It wasn’t too long ago that a high-concept label like Chromat would be considered radical, even subversive, and have a hard time finding a market.
But the New York-based label founded three years ago by urban planner Becca McCharen is suddenly everywhere — on concert stages, in Hallowe’en costumes, decorating celebrities, in fashion editorials, and in a rapidly growing number of fashion-forward wardrobes.
Most lingerie brands aim to turn up the erotic heat, but Chromat goes the other way: it’s simply the coolest label in the market today.
Who else would have the cajones to try this:
That’s right, it’s a leather mask and matching kit inspired by the persecuted Russian protest group Pussy Riot, which used balaclavas to conceal their members’ identities. Chromat is, as far as we know, the only fashion label anywhere to offer a full-on designer treatment like this to demonstrate its support for the jailed activists. (Alas, the Pussy Riot headpiece is not for sale; it’s a promotional one-off for Chromat’s next collection, called Riot Box.)
Chromat made a splash over the past few seasons with its visually arresting lookbooks filled with cage-like corsets, body harnesses and strappy undergarments featuring graphic cutouts and angular silhouettes that play off against a woman’s softer contours.
Its whimsical current collection, Cool World, is inspired by the 1992 movie of the same name in which animated characters tried to live in the real world. Chromat uses cartoon-like skeletal frames to create “exaggerated constructions of femininity” in pieces like a Jessica Rabbit cage dress, a three-dimensional cone bra and even a Minnie Mouse headpiece.
As cool as all this is, it’s still challenging stuff from a fashion standpoint: you can’t exactly wear Chromat to the office.
Designer Becca McCharen knew that back in 2010 when she walked away from a career in architecture in order to devote herself to her after-work hobby: creating structural undergarments and selling them as one-offs. With a degree in architecture design, Becca was working in her hometown of Lynchburg, Va., doing revitalization and urban redevelopment in the city’s historic downtown.
The enthusiasm generated by her bespoke creations inspired her to move to New York and give fashion a shot.
“I wanted to have some kind of cohesive collection each season, so I quit my day job,” she said. “Architecture gave me the tools and framework for how to design and how to go through iterations of an idea, but you don’t get to build as much as an architect.
“More than anything, I’m a maker. I love making things, putting things together.”
“I definitely played with Barbies like other girls and liked making little outfits for them. But I also liked making houses for them too.”
Becca, 28, is one of very few fashion designers with no formal training of any kind. In fact, she says, as a child “it never crossed my mind to be a fashion designer. I didn’t realize that was an actual job.”
“Fashion design was not part of my growing up,” says Becca, whose mom was a nurse and whose dad worked in computers. “I didn’t know any fashion designers. I definitely played with Barbies like other girls and liked making little outfits for them. But I also liked making houses for them too.”
By the time she quit her planning job, Becca was already getting orders from New York and had lined up a showroom (International Playground) for Chromat. But the future was far from certain.
“When I quit my day job I had no idea,” she said. “I thought I would have to take a full-time job as an architect in New York. But I kept getting orders. Then, three months later, I thought ‘Oh shit, I still haven’t looked for a job yet.’”
Today, Chromat’s six-person team is filling orders year-round from a workroom in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard and selling in cities as diverse as Las Vegas, Tokyo and Hong Kong and more. Here’s a recent staff shot (Becca is second from left):
For Becca, the transition from urban design to fashion undergarments was really just a matter a scale: taking the same critical eye and diagrammatic aesthetic that she once applied to the built environment and turning it on the human anatomy.
You can see that aesthetic most in Chromat’s core cage collection of bodywear pieces that have been described as anatomical “scaffolding”.
And despite the theoretical and academic approach to her work, you can also see the influences of contemporary fashion stars. Notable (and obvious) influences include Gaultier (Becca admits to being a Gaultier “geek” and maintains a blog devoted to him) and McQueen, both of whose experiments in turning the human skeleton into a fashion device are vital keys to Chromat’s aesthetic.
You can also see other disparate influences ranging from NYC leather artist Zana Bayne to Bordelle‘s bandage wraps and cage dresses to Nichole De Carle‘s geometric lingerie designs inspired by cathedrals. It’s a testament to those trailblazers that Chromat’s look isn’t quite as radical as it would have been on its own; still not exactly the fashion mainstream, but familiar enough to make such a bold indie venture viable.
Inevitably, Chromat’s dramatic styling attracted interest from celebrities, including Nicki Minaj and Madonna, both of whom wore Chromat pieces on their latest concert tours.
Madonna wears Chromat’s kimono harness (above) in her current MDNA show, and her backup dancers wear a collar-harness ensemble from the label. When Madge played Yankee Stadium this year, Becca and her team got great seats. “It was really amazing to see our pieces on stage,” she says. “We were just screaming our heads off.”
Chromat’s Spring 2013 collection marks a couple of major steps in the label’s evolution — a new swimwear collection and a deliberate effort to “soften” the profile of its structural pieces to make them more adaptable as both accessories and layering pieces.
Still, Riot Box, as the name suggests, belongs on fashion’s ferocious fringe and was inspired not just by Pussy Riot but other “fearless women and feminist punks” like Joan Jett and the 1990s radical NYC artists’ movement Guerrilla Girls.
Chromat’s cage pieces are “the heart of the label” and most inline with her architecture background, Becca says. “But they’re definitely not for every day. They’re for people who want their outfits to be seen miles away.”
For 2013, she turned her attention to simpler, more minimalist looks and found the Chromat “vocabulary” was easy to translate into softer pieces in the new swim collection (above).
“I really loved doing the swimwear experiments,” she says. “It’s really new in swimwear to have all these crazy straps and lines. The whole swimwear collection is more comfortable, more mass market. I don’t know, it might become our main focus.”
Thanks to Chromat’s steady growth, Becca McCharen likely won’t be looking for work as an architect any time soon. But that won’t stop her from studying the patterns of the urban landscape and finding ways to adapt them to fashion.
That symbiotic connection was highlighted earlier this year when Chromat was one of seven designer labels around the world chosen to create a piece (above) for the WSP Group’s Future Cities, Future Fashion campaign aimed at shedding a light on sustainable urban development.
“My favorite urban environment is when a road is so steep that it turns into steps,” Becca says, adding that she discovered something like that during a recent holiday in Bergen, Norway.
I can’t imagine how that might translate into a garment, but I know it’ll be worth waiting for.