Chromat Designer Becca McCharen on Gender, Tech, and Talking Cyborgs with Kanye West

Getty Images

Getty Images

Sometimes, fashion can feel a little like that “You can’t sit with us” scene from “Mean Girls,” with front-row-only cliques and aspirational (read: unattainable) beauty standards—but Chromat designer Becca McCharen is out to change all that.

Since founding her line in 2010, the Virginia native has carved out a niche in bodywear (an umbrella term that encompasses activewear, swimwear, and lingerie) with instantly recognizable cage bras, harnesses, and structural showpieces that draw on her architectural background—the latter of which have become favorite on-stage attire for artists such as Beyoncé, Madonna, and Nicki Minaj. McCharen has also made headlines for her progressive casting choices, working with models of a wide range of sizes, races, gender identities, and abilities (Lauren Wasser, who lost part of her leg due to toxic shock syndrome, walked in Chromat’s New York Fashion Week show this February)—still a rarity in an industry that tends to favor the tall, thin, young, and white.

The buzz clearly made it all the way to top, since last summer the designer was announced as one of 10 finalists for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, an annual program that grants up to $400,000 and a year of mentorship to winning brands. The competition spanned several months and included weekly design, runway, and marketing challenges—all of which were filmed by camera crews and released beginning this February as “The Fashion Fund,” a 10-episode unscripted show on Amazon Prime (five episodes are available to stream right now, and new ones are released every Thursday).

While Chromat ultimately didn’t take home one of the three top prizes (Brother Vellies’ Aurora James, Gypsy Sport’s Rio Uribe, and Jonathan Simkhai all tied for first place), McCharen says the experience has still had a major impact on the brand.

“I never in a million years would have expected to be in the same room with Anna Wintour and these fashion heroes. I grew up reading Vogue, but I didn’t study fashion, and I didn’t come from this fashion world, so it’s been such an honor and totally surreal to be in this realm,” she says.

"The Fashion Fund"

“The Fashion Fund”

In terms of concrete feedback, she says Wintour urged her to keep her production local, despite pressure to move it overseas, where labor costs are much cheaper, and reassured her to stick to her strengths: “I feel like the dust is still settling, and there’s been so much that we’ve absorbed during the process. There’s been so much feedback that just in the past six months has really helped us narrowed our focus and own the fact that we’re a bodywear brand, rather than pretending we’re ready-to-wear or women’s wear. The body is the core of what we do, and so it’s been fun that they’ve really encouraged us to delve into this world where there’s not as much high fashion going on.”

McCharen also stands out from the pack in another, less encouraging way: Along with James, she was one of only two women designers nominated for the prize, whose past winners include names such as Billy Reid, Joseph Altuzarra, and Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School.

While the phenomenon isn’t unusual—the upper echelons of fashion, like most other industries, are still dominated by men—she says she was still a little shocked at the ratio. “I think it’s so strange and a little disturbing that men dictate what women wear and how women feel about their bodies—that’s always been something that I’ve been vocal about: Who is making the decisions on beauty standards? And why is it that people that don’t even share our bodies as women are deciding what’s beautiful and what’s high fashion?”

That said, she has seen improvements in the way the industry approaches gender—several of her fellow finalists, including streetwear label Gypsy Sport and “ambisexual” New York brand Baja East, play with gender norms through their collections, showing skirts on men and baggy track pants and bombers on women, while trans models such as Andreja Pejic and Hari Nef are being cast for campaigns and covers, and mass brands are taking heed. (Zara debuted a “genderless” section on its website earlier this month.)

“I think it’s great—I think the gender binary is so outdated, and I love that all different levels from high fashion to street are embracing this inclusive, body-positive angle in the way they talk about clothes.” But does she suspect that some of these brands might be jumping on board the queer and body-positive wagon primarily for the good PR, as some critics have contended? Well, yes—but that’s OK.

“I think it’s both [genuine and PR-motivated], and I’m totally OK with it being both, because maybe it being a trend is the first step toward opening conversation with people who normally wouldn’t even have been considered, whether gender-neutral or body-positive or one of these inclusive ways of going against the status quo,” she says. “I think—I hope—that it is a lasting change in the industry to include more sizes, more races, more genders.”

James, McCharen, and Kanye West Getty Images

James, McCharen, and Kanye West
Getty Images

While she’s waiting for the rest of fashion to catch up, she’s also looking way into the future through an ongoing partnership with Intel to design innovative wearable technology that she’s shown in her runway shows at New York Fashion Week. Past pieces include a sports bra that responds to the wearer’s body heat by activating additional vents, and a dress that changes shape when sensors detect an adrenaline rush. And while they’ve earned rave reviews in the press, the pieces are still in the prototype stage, which means there is still a lot of work to be done before they’ll ever make it to retail.

“We’ve sold some electronic pieces in the past, like LED bras, but at this point we realize that the technology just isn’t there—it’s not flexible and it’s not designed to move with the body,” explains McCharen. “We’d have a lot of repairs—it’s a whole different ball game when you’re an electronics company. I would love to get to that level as a company to be FCC-approved and have a whole Apple Care system with each garment, but we’re still experimenting, and the materials are still being developed.”

One person she found unexpected kinship with was Kanye West, whom she met after the Los Angeles runway show put on by the CFDA and Vogue in October, and bonded with over their shared fascination with cyborgs and prosthetic limbs.

“I think there’s so many layers to his creative work,” she enthuses, saying he approached her after seeing Wasser, the model with the prosthetic leg, walk in the show. “After the show, he came up to us, and he was like, ‘Oh my god, that sportswear was so cool. I love that you had a model with a prosthetic.’ And we were just talking about how obsessed we were with prosthetics, like—this is a little dystopian, but in the future, as people continue to optimize their clothing and their bodies, electively adapting cyborg limbs that are stronger than your own. These are things that I’m personally interested in, but Kanye and I were just talking, and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s why I’ve got all these implants on my face.’ He was showing me his teeth and he was really into it. It was fun.”

Do we sense a collaboration in the future?