It’s nice. It’s warm. We’re in a good mood. Hearing those words from the mouth of a New Yorker and recent transplant to South Florida, it’s a wonderful reminder of the charms of subtropical life. Sitting with poolside at the Casa Marina with Chromat founder Becca McCharen-Tran, I can’t help but think how the designer marries the luxury of Flagler’s resort with the subversive spirit of the Key West iconoclast. I followed her career in New York, as the brand skyrocketed from their Brooklyn studio to swimwear fame, to the New York Fashion Week runways.
McCharen-Tran and her wife Christine, who deejays and produces Chromat runway shows, relocated to Miami after launching the fast-growing fashion brand in 2010. Since its inception, Chromat has shown at New York Fashion week ten times, dressed Beyonce for the Super Bowl Halftime Show, and been the only brand at Barney’s carrying size XXXL for women (now XXXXL). McCharen-Tran has popped down to the Keys several times since relocating to South Florida, and her aesthetic and attitude speak to our islands’ commitment to self-definition. We are independent, countercultural, creative, with a dash of outcast. “We” includes Becca McCharen-Tran.
“Being here has changed my perspective on swimwear, because I swim every single day,” says McCharen-Tran. “I am living the lifestyle more than I could have ever dreamed—I love it. It’s become a New York City refuge, and seeing it 24/7 has helped me grow as a designer.” A Chromat swim black bandeau top peeks out from under her Nike windbreaker.
Effortless, sure, and I refuse to use the word “edgy.” Chromat’s Spring/Summer 2019 line, SATURATION, is inspired by the awkward, teenage experience of being thrust into a bathing suit. That moment by the pool when we notice our belly, our hair, our bodies. The team at Chromat embraced the awkwardness of the giant wet security blanket t-shirt, and made it fashion.
“I thought back to what it was like to be in middle school and be embarrassed and uncomfortable in your own skin. And I wanted to reinterpret and flip that moment of vulnerability.” McCharen-Tran collaborated with photographer Dana Scruggs for the design, using Scruggs’ photos for the fabric pattern.
“As a queer designer,” says McCharen-Tran, “Erasing the male gaze from what we do is important.” When she speaks of her designs, she doesn’t describe the skin-baring, cut-out, and—one might say—sexy, looks in those terms. Her background guides not just by beauty, but utility. As an architecture student at UVA and architect in Portland, McCharen-Tran learned lessons about structure that would inform her unforeseen career as a designer.
“I started doing Chromat for fun,” she says, “and I was doing very structural stuff, cages, and it was like scaffolding for the body. That became the foundation and the language for what we do now.” As Chromat grew from a passion—and potential side hustle—to an in-demand and buzzed-about new brand, their swimwear succeeded most.
“It’s a perfect category for us, because so much of our mission is about empowering women and femmes and non-binary people, and it’s such a vulnerable thing.”
While McCharen-Tran set out to make apparel, she ended up thrust into the spotlight as a poster girl for diversity and inclusion. Photos of Chromat’s runway shows at high profile events like New York Fashion Week and Miami Swim Week took the internet like wildfire. Chromat’s models—called “#ChromatBABES”—might be described as “unconventional beauties,” though they represent the beauty that routinely walks among us. Women of a range of ages, shapes, genders and non-binary definitions, capabilities and colors ruled the runway with moxie and, que scandal!, great style.
“It’s funny because when we started, we were super weird and different,” McCharen-Tran recalls. “We debuted five years ago at Miami Swim Week, and there were lots of florals and ruffles, and we were doing all black, and it was a little bondage-y, and I remember being like Oh God, we are so different, and then our stuff popped up on trend boards.” Beyond architecture, she cites inspiration in watersports: surfing and wakeboarding, swimming, and Chromat released an entire collection based on Flyboarding (look it up on YouTube).
And she isn’t a stranger to swimming upstream. In 2018, McCharen-Tran penned a hot-button opinion piece for Out, taking on the status quo in swimwear and self image. Titled “Victoria’s Secret: The Empire Built on Women Hating Themselves,” her words evoke the self-loathing that lives in plenty of us: the envy of those leggy models and the desire to emulate them, even when we know better. We were devoted followers of their fantasy, she writes. When I described my own teenage identification with the Victoria’s Secret phenomena—taping photos of the likes of Helena Christensen on the fridge—she laughs with familiarity. “It’s so psychotic and so normal.”
The CEO of Victoria’s Secret at the time, Ed Razek, had stated that there wasn’t room for transgender or plus-sized models in the “fantasy” the brand was promoting.
“We don’t see them as a fantasy,” says McCharen-Tran. “It’s good to see the old guard lose some power.”
At moments, her accidental activism has overshadowed her true ambition. While straight size designers are called to speak about their garments, she is asked to speak about diversity. “Since the very beginning, people have really focused on the models, and in a way I was kind of like ‘This sucks,’ because no one is paying real attention to what we are making.”
The silver lining? While everyone else is talking about them, McCharen-Tran and her team are innovating. She is continuing to explore functionality, trying out designs in athletic contexts, using new mannequins in the studios (“Drafting on multiple sizes is so beneficial.”), and reevaluating how the environment shapes her designs.
“One thing that really hit me moving here is climate change. It’s an every day reality, and it’s not an abstract concept. It made me think about my participation in environmental destruction.” While Chromat has long used sustainable fabric—they even use fabric made from regenerated nylon spun from fishing nets and plastic bottles—they are seeking new ways to address industry-wide practices like using toxic dyes. A worthy mission for a brand named after the root of “color,” growing from McCharen-Tran’s “obsession with monochromatic color schemes.”
Indeed, Chromat can still be described as “singular,” even as the brand explores a multiplicity of styles, inspirations, and wearers. Before we part, McCharen-Tran upends expectations accordingly.
“Oh, do you have any connections with marine scientists?” she asks. “I’m looking for models.”
To shop, visit Kith, The Standard, or Forty Five Ten in Miami. Or avoid the drive and visit chromat.co/.