lot of research about the context of a building before we designed it. We made many iterations of a single idea and then we edited them. And that is exactly what I do with when I am designing clothing.
While I was going to school I also worked in the costume shop for the Drama Department, where I learned how to sew while making big Victorian bustles and corsets and crinolines.
What is your first fashion memory?
My mother used to sew (from store-bought patterns) matching outfits for me and my little brother when we were young. One Easter when I was about 9, she sewed a floral jumper dress with a white lacy pinafore for me, a matching miniature version for my doll, a matching bow tie for my brother and a hilarious 80’s teal and white dress for herself. So I guess you could say I get it from her! Although it wasn’t until college that I learned how to sew.
I know this one since I met you wearing your cage bra, but do you wear your own designs?
Oh yeah, all the time! Chromat samples and backstock are currently threatening to completely take over my wardrobe. It’s fun to wear my own stuff out, and lately people have started recognizing them before they know I made it (like me)! That is a fun and surreal experience.
What is your favorite experience as a designer thus far?
Easily the fashion shows. It is so exciting to finally present a project after having worked on it for six or so months. To see 25 girls all wearing clothes I designed all together at once is like being in my own fully realized dreamworld. And hearing feedback from the audience and feeling the excitement is such an exhilarating experience.
In the past I have organized fashion shows with friends, so the shows end up being a big party and celebration of all the hard work from everybody – the hair and makeup, the DJ, the other designers and models too. I love collaborating with other artists and doing fashion projects. It’s so fun to join forces and create events and environments and images that are bigger than anything I could come up with myself.
A close second is the feeling of actually being inspired and sewing and draping for hours without looking up from the table. I love going into that creative zone where time stops. I just wish I could do it more often.
What is the inspiration behind your S/S 11 collection?
The Chromat spring/summer 2011 cage collection was inspired by samurai warrior armor, folded origami cranes and gridded shoji screens found in traditional Japanese environments. I looked at the rhythm of lines in the shoji screens and the sharp silhouettes created by the folding of hard paper for the structural cages this season. I wanted to do something very simple and controlled as well – in black and white. And of course a constant inspiration for me is architectural scaffolding. Developing new techniques to apply exterior structural scaffolding to the surface of the human body is something I am always thinking of.
What is your favorite piece from your S/S 11 collection?
I think the weirdest thing I made this season – and therefore my favorite – are the leg cages on the corset crane pants with the two way zipper (below left). The wearer can actually zip her legs together down the knee. It looks pretty awesome and it feels like you’re wearing a tight fishtail dress.
And then there are the more simple pieces I will probably end up wearing the most: the bamboo belt (below right) and the shoji necklace.
Do you listen to music while you work, and who/what band inspires you the most?
Yes, always! Working and sewing and draping is mainly a solitary practice for me, so I’m always listening to music or podcasts to keep myself entertained. While designing the most recent collection, I listened to a lot of Maluca, Crystal Castles, new M.I.A., Major Lazer and La Roux. Lots of fast, happy beats.
Who would you most like to design an outfit for?
I’m very inspired by the fashion game of some of my musical heros like Bjork, M.I.A., Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Lady Gaga. When I am making clothes, I usually design with them in mind – that encourages me to make crazy bold strange garments and not worry about wearability at the outset.
What do you picture a Chromat wearer doing while wearing one of your pieces?
Going to fabulous crazy parties and tearing it up on the dance floor!
You just recently moved from Virginia to New York. Does being from Virginia influence your style at all? What is your favorite part of living in New York?
I think living in Virginia definitely influenced the first collection I did for Chromat in 2008. I had just moved back to Virginia from living all different places around the world and I was fascinated by what I perceived as sort of an indigenous uniform of southern American redneck street style. I used lots of denim, camo, biker leather, and plaid flannel but cut it into more modern shapes for younger, more creative wearers. Since then I think my designs for Chromat have evolved and become more about formal concepts that change from season to season.
I love living in NYC now! I can walk 4 blocks from my studio and pick up materials instead of having to order things like zippers online and wait a week until they were delivered! Living in NYC has also given me the great opportunity to actually meet in person all the people who are buying and wearing Chromat. That is so great.
You work together with Emily Kappes on Chromat. What role do each of you have in the label?
Emily and I have been collaborating on fashion, art and architecture since 2006. She works full time for Allied Works Architecture – a super hip architecture firm in Portland, Oregon right now and may soon also be relocating to NYC. She does all the screenprinting for the prints we have incorporated into past collections, but her main role is of conceptual collaborator. I do most of the design and production, but I go to her for her opinion on everything.
What’s up next for you and for Chromat?
Chromat fall/autumn 2011! I am hoping to weave the structural techniques employed in spring/summer 2011 into garments that actually keep you warm for the winter! I think it will look like a mash up of cages and soft warm things.
I’m sure it goes without saying that I ♥ NY and Chromat. Click on the following links to see more of Becca and Chromat: main website, blog, Etsy, Facebook. Thank goodness for the Internets.
Oh! And if you’re in NY, make sure you visit Virginia at International Playground for your own Chromat piece.