Chromat Causes a Commotion: Body Inclusivity, Diverse Beauty and Fun on the Runway
Nicki Minaj is playing in the background when Becca McCharen-Tran picks up the phone in her Brooklyn studio. “Can you hear me OK?” she asks. Like the rap queen she’s blasting, the Chromat designer doesn’t usually struggle to get her message across. Both women share outspoken positions on female empowerment as well as a fascination with colorful, form-fitting fashions. For McCharen-Tran, the two combine in her feisty fashion shows, where models storm the runway wearing her body-baring swimwear while showcasing their personalities. Chromat breaks with the usual runway displays, where a homogenous group of models walks carefully comported so as not to distract from the fashion. Instead, McCharen-Tran encourages her diverse group to cavort on the runway, smiling and winking at the audience at will. Her casting reflects this ethos. The calls are open to anyone, really. Any gender, any size, any ethnicity.
“It’s really about what kind of energy you’re bringing to the runway,” McCharen-Tran said. “We’re never filling certain size quotas or anything. It’s really about who shows up to the casting in full power mode and slays the runway.”
And slay they do. With their distinct looks and attitudes, the models seem more like attendees at a lively party set to a really good soundtrack. Spring 2018 featured a live performance by New York electro artist Suzi Analogue and models Denise Bidot, Maya Monès, Emme, Sabina Karlsson and Leyna Bloom, who made the most of her beats with bouncy walks. But underlying this fun are serious themes and careful constructions. Spring 2018 was a response to Fall 2017, which explored survival. “It was designed right after the election and it was for people in our community that feel that they’re under attack,” McCharen-Tran said. “That season we made a lot of inflatables. It was all about keeping your head above water.”
By spring, fear resolved into peace of mind and readiness, which translated into the Serenity collection. “After that collection, which was so anxiety ridden,” McCharen-Tran said, “we wanted to make a collection that had a lot more groundedness. Our spring collection is all about that. It’s very much inspired by Icelandic thermal baths. It’s grey and deep blue, super subdued colors. There are lots of rock feelings. The second part of this was about how you can translate that energy into a more explosive, more powerful thing. So it gets into lava colors, bright oranges and reds.”
Power is part of the Chromat DNA, derived from and serving the women the brand presents in its shows and campaigns, who McCharen-Tran calls Chromat babes. “It’s really important for me to showcase a variety of people from all places on the gender spectrum, all ability levels, ages, races. It’s really powerful to see yourself represented in fashion,” McCharen-Tran said. “It’s equally damaging if you never see someone who looks like you in beauty or fashion. It makes you think—or it did for me as a teen—am I not beautiful, do I not have a place in this world? It can be very powerful to see someone who looks like you or flexes back at you. It unlocks doors in your mind, the power of representation.” McCharen-Tran carries out this representation like a responsibility.
“A lot of students aren’t taught in schools how to design for curve figures or plus-size bodies,” she said. “That’s one reason you don’t see more curve bodies on the runway.” McCharen-Tran does deliberately design for different bodies, eschewing sample-size production strategies employed by most designers, who will make a collection in one set of measurements then try to cast models in similar sizes to eliminate alteration needs. “Sometimes I design for what I want to wear, as a size 10 or 12,” she said. “Sometimes we start with plus size and design for a certain shape or model. Sometimes it just comes from a traditional stock size 4 and then we alter it. The design process is so varied, there really is no formula for us.” In a first anywhere, Nordstrom will carry Chromat swimwear in sizes xs–3x. “Before the Nordstrom order, we were only producing up to an xl. But Nordstrom enabled us to expand our size range even more, which is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said McCharen-Tran.
McCharen-Tran comes from the world of architecture. She received her degree in the field from the University of Virginia well before venturing into fashion. This technical background allows her to approach swimwear tactically. “When I’m thinking about the body, I sort of view it as a site for building, like how an architect views a site—looking for context lines, the other buildings around it,” she said. “When I look at the body for swim, I’m thinking about joints and intersections, where things need to be compressed, where they need to be lifted.”
This results in swimwear that feels secure and sexy, a real accomplishment at any size. The importance of this in women’s wardrobes is not lost on McCharen-Tran. She understands how a swimsuit can impact a woman’s self-confidence. “Swimwear has the capability to define how you feel about your own body. It’s a really powerful vehicle to get to a place of acceptance with your own body.” Working toward this acceptance with a sense of empowerment was the intent behind Spring 2018’s Serenity collection, after all. “You can be any shape and size and wear Chromat confidently, wear a swimsuit confidently,” she assures.