My hunt for Sex Tech at CES 2015 paid off when I encountered Becca McCharen. With a pair of scissors tattooed on her shoulder and hands like a bunch of bananas, Becca banters with her crew of exquisites and eccentrics and it’s about as incongruous as an artificial happening can get in a vomit-and-claret-walled corridor leading into a conference room that’s definitely its vice-versa opposite, with garish gold leaf paneling right out of Mad Men. The Sands Hotel, bay-bay! The ghost of Sinatra haunts. And the blow-ups and graphics are very in-your-face BDSM-influenced apparel, modeled by big women and men dressed up as women. Even some of the fashion trendies are kind getting sort of blush-ish. Moments of what Bill Hicks used to call heterosexual panic.
Nobody uses models like McCharen. Her cage clothing is shown off by models Sam Mae, Gemma Fleming. Brittany Bass, Brittany Marie Wainscott and the bizarrely stunning Sarah Jean Simmons; amazons and men in shiny PVC, 13-inch stiletto heels that could rip out the heart of the most tightly-wrapped public servant at the treasury.
“Mah! Mah! Mah!” she says. “M-m-m-mah! Mah! Mah!”
I think the Camelot architecture is bringing out the Virginia in her. The queer fashion designer, Becca is a fashion star with an architecture degree and a clear tendency toward absolutely relishing the way that she is the incipient antithesis of everything the building around her, and the occasion, epitomizes. And I don’t mean it because she’s queer. After all, this town was Liberacé’s happy home and, as far as I can tell, every kind of vice will suffice.
The thing is, even if Becca lives and prospers in New York City and her brilliant designs are worn and happily hawked by Grimes and Beyoncé, Tyra Banks, Iggy Azalea and Nicky Minaj, and her strap-shouldered suits a sensation on Madonna, she’s still a fish out of water here. I don’t know her, per sé, but she’s easily accessible via Instragram, Twitter, Facebook and Linked-in. The distance between Becca and her fans is, as best as I can put it, aloofly passionate. All the other fashion folk here are pretty much unapproachable and guarded by paranoid professionals. As an eccentric, Becca attracts other eccentrics and, although I’m certain she recognizes the inherent danger in such situations, she willingly rolls with it.
Angela, a skittish blonde in her crew, sees it all as charisma. “She is brave and she attracts brave customers and models.” Well, she certainly draws a lot of strong, no-bullshit women to her cause in Beyoncé, Madonna and the one and only fantastic Missy Elliott, who I seem to have missed yesterday. In the end, though, it’s your work that has to be good beyond any gimmickry you might get yourself noticed for at the beginning.
Trained in architecture and design at the University of Virginia, having graduated in 2007, McCharen described herself as being unfulfilled after picking up her degree. Having joined the Peace Corps she went to El Salvador, but caught dengue fever after only three months in country. It was so severe she had to be sent home for treatment in DC. While recuperating at his parents’ home in Lynchburg, she ended up working in what she described as a “depressing” municipal design job. At the same time, a friend’s daughter who lived in New York City opened a fashion pop-up show, International Playground, and asked for a consignment of the odd, quirky clothes Becca had been designing and sewing herself as a hobby. Orders kept coming in for her work, and the rest is a sort of fairy tale as she moved from Virginia to Chinatown and kept getting orders.
I ask her what exactly ‘Structural experimentation for the human bod,’ as stated on her website actually means. She notices my fascination with her scissors tattoo. “It’s still new to me to be designing, drawing, cutting, sewing, making things I love.” Her retail label, Chromat, is a sensation. Its website, which, she says, she “interferes with” every day, gets literally hundreds of thousands of hits from around the world. With all her clothes supposedly made by hand, I wonder where she finds the time. The bralette, even the BDSM hoods she makes, although you’re not supposed to wear anything else with them, are complex and clearly take many hours to construct, by both machine and hand chromat.com.
One of the most interesting aspects of all this is just how many people here are from so many diverse places and have saved their pennies to be here. Not just the fashion wannabes, but odd birds who make their own odd fashions from places like Saskatoon and Scranton, the tall man from Sault St. Marie in a Jessica Rabbit dress and a lady who wears her dagger point bra over her shiny red silk blouse from Goshen, Indiana.
No doubt, they’re all here because of the laissez faire full chocolate box world of social media. What the difference is between a fetish and a subculture beats me. The Dada-esque and the avant-garde in the blender with capitalism and maybe even free shipping. Chromat’s customers are everywhere. Being queer is not going to make you live outside the mainstream in the world of fashion, to be sure, but McCharen is definitely locked into something more definite and concrete vis-a-vis models, gender, race and, more than anything, body size.
“So do you always model your own stuff for yourself first?”
“Sure. I’m a sample 8 or 10, while the models are, like, 4—and it’s great to have my own version of everything, I am my own Chromat.”