Becca McCharen (ARCH 2006) is one of the founding designers of Chromat Garments, a design company that is quickly making its imprint on the fashion world. Over the last year Chromat has been spotted on international runways, on Hollywood stars like rapper Nicki Minaj and on the covers of Iconography, Blink and Soko magazines. Iris took some time to catch up with this rising design star. Below you will find an excerpt from our interview!
How did Chromat garments get its start?
Chromat started in concept following my graduation from the School of Architecture at U.Va. in 2006. I began sewing my own clothes, then clothes for friends, and then two years later I found myself in Lynchburg, Virginia, working as an urban planner. With the help of Sarah Jean Simmons, who had just opened a fashion boutique in Lynchburg called Folk, and my friend Sam Gravitt, a hairstylist and makeup artist, we put on the first Chromat runway show. Chromat was originally founded with my friend Emily Kappes, another U.Va. architecture graduate. She did all the screenprints and I did the design work. Since then, her involvement has lessened due to her full time work as an architect.
What inspired the idea for your first collection?
The “Indigenous Lynchburg” fall 2008 collection drew inspiration from rural communities in the American South. The collection was heavily influenced by roughneck places like Madison Heights, Virginia, where buck hunting and attending NASCAR stock car races are the local pastimes. The backwoods Virginia bluegrass music scene, biker bars and redneck Lynchburg street fashion were also evoked through the use of plaid flannel, stripes, denim and hunting camouflage prints.
On your website, it says that you draw on your background in architecture and urban design–can you walk us through the journey from studying architecture at U.Va. to creating clothing? Is it clothing design something that you’ve always done (or always wanted to do)?
I studied architecture design at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. While I was a student, I worked in the costume shop at the U.Va. Drama department, sewing elaborate Shakespearean [sic] costumes and all kinds of strange period garments. I loved studying the under structures of the bustles and corsets.
What I am now doing in fashion is a direct extension of the dual investigations of interior and exterior space construction. I loved the rigorous design process taught in school of investigation and research, development of many iterations, editing and finally, presentation. The fast-paced, seasonal timeline of fashion projects, as opposed to the multi-year time span of architecture, appeals to me. I am also interested in the intimate scale and direct focus on the body in fashion.
Can you pinpoint a pivotal moment in your career/the evolution of Chromat–the moment went you maybe felt, “Oh, I’ve made it!” or “I think this might be successful…”?
Some of my Chromat career highlights so far have been: 1) when Chromat was first invited be showcased in the International Playground Showroom in NYC while I was still living in Lynchburg, Virginia, then 2) when I moved to NYC to work on Chromat full-time, and 3) when Nicki Minaj’s stylist called to ask me to design her some custom cages. Watching the business grow has been a really fun experience for me.
Describe an average working day for you.
Because I design for my own label, my schedule is totally up to me. That can be awesome when it’s a nice day out and I just want to go ride my bike, but when I have a backlog of orders to get out and custom pieces to design, my work schedule can be crazy. In those weeks, I wake up and chain myself to the sewing machine until 3 or 4am with intermittent breaks for sandwiches and diet cokes.
My work is truly seasonal. For several weeks, I focus solely on designing the new collection. Then its shooting the lookbooks and booking all the different talents that go along with that like the photographer, hair and makeup, models and styling assistants. Then for several weeks, I am specifically focused on producing the orders and shipping. Right now I just finished putting out the new fall 2011 collection, so my focus is on PR and outreach (like doing this interview!).
But I’d say a more normal day would be like wake up around 9 or 10, check gmail, facebook, twitter, tumblr and google reader (I love fashion blogs), sew orders or do zine layout or design new work or meet with stylists for pulls or visit the showroom, then around 9 or so, go meet friends at a bar or work till 11 or 12, then go dancing. Wake up and repeat. It’s pretty awesome.
Where do you get inspiration now?
For general inspiration, I love looking at fashion blogs and seeing how people dress on the streets in New York. Inspiration is a funny thing- sometimes I feel like I have no ideas, nothing is coming, and other times everywhere I look I see a detail or a concept I want to expand on.
I am definitely influenced by the human body, inside and out. I’m interested in all the systems that happen under the skin and the functions of various parts of the body. I also love making zines and collages and I love seeing other people’s zines and creative projects. I like visual mash-ups of all kinds.
What/who are you current favorite artists, websites, musicians, etc?
Artists: The holy trinity of Bjork, Frida Kahlo and Missy Elliot.
I consider Bjork my ultimate creative hero. She has been an inspiration to me since I was a little girl. Frida Kahlo is another incredible artistic force, and Missy Elliot’s beats have been rocking my world since I can remember. Missy Elliot is also from Virginia, which I bring up a lot now that I live in NYC and have to represent my Virginia pride.
Also, Dolly Parton (my go-to for karaoke), Lady Gaga and her stylist Nicola Formichetti, the Dominican rapper Maluca, Nicki Minaj Miranda July and the director Harmony Korine. My friend and talented filmmaker and musician Aaron Alexis, whom I have collaborated on several films and music videos, and my friend Patrick Costello, a printmaker who has collaborated with Chromat on screen prints for past collections.
Fashion Designers: Alexander McQueen (my ultimate fashion hero), John Paul Gaultier for paving the way with his feminine cage-like structural investigation. John Galliano for his theatrical presentations and amazing clothes. It’s unfortunate that two of the three of my favorite designers have recently created their own self-destruction. Also, Haider Ackerman for his beautiful combination of strange draping techniques and structured tailoring.
Websites: I love the New York Magazine fashion blog called The Cut- it’s like the Daily Show of fashion news. They report and make fun of everyone equally. Also on my bookmarks is Fashion Gone Rogue: a website that posts amazing fashion editorials. I also love Refinery 29 for their trend lists and Vulture for pop culture news. Oh and of course the New York Times, gotta stay current.
I love the stylist and fashion blogger Susie Bubble of Style Bubble. I think she has a really interesting and quirky style and loves to layer prints on top of more prints.
I also hope Tavi, the fashion blogger from Style Rookie, puts out a magazine soon. I am so excited watching her discover third wave feminism through the lens of fashion.
Musicians: The top 5 most played artists on my itunes are: Kanye West, Girl Talk, Missy Elliot, Crystal Castles and MIA. Also on that list of 25 most played are The Strokes, Dr. Dre and Gucci Mane. I really love acting a fool on the dance floor to big beats, apparently.
Do you have creative routines or rituals you engage in?
When I really need to churn things out, like a new collection, I have to ground myself. As in, high school-style “you’re grounded.” When I can’t go out, I stay in and force myself to work around the clock for days and weeks at a time. It’s the only way I can get any work done now that I live in NYC and there are cool things going on every second of the day and night.
On your site, it says A/W 11 is inspired by “royalty, athleticism, and dark sexuality of Olympic athletes”–where did that come from?
The Chromat Autumn/Winter 2011 Blood Sport collection was inspired by the royalty, athleticism and dark sexuality of Olympic athletes. Iconic images of the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps wearing his full collection of gold medals, the linework and aerodynamic seams on the jersey of Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, and the form fitting unitards of Olympic wrestlers all informed the latest series of Chromat cages.
I have always been interested in athletics. I love team sports. I played varsity soccer and ran track in high school and wish I had time to play sports now. Researching precedents for the Blood Sport collection was emotional; seeing Olympic athletes compete in events that they have worked their entire lives toward and either succeeding or failing is truly epic. Also, every time the Olympics come around, some news channel does a piece about all the crazy sex that happens in the Olympic villages. It makes sense though, all these young people in perfect physical condition.
How influenced are you by trends of capital F-Fashion-week fashion and how much is it about immersing yourself in what you find inspiring apart from the “trends”?
I definitely follow the trends through fashion blogs and follow the work of my favorite designers. It’s impossible not to in New York; every time I walk down the street, I see people rocking “Fashion” trends head to toe.
I don’t necessarily think about trends when I’m designing, but there is a general connected feeling that comes over the fashion community from season to season, which I am not immune to. For example, all the 70’s retro references on the spring runways have definitely affected what I want to wear this summer. All I can think about are rollerskates, big hair and discos.
However, in the creation of my own work with Chromat, each season is a combination of things that interest me, an extension of the things I explored last season, and also what seems to be getting a good response from the people buying and wearing the pieces.
Who is your favorite Chromat model so far (famous or not)?
I have had so many beautiful girls and guys model for me, that’s a really tough question!
Several models do stand out: Sam Mae, who modeled for the most recent fall 2011 lookbook made some truly beautiful photos with Gemma Fleming. Brittany Bass, who modeled for the summer 2011 collection shot by Ashley Florence, kept hitting great pose after great pose at the shoot. This is so hard, because all of the models I work with have been great! Brittany Marie Wainscott, who modeled for the runway shows in Lynchburg, had so much personal style and good energy and presence that she brought to the shoots. And of course Sarah Jean Simmons, my friend and collaborator on the fashion shows we did in Lynchburg. She’s stunning.
What is your favorite thing about your job–what do you love about it? What do you hate about it?
It’s the ultimate luxury to work for myself, doing something I love. If I could change one thing, I would arrange for some major investors, rent a giant studio in Soho and hire a production team to do all my orders for me so I could focus on designing each collection and doing custom work for special clients.
Right now, a lot of my time is spent running my business. Although I don’t think that will change with more investors. I went to a lecture by a famous fashion designer recently who told the audience of fashion design students, “I design for 2 weeks out of the whole season. The rest of the time is spent running my business.” So I guess that’s how it goes, even at the top!
Name someone you would love to collaborate with (either dress in Chromat or design with)?
I would love to make a piece for Lady Gaga. I love her experimental style and think with our powers combined, we would make a crazy love child. And of course, Bjork.
Who are designers or artists that you see up and coming that you are inspired/impressed by?
Artist friends Patrick Costello, Aaron Alexis, Joy Wang and Melissa Elliot are all doing cool things; their work is always direct inspiration for my own design. Artist Pete Watts is a childhood friend who is showing amazing graphite work in NYC now.
Fashion designer Noel Jean is a great person and designer. Multi-media artist Vasha Thomas as Jupiter Pluvius is a constant source of inspiration. Artist and dyer Astrid Chastka is a close friend and her art is truly beautiful. I love the leather work by Zana Bayne and the jewelry work by my friends Tiffany Gong and Christina Rodriguez for Triskaidekaphobia. Also, the fashion designer Mary Meyer is doing really cool printed fashion work and the graphic/multi-media artist Kelly Colley has been making some great drawings lately. Wow, that just turned into a list of my entire blog roll. I feel really lucky to be surrounded by amazing friends that are also working artists and designers here in New York!