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Why Fashion is More Than Just ‘Looking Cute’: OFA Hosts Chromat Founder Becca McCharen-Tran

Becca McCharen-Tran
Becca McCharen-Tran By Courtesy of The Office For the Arts at Harvard
By June K. Park, Contributing Writer

In an intimate conversation transcending the physical constraints of Zoom, Becca McCharen-Tran — founder of the fashion label Chromat — challenged audience members to think of fashion as more than just “looking cute and buying clothes at the mall.” On March 3, the Office for the Arts and other partner organizations welcomed the Harvard community to explore the intersection of fashion, architecture, identity, and social justice with McCharen-Tran. Moderated by QuInterns Annie A. Harrigan ’22 and Ellie M. Taylor ’22 from the Office for BGLTQ Student Life, the event featured interactive communication between the audience members and McCharen-Tran, with questions about her ground-breaking work making fashion more inclusive, social responsibilities of the fashion industry, advice to upcoming artists, and more.

The event is part of a series of in-person discussions hosted by the Office of Arts to introduce the diverse world of arts to the Harvard community. Although this event was conducted entirely over Zoom, the in-person, intimate conversational atmosphere was recreated when audience members logged on to hear remixes of Megan Thee Stallion from Chromat’s runway show playlist.

McCharen-Tran’s fashion label is dedicated to creating “future-forward bodywear,” especially inclusive swimwear for every type of body. Since Chromat’s founding in 2010, McCharen-Tran has been challenging the norms of fashion and what she calls “sample size models” by featuring models of all body types, genders, ages, and backgrounds — even when it was less popular to do so. Each piece of swimwear, from simple bikinis to complex, corset-like cage pieces, draws upon McCharen-Tran’s unique architecture background, all the while making a statement of inclusivity and empowerment for its wearers.

According to Raúl Cornier, one of the event organizers and Administrative Assistant at the Office for the Arts, Chromat’s message in the fashion world was what caught their eye. “Their message of inclusion, body acceptance, representation, and responsible manufacturing and sourcing are topics of interest to the Harvard community, be it students, staff, and faculty,” Raul said.

While other fashion labels tend to go for a unisex, block box t-shirt look when integrating gender inclusivity and neutrality in their designs, McCharen-Tran wanted to do more. She cited her 2019 Spring/Summer collection, in which she reclaimed wet t-shirts from the male gaze and awkward eighth grade pool party experiences for all body types by printing wet t-shirts directly on traditionally highly gendered swimwear. McCharen-Tran went on to explain that, at first, salespeople didn’t understand her runways celebrating all different body types and gender types. She wanted to create inclusive, diverse swimwear and to open up “the dream” to a wider audience.

Taylor said, “I was really excited and inspired by how Becca is actively working to ungender athletic wear. Her efforts to make swimwear that is affirming and celebratory of all bodies is pushing the fashion industry in a direction that gives me hope.”

According to McCharen-Tran, if Chromat’s mission in the past decade was showing that all different people are fashionable and deserve to be in high fashion spaces, the next chapter has become tackling systemic problems like worker’s rights and ethical production in the fashion industry. “Sustainability is also about how you treat your workers,” she said.

Asked about how the pandemic affected Chromat, McCharen-Tran described how she used this opportunity to try something different instead of a traditional runway show. She helped create a fashion film called “Joy Run,” which tells the stories of two transgender high school athletes who were banned from high school sports. The short film was part of a collection that was created to challenge “Olympics’ bullshit” definition of gender in athletics.

Some students were inspired by McCharen-Tran’s advice that there are no late bloomers in art. “I have always had love for fashion and was completely starstruck when I heard Becca answer my question,” said Erika Smith `23. “It was really inspiring to see someone in a field that I want to pursue in the future. Who knows? I think I'm going to finally start drawing.”

Asked about what he hoped that students took away from this conversation with McCharen-Tran, Cornier said, “That there is more to fashion as an industry and a field than pretty dresses, although there is nothing wrong with that too, but more as a way to express their personal style through this variety of people who are presenting similar messages and ideas that people respond to.” And for many people, Chromat is that very fashion label, embodying diversity and inclusivity.

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