How Becca McCharen of Chromat Makes Money By Building Sexy Cages
In three years, 27-year-old Becca McCharen has gone from recovering from Peace Corps-induced dengue fever in her parents’ house in Virginia to sitting in Yankee Stadium, watching Madonna perform in one of her hand-fabricated kimono harnesses. The garments Becca makes evoke a distinct and unmistakable goth-futurism, a world where bathing suits leave tan lines in the shape of a pentagram and girls go to the bar in black hooded cages and barely anything else.
Trained as an architect, Becca describes her line Chromat as “structural experiments for the human body.” She’s been featured in Vogue Italia, V Magazine, Elle Belgium, and Nylon; musical artists like Grimes, Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks have worn her cages, crowns and harnesses on tour and in their music videos.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to Becca about her creative process, career path, and what it’s like to spend every day making things that you love.
Hey Becca! What’s your day been like so far?
Hi! Today I’ve been in the studio with my production assistant Laura. We’re cutting elastic and putting garments together.
Is Chromat still all hand-made?
We do the bathing suits in a factory in the garment district, but yeah, the cages are all made in-house. I’d really like to get them made in the factory, because it takes up so much of our time here, but they’re so complex. We bring our samples to the factory and they’re like, “WHAT THE—”
Can we go back in time a few years? You graduated from the University of Virginia in 2007 with an architecture degree. How did you get from there to here?
Well, I actually joined the Peace Corps after college. I went to El Salvador, and three months in, I got dengue fever and had to be medically evacuated to DC. I spent some time recovering in Lynchburg at my parents’ house—I was really, really sick—and although I was planning to get better and go back, I ended up just taking a job at City Hall in Lynchburg. Ironically, it was a municipal design job, which was the exact same thing I was doing in El Salvador. Peace Corps in Virginia! Then I started putting on fashion shows, just for fun, designing pieces here and there—and then I got the itch to do something cohesive, to take one concept and organize an actual collection around it.
Then, one of the architects at my job connected me to his daughter, who worked in fashion in New York. I’d meet up with her whenever I was up in the city, I’d show her what I was doing. One holiday season, she opened a pop-up shop and asked if she could sell a few of my pieces, and it just snowballed from there. Her pop-up shop, International Playground, became a regular store and she kept getting orders for my pieces.
Eventually I was just like, “I need to move up there and see what’s going on, get more involved with this.” I got an apartment in Chinatown, and I figured I’d look for a day job as an architect, but then I kept getting orders for Chromat. I’d tell myself, “As soon as this order is over, I’m going to go look for a job.” But then three months later, I hadn’t had any time to do that, and I realized, “Okay, I guess this is my job now.”
So what did that look like, deciding that Chromat was your job?
Well, I worked out of my apartment for two years! It wasn’t glamorous. It just built up slowly. Through my sales representation with International Playground, I started shipping Chromat to more boutiques worldwide. Then I put up a website last Thanksgiving and hired an assistant. And then this summer, I moved into a studio, which is amazing, and hired more staff, and got a few interns.
Are you ever surprised by the fact that you ended up in fashion rather than architecture?
Yeah. I mean, growing up, I didn’t ever think of fashion design as a career path. Fashion is such a New York and LA-based industry, and there weren’t any designers, really, in Virginia. Also, though I was always interested in fashion, I was also always turned off by stereotypes about “fashion people.”
Were you always making clothes on the side, for fun?
I actually didn’t learn to sew until college, when I had a job working in the drama department’s costume shop. But I loved making clothes right away. I got hooked once I really saw the process of designing and making a garment. I saw that the people who do this are real craftsmen.
So the fashion world turned out to be different than you thought. Or, more like you found a sector of it that’s separate from the ethos of mass production?
Yeah, there’s definitely a difference between corporate fashion and smaller design companies. In some ways, it’s just a matter of scale. But still, I’m involved in hand-making each original sample, and I care a lot about process and technique. There’s a community of people who work like this, not just in fashion but in photography and film and any creative industry.
Let me ask you a slightly unrelated question. So, social media can be said to encourage eclecticism; today, the variety of influence seems sort of unlimited. But I’ve always been bothered by the way that websites like Pinterest are ostensibly organized around individual inspiration but inevitably promote a certain uniformity, the way that the originality of street style can get very formulaic, etc. What’s your perspective on this, as a designer? How has the Internet changed and influenced the way you work?
You can really pick and choose what you see on social media. You can choose to be inspired by subcultures, or you can be inspired by conventional culture. But what the Internet does is connect you to the people who love what you’re doing. A long time ago, when I was selling pieces on Etsy, I’d get all these orders from the middle of nowhere in Canada. Today I’m really inspired by the fact that there are people on the Internet who genuinely love what I’m doing—it inspires me to do crazier work, for sure.
And the Internet brings out a fantasy element that I really value. Of course, I’m a business owner, and I’m very involved and invested in our sales every season, but I also love the fact that the Internet allows me to make crazier stuff, to make the avant-garde more marketable and more feasible. Like, you’d think that our more traditional bathing suits would be our best-sellers, but they aren’t. I’ve found that the Chromat customer loves the crazy-structural stuff, the straps going in every direction. The pentagram bathing suit sold out instantly. The out-there showpieces are the ones that get attention. The Internet’s allowed me to experiment while knowing that I’ll be able to still reach an audience.
What’s the timeline like from your first sketch to a finished sample?
If I have a great idea, I can pump it out in a day, or even a couple of hours. But there are so many things going on all the time that I can never sit down and design for as long as I’d like.
Does your architecture background influence the way you design? Do you ever find yourself in a 3-D modeling program, rotating a cage?
Well, one of the reasons architects use 3-D modeling is to do things that they can’t do in real life because of scale issues. But for me, my scale is human. I can immediately craft anything that I want to see. Still, I do use 3-D modeling and stuff like that to draw up things for factories, make technical notes. And in terms of process, we use the same design cycle as architects do. Just like they research their site at the beginning of the process, I do my research, and the site is the body; I figure out what volumes to emphasize, all of that.
Are you your first model?
Yeah, totally. I always make a sample size for me, and a sample size for my actual models. I’m an 8 or 10, where the models are a 4—and it’s great to have my own version of everything, because I wear Chromat a lot.
What are your favorite pieces?
I have favorites to wear out—like the bralette, which is great under sheer tank tops and dresses—and others that I like just because of the way they look, like the Jessica Rabbit dress, which is huge hips, two cups, super-exaggerated. I don’t wear it, though, because it’s like a full-body cage.
How do you deal with the financial aspects of a non-traditional and self-directed creative job?
Such things can be very unnerving! Cash flow is one of the major problems for most small design labels, because they have to buy materials up front for each new collection but don’t usually get paid for orders until they ship. I built Chromat without any outside investment and without a major personal savings account, so each new step has been small and measured. Chromat has only expanded as much as we can afford to, based on the revenue received from wholesale and retail accounts.
How do you decide what to pay yourself and your employees?
Both in the early days and now, I usually only pay myself the bare minimum in order to pay rent and eat. The rest goes back into the company. My employees are paid a standard, fair rate based on other salaries in the same field and their experience and skill set. I have personal freelancer’s health insurance, and the rest of my staff is part-time, so Chromat doesn’t yet have a health insurance package for them. But I’d love to be able to afford a full-time staff with benefits! That’s definitely a goal of mine.
A great goal! I just have a few more questions. First, what would you say that your biggest setbacks have been?
Hmm. That’s actually sort of hard to answer.
Which is probably a testament to the fact that your design speaks for itself.
Thanks! Okay, I guess producing everything in-house is a sort of logistical setback because it takes so long? I’d love to get the cages done in a factory. Next year, maybe. But nothing else is really coming to mind, actually. When you have problems you just deal with them, you don’t dwell on them, right? I guess I could say running the line out of my apartment for two years was a setback, but it really wasn’t—I just did it.
Any advice for someone who might be looking at what you’ve done and thinking, “I’d love to do that”?
Well, if someone wanted to be a fashion designer, I’d definitely say don’t expect to do fun and creative work all day long. You have to run the business and do lots of day-to-day random crap. If someone wanted to be an entrepreneur, I’m not sure what I’d say. I never set out with a goal like, “I’m going to start my own company and hire people and grow it into something huge.” It just evolved organically.
Lastly, do you ever get tempted by the idea of a more traditional job? Or has Chromat eclipsed a 9-to-5 alternative in terms of profit as well as personal satisfaction?
I’m not sure if Chromat is currently more profitable than a salaried architecture job. But I think it has the potential to turn into that, as we continue to expand season by season. And I really believe that working for yourself and following your own creative ideas to fruition is the ultimate luxury.
Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor.