Becca McCharen is going to show you how to make it in America. In less than five years, McCharen went from working a post-grad 9 to 5 at her local City Hall in Lynchburg, Virginia to designing the onstage costumes for Madonna’s MDNA World Tour, the bustier Azealia Banks wears in her “Liquorice” video, the pentagram harness that brings Zola Jesus to life in her “Seekir” video, and a skeletal, breast-baring bra highlighted in the Kanye West issue of 25 magazine. I haven’t even mentioned the garments that have been requested for McCharen to provide for numerous editorial spreads in Paper, Dazed and Confused, L’Officiel and Vogue magazine. McCharen’s accomplishments have bucked the fashion system, as she holds no formal fashion design training, and being a female designer with a feminist bent complicates things in an exciting way.
Nestled inside a studio sharing a space with three other designers in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, the key to McCharen’s success as a fashion designer is likely in part to how incredibly likable she is. When I arrived at her studio, the energy in the room was amped up to the tunes of classic booty rap (which ameliorated the pressures of design and delivery deadlines), and a mustard-colored vintage velvet sofa made the space feel like home. Before we began our chat about her label Chromat, McCharen invited me to the studio’s balcony, where we took in a cinema-worthy view of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Despite having this idyllic landscape as the backdrop to her every workday, McCharen remains in disbelief of how far she’s come in a considerably short span of time.
Portable: Your undergraduate background in architecture had a predominant influence on becoming a fashion designer. Were you thinking about about fashion before college? Did you ever imagine you would become a designer?
Becca McCharen: Definitely. I really loved fashion as a teenager. My uncle got me a subscription to Vogue when I was in high school. But, in Virginia, I didn’t know any fashion designers, there weren’t any role models I had in school. There was no Project Runway. I didn’t know fashion design could exist as a real career, so architecture seemed like a good idea. I liked math, and I liked design… and I kinda wanted to go to art school, but my parents were like, “No, you need a real job”. They sent me on a more technical path for a real job, so I had no idea fashion design could be a real career or a job at all.
Even in architecture school, I don’t think I ever really thought about being a fashion designer because I was really interested in architecture at the time. But I did work in a costume shop as an undergrad; that’s how I learned how to sew, and so then I thought about maybe doing costuming, but I only liked the actual design part, not the regurgitation of, you know, an era of outfits, so, yeah, I think I kind of just made up this job as I went along! I definitely didn’t have little kid dreams of being a fashion designer. I liked clothes though.