Becca McCharen, the boundary-pushing designer behind the fashion label Chromat, bills her clothes as “structural experiments for the human body.” With a background in architecture and urban design, McCharen turns outfits into infrastructure; the spatial dimensions of the body are only a starting point.
“Clothing should act as a tool or a machine to make your body the strongest version of yourself,” says McCharen, whose collections include pieces called “cages,” “cuffs” and “crowns.”
Now, as part of her ongoing collaboration with Intel, Chromat can create clothes that mimic the emotions and sensations of the bodies inside. McCharen believes in responsive design, those principles on full display in the Fall/Winter 2016 collection, “Lumina,” which she presented earlier this month as part of New York Fashion Week.
>>Watch the Chromat runway show below in virtual reality with Google Cardboard on your smartphone and headphones>>
At Milk Studios, her models—including the artist Juliana Huxtable and fellow fashion designer Iris King—entered in quick succession, their bodies illuminated by dresses lined with neon lights, bright beams of color that flashed courtesy of a wireless response built into a stretchable sensor glove.
“I was thinking of bioluminescence,” McCharen told me when we spoke about her influences. “In the natural world, organisms use light to communicate, for connection and protection. We wanted the models to control their own lighting, so that when she clenched her fist the sensors detected a change and triggered the lighting to power on and power off.”
Todd Harple, the director of Innovation and Pathfinding Strategy in Intel’s New Devices Group, works with McCharen to bring her inspirations to her runways. Last season, they developed the “Adrenaline Dress,” a design that ran algorithms based on sensor information like respiration, perspiration, and body temperature, the physical manifestations of adrenaline morphing and adapting the 3D-printed garment as it was worn.
This season, Harple and McCharen spoke about the need for a subtle, simple way to activate the lights as a form of communication. For Harple, it’s not about what he calls “tech for tech’s sake.” Instead, the focus is on McCharen’s intentions: “Becca takes chances,” he explains. “She’s excited to incorporate technology and it’s an exciting experience for us, because we keep finding new ways to do it, to highlight things in a visceral and immediate way. It’s a great way to showcase what we can do with new materials, technology, and a garment.”
McCharen says technology has traditionally been too focused on building devices that don’t share relations with the body. “People have been making technology that works on a phone or a computer, but those are hard stationary objects,” she explains. “The hardware is hard, and something that close to the body has to be soft and flexible.” Her version of wearable technology is based on communication and accessibility: the technology is the tool for connections, not the connection itself.
With that in mind, this season Chromat and Intel began to use Intel’s RealSense 3D camera to take full-body scans for individual customizations. “It’s a total game-changer in all experiential senses,” says McCharen, who also produced a virtual-reality experience for her runway show.
“This could completely change how you shop for clothes, how you see clothes, how you experience the world.”
She compares it to couture, suggesting that this could be first step to breaking down the traditionally elitist ideas of high fashion. “In the future, when people want to have garments that fit well, no matter their body size, they’ll be able to download the files online, apply it to their body scan, and print it out in the color of their choice.”
On the runway, Chromat’s collections display a future for clothing that goes beyond simple aesthetics or basic protection from the elements. In McCharen’s work, we can see the body as an organic machine—humans might not have lights that glow to communicate our interior motives, but we have our learned social cues, relying on visual and auditory expressions to share what we’re thinking or feeling.
Chromat, with Intel, is creating clothing that can be a social interface, a whole new dimension to the way we interact and access our relationships with the world around us. It is, as McCharen intended, clothing that both works for the body, and clothing that works the body.