Mothers of Invention

Chromat CEO Creates Wearable Tech Fashions for Every Body

Becca McCharen weaves diversity and technology into her architecture-inspired fashion designs that are breaking new ground at Fashion Weeks around the world.

Flipping through Vogue magazine, watching runway shows on a smartphone screen, or following New York Fashion Week photography on Instagram keeps fashionistas in tune with the latest styles faster than ever. Still many wonder what’s keeping the fashion industry from diving deeper into the digital world.

The visual and viral nature of social media is driving top brands to make ready-to-wear designs available immediately rather than waiting several months before stocking store shelves.

Chromat CEO and designer Becca McCharen seems light years ahead of this transformation with her early embrace of technologies that bring biomimicry and bioluminescence to garments that are appealing to increasingly diverse audiences.

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Becca McCharen appears with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at CES 2016.

The Chromat brand is a fashion technology trendsetter. Since 2000, McCharen’s multi-disciplinary approach, which includes her background in architecture design, a flare for sewing and unwavering curiosity for technology, has led to one-of-a-kind celebrity outfits and ready-to-wear items for the masses.

McCharen’s pieces highlight joints and silhouettes, not just hip and waist size. She uses technology to create designs but also embeds computerized sensors, shape-shifting materials and lights controlled by the wearer’s movements.

At her Fall/Winter 2016 New York Fashion Week show this February, her second consecutive collaboration with Intel, she revealed her Lumina collection.

A wide variety of models hit the Chromat runway, including Lauren Wasser, who lost her leg to toxic shock syndrome, and transgender model Isis King from America’s Next Top Model.

Vogue magazine wrote, “As trans artist Juliana Huxtable strode down the runway in a blue keyhole mini dress with black caging around her waist, her signature cascading braids falling over her shoulders, it was clear that Chromat’s approach to model casting is just as mold-breaking as its clothes.”

A highlight of the show came when model Sabina Karlsson walked in wearing an electroluminescent cage dress lit in red and pink.

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Models wore thin hand and wrist wraps fitted with stretchable sensors by StretchSense.

With a squeeze of their hand, each model sent a wireless signal to light up the garment.

“I was thinking about light, and ways that light functions in the natural world through biomimicry and bioluminescence,” McCharen said in an interview with the New York Times.

“How light functions to communicate and connect, and to protect.”

The evening before her Lumina show, the Brooklyn-based designer told iQ that she wants women to feel empowered by her garments. Her cadre of beautiful and badass runway models emphasizes that point.

“I don’t know that we take a traditional fashion approach when we think about garments,” said McCharen, kindly stating the obvious.

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Her training as an architect heavily influences how she thinks about clothing and the overall design process.

“When I first started out with Chromat, I was experimenting with the functionality of scaffolding the human body, and we still do,” she continued. “We treat the body as a building site, just like an architecture. That kind of structural language of architecture is the foundation of everything we design.”

McCharen writes her own rules and is curious about technology innovation. Sure Chromat designs appear on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr, but for McCharen, technology is a powerful tool for bringing ideas to life and making people feel their best.

Karli Cengija and Becca McCharen Adrenaline Dress NYFW2015
Karli Cengija and Becca McCharen work on Adrenaline Dress powered by Intel Curie technology.

With help from Intel innovation designer Karli Cengija and others, McCharen took a big leap into the future with her shape shifting Adrenaline Dress and Areo Sports Bra, revealed last fall at her NYFW 2015 show.

Powered by the button-sized Intel Curie compute module, these were some of the pieces worn on runways that featured biomimicry and data tracking, allowing each garment to respond to the wearer’s environment.

McCharen said the concept originally came from an architecture study that proved office workers with access to windows were more productive and comfortable than those who worked in a close-circuit environment.

“We wanted to think about how clothing can achieve that kind of feeling of giving you control over your temperature and your body,” she said.

“Making clothing that can adapt to the body is a first priority with all the fashion inspiration that I’m working on now. We want to make garments that are almost like a machine to assist you in achieving your best performance.”

Areo Sports Bra with bimimicry tech by Intel and Chromat
Areo Sports Bra with biomimicry powered by Intel Curie technology.

McCharen emphasizes this type of wearable technology is still very beta and not yet ready for market.

“There are so many barriers right now, so we’re prototyping a lot,” she explained. “There’s just a huge gap between making technology for laptops or stationary items that are hard and plastic, and making technology that can be flexible, bendable and soft — thing that you would want to put on a moving form. There’s just so much left to be discovered.”

In addition to performance-enhancing garments, McCharen wants to develop a way to give everyone the opportunity to modify clothing before they buy.

“I really love how technology is enabling fashion to be more accessible and more global, and I’m obsessed with the idea of being able to use technology to allow for mass customization of clothing,” she said.

She envisions a day when fashionistas can instantly get garments introduced on the runway by accessing them online. The person’s body scan data will allow the designer to create the garment in the right size.

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Getting to this point isn’t just about using game-changing technologies. McCharen is confronting diversity, an issue she and many others believe is plaguing the fashion industry.

By featuring inspirational women with a variety of personalities and body types, Chromat celebrates amazing people like Juliana Huxtable, a trans DJ who makes music into conceptual art, and Denise Bidot, a pioneer in curve modeling and single mom.

As one of the few women who holds an executive-level position in the fashion industry, McCharen knows first-hand the transformative power of self-confidence and self-expression. It’s what defines her as a leader in the fashion world.

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“It’s shocking that fashion consumers are predominately women, but if you look at the top of the food chain, it’s men who are designing clothes and men who are running companies,” she said.

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“I find it disturbing that men are deciding what women wear and how they feel about themselves and their bodies. I’m all for women regaining control of their own bodies and deciding what works for them and designing their own clothes.”

This year, she’s seeing new creative forces in New York, much of it tied to technological influences.

“We’re definitely feeling a new kind of creative energy in the city in Fashion Week,” she said, emphasizing that technology acts as her muse and isn’t the end goal.

“We use body scanning, 3D printing, virtual reality, adaptive clothing, we do so many different technologies,” McCharen continued. “All these tools are adding new interactive experiences, and they’ve really opened up so many new ideas for us.”

For her part, McCharen also hopes to inspire a new generation of designers through her new ideas, work and collaborations with other professionals outside the fashion industry.

“If you’ve just never seen yourself, someone who looks like you at a runway show or working in fashion, it’s hard to imagine yourself on a runway or working in fashion,” she explained.

That’s an existential shift for the fashion industry, but it’s one that McCharen lives by and is at the core of Chromat. Diversity is critical to her innovation, and McCharen believes aspiring fashion designers will benefit from taking an open-minded, inclusive approach.

“Branching out and working with people in different fields leads to the creation of incredible magic,” she said. “I encourage everyone not to follow a narrow point-A-to-point-B path. Explore whatever they’re interested in and different fields as well.”

With a newly minted brood of multi-disciplinary designers rocking the future fashion world, fashion weeks and Vogue photo shoots are likely to reflect the world as it is: An imperfect mix of people looking for the right piece to make them feel fabulous in their own skin.

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