How Chromat Designer Becca McCharen Built a Fashion Business From Architecture School

The Brooklyn-based designer, whose work has already gotten the attention of celebrities like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, talks about her recent CFDA/'Vogue' Fashion Fund nomination and why she thinks women designers "are rarer than they should be."
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The Brooklyn-based designer, whose work has already gotten the attention of celebrities like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, talks about her recent CFDA/'Vogue' Fashion Fund nomination and why she thinks women designers "are rarer than they should be."
Becca McCharen. Photo: Chromat

Becca McCharen. Photo: Chromat

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Chromat’s Becca McCharen is in the middle of a whirlwind week. The Thursday before our interview, she was named as one of 10 finalists for this year’s CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. Two days later, she debuted her spring 2016 swim collection in Miami. “My inbox exploded completely.” McCharen told us at the Soho Beach House in Miami Beach the day after her show. “I’ve never experienced that level of crazy before.”

That's saying something. In the five years since McCharen launched her label — which began as a collaboration with a fellow student at University of Virginia's School of Architecture — she has dressed an impressive range of celebrities, including Madonna, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Grimes and Nicki Minaj. Her designs, which often feature technical takes on bustier tops and bondage gear, are easy to recognize. And though her work is often conceptual, McCharen has also found commercial success by adapting her aesthetic to lingerie, swimwear and as a diffusion line for Urban Outfitters, Bond by Chromat.

We caught up with McCharen at Swim Week in Miami to talk about her recent CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nomination, what it’s like to be a woman designing womenswear and how her celebrity relationships affect sales.

Becca McCharen backstage at Chromat's Made Fashion Week show in February. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Becca McCharen backstage at Chromat's Made Fashion Week show in February. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Right before you came down to Miami you were nominated for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. That must have been exciting.

The scary thing is that it’s also sort of like a reality show and I prefer to be behind the scenes. I love ideas, making collections, hands-on projects. Now I’m mic'd 24/7. Hair and makeup every morning, the Kim Kardashian lifestyle. I just have to be on at every moment.

Every week there's a new challenge, kind of like "Project Runway." The first thing on our schedule is in two days I have to be ready to present Chromat to the CFDA panel of judges — that's Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg, [Theory CEO] Andrew Rosen, Rag & Bone, the head of Neiman Marcus. I am feeling a lot of pressure because there are only two female designers in the whole line-up. It’s very menswear-based, which I think is very interesting because of this whole menswear resurgence. I have to prove that women deserve to be the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner, so I’m definitely going to represent for all the strong, powerful women out there.

What does it mean to be a woman designing womenswear?

You’re catering to female clients, but women are only behind the scenes running the fashion industry. All the top the designers are mostly men. There’s Prada but all my favorite designers — Gaultier, McQueen, Ghesquière — it’s so weird that they are all men. I could go on for so long: Prabal, Wang, Altuzarra, all dudes! It’s something I think about all the time. Like why? I think female designers are rarer than they should be.

About how much of the business would you say is swim?

Well swim and bras are our economic drivers. We spend a lot of time making sure the fit and quality is perfect because that’s what ends up in everyone's wardrobes. The thing is that swim and lingerie are very, very technical. Sort of similar to men’s suiting, all of the measurements have to be exactly right and no female body is exactly the same. That’s the biggest challenge.

A look from Chromat's spring 2016 swimwear collection. Photo: Dive

A look from Chromat's spring 2016 swimwear collection. Photo: Dive

How is that incorporated into your design process?

When I started Chromat I was coming straight from architecture so I had never studied fashion or worked for another designer. So I had no idea about how you were supposed to do things. Most of our processes are more architecture-based. Over the years I’ve been able to hire people who have gone through the fashion track that can incorporate it into what we do, but there’s a certain way that fashion does its seasons and there’s a way that Chromat does our seasons.

We always start from a conceptual, theoretical space. It’s not about adding another strap or something, it’s about adding something new to the conversation in fashion.

Let’s talk about your line for Urban Outfitters, Bond by Chromat.

Well Urban Outfitters wanted to carry Chromat in their stores and we took it as an opportunity to produce a diffusion label just for Urban that would make more sense for that customer. Bond is sort of like the younger sister of Chromat. We do all ties instead of hooks in that line to make it easier to do a wider range of sizes. We do suits in a bigger variety of colors, too.

I actually see Bond as growing into its own being, so that Chromat can continue to be conceptual and innovative and new, while Bond is more trend-based or more wearable.

At the 2014 Video Music Awards, Beyoncé's back-up dancers wore arm cages, bustiers and face masks designed by Chromat. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment

At the 2014 Video Music Awards, Beyoncé's back-up dancers wore arm cages, bustiers and face masks designed by Chromat. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment

You've worked with a number of high-profile celebrities. What is that process like?

Working with celebrities is always crazy! It’s always very last minute, ‘I need 20 outfits in Paris tomorrow’ type of jobs. The women we listen to in our studio, like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Madonna — being able to work with them is such an honor. It’s really incredible to be inspired by someone and then have them also be inspired by you.

We’ve done everything from custom — I have all Madonna’s measurements — to just pulls. I love doing collaborations with people who know exactly what they want and those women always do.

Do you see an uptick in sales when one of them wears your pieces?

Sometimes when they are wearing something that is directly available, like Taylor Swift for example wore pieces from the new swim collection in her "Bad Blood" video, and that really blew up on the Internet. Those pieces sold out within a few hours. But when it’s someone like Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj, it’s more like, "I want to be that strong, powerful, independent woman. I want to be like them." It’s not necessarily, "I want to wear Beyoncé’s shirt," so people come to us because they have that same spirit and want to empower themselves and feel strong. In that way, it’s definitely more branding and brand awareness.

So what’s the next step for you?

The reason I entered [the CFDA process] was for mentorship. Like I said, I’ve never worked in fashion, I’ve never run a business and here I am running this fashion business. I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just making it up as I go along. And so working with these amazing industry veterans, I’m getting chills just thinking about the access that I’ll have through this mentorship.

We are on the cusp — we have our diffusion line now and we have so many people wanting to do licensing with us. There’s just so many opportunities coming in now that I’m really looking forward to having guidance to help shape the brand.