Becca McCharen went from learning to sew while making costumes for University of Virginia drama productions to designing stage costumes for the likes of Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Madonna.
McCharen’s designs, reflecting her architecture background – she’s a 2006 graduate of the U.Va. School of Architecture – are dramatically sculptural and mathematically precise, marketed as “structural experiments for the human body.”
Since its 2010 launch, her Chromat fashion label has been featured on stage, on the runways of New York Fashion Week, in the pages of some of the world’s most illustrious fashion magazines and in stores from New York to London to Tokyo. McCharen herself has been making headlines, chosen by the New York Observer as “One to Watch” in 2012, and named to the Forbes list, “30 Under 30: People Who Are Reinventing the World in 2014.”
A Lynchburg native, McCharen returned to Charlottesville last week as a keynote speaker and artist-in-residence for the TomTom Founders Festival. UVA Today caught up with her to talk about where she’s been and what’s next.
Q: When you began at U.Va., you probably did not think you would one day be designing tour costumes for Beyoncé and Madonna. How did what you learned here prepare you for what happened next?
A: Going to U.Va., going to the Architecture School specifically, has definitely influenced everything that I do now in fashion. From the beginning, like everyone says about college, it exposes you to things you have never even pondered before. For me, professors like Lucia Phinney and Robin Dripps really taught me to be investigative, explorative and innovative and to use new materials in new ways. U.Va. definitely influenced me. It’s where I’m from. It’s how I think.
Q: As you moved into fashion design, what surprised you most?
A: To me, the biggest shock was cutting through that layer of exclusivity and buying trends and realizing that fashion is actually based around artisan craftsmen and people who are interested in new materials. I really didn’t know that; I really thought it was about shopping, trends and magazines, and all about looking good.
I’m so glad I am on the other side of that now, because I was definitely not a fan of that world. There is a core group of people who are doing new things, even if they are surrounded by a lot of PR. It’s cool to be able to be at the center and influencing new trends.
Q: Which elements of your architecture training do you still use today?
A: In Architecture School, we learned how to sketch by hand, how to examine the site and how to use Photoshop, 3-D design software and computer-aided design programs. I use all of those all of the time with what I do now. Admittedly, my 3-D modeling skills are a little rusty, but I have a great staff to help me out.
The whole process of design, starting from initial conception to final built work, was outlined in school and that is the process that I still continue to use to this day.
Q: When have you been most starstruck?
A: To be honest, I don’t sit around with stars, most of the time. I mainly just get the order from their styling team and then ship it out. Probably the most starstruck I have ever been is any time I work with Bjork’s team. That’s the biggest, most inspiring celebrity I can think of.
Another thing – I’ve lived in New York for five years now. A lot of my friends are musicians and artists who are now influencing their industries. Maybe I don’t get to hang out with Beyoncé, but I hang out with a lot of musicians I love, and that’s pretty cool.
Q: Today’s event has talked a lot about big visions. What are some of your big visions for the future of Chromat?
A: I’m really interested in wearable tech. Going back to Architecture School, they instilled the expectation that buildings should do work for the people that are in the buildings. That is the expectation that I bring to fashion. I really do feel that clothing is the first layer on your body, it’s the first place that could be adapting and changing as your environment does. Fashion technology is hopefully going to continue to evolve into this enhancement and augmentation of your experience with reality.
Q: What about in the fashion industry? What changes do you want to be a part of?
A: Diversity is so important to me. We’ve used plus-sized models, trans models, models of color and that’s so powerful to me, to be able to highlight inspirational people in my life. When you look down a runway and they use 99 percent skinny white girls, I’m like, “What reality do you live in? Are you not inspired by and exposed to all of these different ways of thinking?” I want to highlight that and I want to show my influences and my inspirations.
Q: What Charlottesville or U.Va. favorites are you hoping to return to this trip?
A: I am going back to the Architecture School tomorrow. My inspiration, since the beginning, has been one of my professors, Lucia Phinney, so I am bringing my fiancé Christine to visit her house, which she designed with another professor, her wife Robin Dripps. They collaborated on this amazing architectural structure, and I’m so excited to see it.
Q: Any parting advice you want to give to current U.Va. students?
A: Find your niche. Find who makes you feel creative and who pushes you and inspires you. Don’t worry about fitting in.