Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the second profile in a five-part series in celebration of International Women's Day.
Last summer, Chromat designer Becca McCharen-Tran was walking down Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when she saw a man wearing one of her pieces.
It wasn't one of the neon-colored bodysuits or structural cages made famous by Chromat fans such as Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. Instead, the man had on a pair of jeans she had made out of her apartment nearly a decade before.
“I couldn’t believe it,” McCharen-Tran said during a phone interview with The Daily Beast. “I thought, ‘Was that what I think it was?’ I turned around and saw the back. I had sewed those jeans in my living room out of T-shirts I got at Goodwill in Lynchburg, Virginia.”
As old guard labels tiptoe much too slowly (if at all) into attempts at diversifying runways, many credit Chromat as Exhibit A of what the scene should look like.
Some of the brand's go-to NYFW models—known affectionately on Instagram as #ChromatBabes—include Erika Hart, a queer sex educator and breast cancer survivor who displayed her mastectomy scars during a show last September, Mama Cax, an activist and blogger who glamorously documents life as an amputee, and Maya Mones, a trans DJ who has one of the best runway walks in the biz.
These events have become part of Chromat's DNA while also reinvigorating the institution of fashion week as a whole. As McCharen-Tran put it, “I wish I could bottle that energy and happiness, when everyone is cheering backstage and congratulating each other, and drink that throughout the year.”
The fashion world is full of 18-year-old child prodigies who could backstitch before they could ride a bike; McCharen-Tran was not one of them. She was born in Burlington, VT. Her father was a computer programmer and her mother was a nurse, both lifelong Southerners who “escaped” north after marriage.
McCharen-Tran's mother enjoyed sewing outfits for her young daughter, and tried to teach her sewing basics. She rebelled, not wanting to take orders from her mom. “We would always get into fights about it,” she remembered.
At 12, her parents packed up and moved the family—McCharen-Tran and a younger brother—down south to Lynchburg, Virginia. Coming from homogeneous, “super white” Burlington, the culture shock was palpable.
“In school, the black kids would hang out and the white kids would hang out, and there was not a lot of integration,” she said. “The segregation was so visible when I moved to Virginia.”
McCharen-Tran was athletic, which enabled her to make friends with a wide range of kids. In the spring, she was on the track team, where her coach and many of her teammates were black. Come fall, she was playing soccer, which was a “pretty white” crowd. She found herself fluidly moving through different social groups. “It was interesting seeing the different groups, and how everyone was treated. I think I became interested in social justice for that reason,” she said.
She had a Vogue subscription, but there weren't many other outlets for her artsiness in the “pre-Project Runway” era. The goal was to be a beautiful girl with clear skin and long, shiny hair,” she explained. “On an aspirational level, that’s who every girl wanted to be. But [that] was not who I was.”
Chasing the cookie-cutter ideal of what an all-American girl should be, McCharen-Tran got a part-time job working at Express. “My interpretation of what fashion was back then was buying stuff,” she said. “Going to the mall and wearing cool clothes was the extent of my fashion knowledge.”
A good student who loved math and calculus class, McCharen-Tran set her sights on architecture, and enrolled at the University of Virginia in 2002. She enjoyed playing around with different building materials, making models, and sketching layouts.
If high school was slightly uncomfortable, college was “a really fun, creative time” in her life. “I met gay people—out gay people—for the first time,” said McCharen-Tran. “That became an avenue of identity that I could understand.”
A lesbian couple who both worked as professors in the architecture department became early mentors. McCharen-Tran remembers the two as ridiculously chic, wearing all black, with white Commes des Garçons sneakers. Their faculty house was filled with scaffolding and panels that could move with the sun.
In McCharen-Tran’s words, “they were out there,” and she wanted to be, too. She began making her own clothes by cutting up T-shirts she got at Goodwill or Joann's Fabrics, her only two options for art supplies.
She eventually came out, identifying as queer, and started dating her first girlfriend. Despite the community she built at UVA, at home she found herself having to defend herself around more religious family members.
“My parents are really supportive now,” she explained. “But they had to come around. They had a minister at their church who was gay-friendly at one point, and they were very excited about that.”
McCharen-Tran found an on-campus job as a seamstress in the drama department, and immersed herself in the work. “Anything you could think of, I made it,” McCharen-Tran said. UVA put on many Shakespearean shows, so she ended up sewing corset after corset.
The pieces she made backstage reminded her of the scaffolding she learned about in architectures classes.“Coming from architecture and engineering, I’m super-interested in creating these functioning tools,” she explained. “In architecture, buildings can heat and cool, open and close, do all this stuff related to the user. I like to think of clothing in the same way. It’s a tool that you can utilize to regulate your temperature, or communicate, or do all these things.”
After college, McCharen-Tran worked in Lynchburg’s City Hall, focusing on urban planning. She approved subdivision proposals and community development projects by day and sewed at night. Most of what she did in City Hall focused on the long-term plans. But when she was off-the-clock, she could make a dress in hours.
“I liked the immediacy of clothing,” she said. “It’s the same kind of design process as [city planning], just another outlet on a different scale.”
Virginia Craddock, the daughter of a friend, was a graduate of New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Her parents put her in touch with McCharen-Tran, and Craddock liked the corsets and cone bras that would be part of Chromat’s first collection. By the winter of 2010, Craddock's store International Playground carried Chromat.
To her surprise, stock kept selling out. “I wondered, ‘Who’s buying this stuff?,’” she chuckled. She quit her job and moved to New York, crashing on a friend’s couch before settling into her own place in Bushwick.
McCharen-Tran didn’t have a staff, but she eventually hired two interns from Craigslist to work out of her bedroom. “I’m lucky to have lived in a very creative community where I was surrounded by other poor artists,” she reminisced. “Everyone I knew was going to bars that had free food. The bars where you buy a drink and get free pizza, that was my life.”
International Playground ultimately became both a permanent showroom, which meant that Chromat had a staff of PRs pitching Chromat to press and stylists.
In 2012, a stylist working with Madonna on that year’s Super Bowl halftime show reached out asking for Chromat samples. The team stopped everything and shipped off pieces. McCharen-Tran planned a Super Bowl party and invited friends. They crowded around her TV during the halftime show, but Madonna wasn't wearing Chromat.
“It was the worst,” McCharen-Tran recalled. “People were like, ‘Wow, these barbecue wings are delicious!’ It was so mortifying.”
A year later, McCharen-Tran was in the middle of planning for her first New York Fashion Week. Then she got a call from Beyoncé’s team, along with quite a bit of déjà vu: Could she send 40 harnesses for backup dancers to wear onstage at the Super Bowl?
“We were like, ‘Oh shit,’” McCharen-Tran said. “But you can’t say no to Beyoncé, of course, so we stopped everything.” She tapped old interns and friends to come in and help cut and sew before sending everything out in just a few days.
All the while, she was working on samples for her imminent NYFW debut. On deadline, and not wanting a repeat of the Madonna fiasco, McCharen-Tran opted out of a Super Bowl party. While Beyoncé’s dancers wore her creations onstage, she was in her studio, making shoes.
It wouldn’t be all that much of an exaggeration to categorize Chromat’s success following Beyoncé’s Super Bowl as meteoric. The same year, Beyoncé wore the label for The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. Taylor Swift and Zendaya wore Chromat corsets for the music video to “Bad Blood.” FKA Twigs and Nicki Minaj tapped McCharen-Tran’s designs for editorials.
But 2013 was not just a milestone for the brand; it was also a personal best year for McCharen-Tran. One night just after her fall fashion show, she met Christine Tran, co-founder of female DJ collective Discwoman at a party in Brooklyn.
A friend tried to set her up with one of Tran's friends. “I ended up talking to Christine more,” the designer admitted. A personal and professional relationship began almost immediately; soon they were both on Chromat's September show together, where Tran led production design.
“I’m an artist and like anyone creating output, I can be insecure or confused about the monster phase with the work,” McCharen-Tran admitted. “Christine really balances me out by thinking about logistics and letting me be creative. She's so on top of her shit.” The couple married in 2016 and combined their surnames.
Though McCharen-Tran is proud of leading a brand that has become synonymous with making the industry less exclusive, she continues to hope that one day her shows won’t be quite so newsworthy.
“I definitely had a lot of feelings about it, especially when we were first starting out,” she admitted. “I was really excited making these garments, you know, and all the press would be about the models. But wait, what about the clothes! I spent six months working on this! Why do the models. . .?”
“It shouldn’t be a press issue, it should just be normalized,” she said. “I find people who cast all white models more shocking, and more press-worthy. That should be focused on more than diversity.”
McCharen-Tran added that, “We’ll see more true diversity when the designers and the decision-makers are truly diverse. It’s one thing [for a brand] to have a black model in [its] runway show, but to have a black woman photographer, or a Native American makeup artist, that will be a really, really exciting next step.”
Amidst all the Chromat love, there is one element of the brand fans have asked McCharen-Tran to work on.
“Our biggest complaint, basically, is that we’re too expensive,” McCharen-Tran said. (The least expensive Chromat piece is a $60 T-shirt; most bathing suits retail between $250 and $320.)
“It’s frustrating [because] I want to be able to pay people a fair wage to make the garments, but I also want people to be able to buy them at a price they can afford. My belief system informs what we do, but we still have to make money to survive,” she said.
With no investors footing the bill, McCharen-Tran and her team have to think about money all too often. “People might think that we're big and well-known, but the budgets are not big,” she admitted.
After eight years in the New York fashion scene, McCharen-Tran started to feel a little burned out. “I sometimes felt like I was on a hamster wheel from collection to collection to collection to collection to collection,” she said. The feeling prompted a move to Miami, Florida, last year, which has allowed her to focus on the future of her brand.
“Being in Miami has helped me to think in the bigger picture,” she said. “What is the point of all this? What do I really want to accomplish with Chromat?”
McCharen-Tran has “someday plans” for a life outside of fashion. “In an ideal world” she would become a visual artist creating Chromat-esque sculptures and installations; “in a realistic world,” she would love to teach.
She's not sure what subject, but quickly rattled off a few ideas: “Into to making hands-on stuff, critical theory, or marketing—basically teaching what I've learned running my own brand.”
For now, she's more than happy with where Chromat is going. The label's recent fall NYFW show was inspired by McCharen-Tran's own reckoning with how the fashion industry contributes to environmental devastation. It's a topic she accepted with urgency after getting involved with Miami's FemmePower, a creative collective in Miami that was part of a panel at Art Basel called “Miami 2040,” a series of panels of imagining what global warming's effects will look like in twenty years.
Though she hopes her designs start to eclipse the hype surrounding her casting, McCharen-Tran does not want to lose that heritage.
“At the end of the day, I just want for anyone who comes across our brand to feel accepted, to feel seen, to feel empowered by what we do,” she said. “I guess I just want people to think that the fashion industry is for them, and that they can participate in it.”