This Fashion Line Is The Wearable Equivalent Of A Robert Irwin Installation

For New York Fashion Week, Chromat debuted responsive garments inspired by conceptual art, bioluminescence, and more.


Fashion designers like to look ahead, predicting the colors, prints, and silhouettes that will be in demand a year or two later. Becca McCharen aims much farther into the future, conceiving of designs that question how apparel can do more than simply “clothe” a person. She calls her fashion brand Chromat “structural experiments for the body.”


“Coming from an architectural background, I see clothing as doing work for the body—an additional tool to enhance performance,” she says.

For her AW16 collection—dubbed Lumina—the self-described “mad scientist” used Intel’s Curie module (a button-sized wearable) and StretchSense‘s flexible sensors—which she likens to “rubber bands as Bluetooth”—to create a tech-infused collection that glows in response to movement.

Lumina draws influences from biology; designer and color theorist Josef Albers; and light and space artist Robert Irwin.

Irwin originally began his career in the 1950s as a painter, but started working with sculpture in the 1970s. He abandoned traditional studio practice, instead opting to create “site-conditioned” pieces that respond to their surroundings. One of his most pivotal works was called Fractured Light—Partial Scrim Ceiling—Eye Level Wire, which was composed of gauzy fabric that captures light in an unexpected way. In 1984, Irwin, along with James Turrell, became among the first 3-D visual artists to receive MacArthur Genius grants.

Last year, the modern art museum Dia:Beacon installed Irwin’s 1998 piece called Excursus: Homage to the Square³—a series of rooms divided by semi-transparent scrims and punctuated with vertically hung fluorescent lights—which McCharen visited. That Irwin’s installation was about non-hierarchical space and featured differently hued lights based on Albers’s color theory—especially a quote about color representing infinite possibility—resonated with McCharen.

According to Chromat’s blog:


Every Chromat garment draw cues from the intersections and joints of the body. Like Irwin, we believe in an anarchy and accessibility of design. We believe technology and adaptive garments will change fashion and create a completely customizable, accessible new world.

McCharen has collaborated with Intel in the past to create adaptive garments, like a sports bra that senses a wearer’s body temperature and opens vents in response. For this collection, she integrated polychromatic light panels with the clothing that flash on and off.

The sensors are incorporated into gloves that the models wore. Clenching a fist wirelessly triggers the sensor, which tells the Curie module to switch the light on or off. “We wanted the models to be in control of their body on the runway,” McCharen says. “We were looking at boxing hand wraps as the inspiration for the gloves’ design and bringing that physical power into [the models’] world.”

Serichai Traipoom

Though she has experimented with silhouettes, structure, materials, and technology in her past collections, McCharen hadn’t explored color as much. Her research lead her to bioluminescence.

In the wild, bioluminecense exists for myriad reasons: to attract prey, to find mates, or as a defense mechanism. Riffing on that notion, McCharen shows how the luminous tech integration can add an additional layer of expressiveness to a garment.

“It’s so interesting seeing new developments in science that help us understand the natural world and how organisms use their physical form to function at all levels,” she says. “Scientists still don’t know every purpose bioluminescence serves. There are all these hidden languages [scientists] are unlocking—and we’re and bringing that to fashion … We wanted the models to be able to communicate for themselves.”

Some of the most intriguing experimental fashion designs explore how clothes can take cues from the natural world to become more functional, like a feathered jacket that moves to tell the wearer which direction she’s facing or a spiky jacket that bristles, like a porcupine, to divert an onlooker’s gaze. In the case of Lumina, biomimicry becomes an unexpected source of beauty.


All Photos: via Chromat

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.