Inside the cult of Self-Portrait
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Buyers were in two minds about Han Chong’s debut fashion collection for Self-Portrait when he first presented it in 2013. It wasn’t the clothes – which already bore resemblance to the lacy and flattering designs he’s now known for – but their prices. They were deemed too affordable.
“At the time, there was no contemporary price point,” says Chong, 43, sitting in the glass-bound conference room of Self-Portrait’s new east London offices, a stone’s throw from where he launched the brand almost nine years ago.
Chong stuck to his prices, against advice from retailers, having spotted a gap in the market for high-quality womenswear that cost less than traditional luxury brands. His goal was to target a wide audience, and reasonable pricing was his linchpin. “All my friends couldn’t afford luxury but they didn’t want high-street quality… so I believed in this. I was super-focused.” Selfridges agreed to sell the brand at Chong’s suggested price points – and all the inventory was snapped up in the first week.
Today Chong heads a team of 80 across offices in the UK, Hong Kong and mainland China, and has a devoted global customer base who rely on him for his protean, polished and unapologetically feminine designs: open-work lace frocks in both modest and skin-baring cuts, glitzy separates, ribbed dresses in sculpting silhouettes, preppy knit jackets and skirts, ranging from £120 to £650. “Han’s clothes stretch and they move, they were made for real bodies,” says stylist Kate Young, who has dressed stars such as Selena Gomez and Dakota Johnson in Self-Portrait.
Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, Chong studied at a local design college and worked under a designer in Kuala Lumpur before casting his eyes abroad. In 2005, he graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins with a degree in womenswear design before cutting his teeth at high-street retailers; he then co-founded Three Floor, where he served as creative director for two years before leaving to launch his own brand. (Three Floor, which occupied a similar price point and feminine aesthetic to Self-Portrait, shuttered in 2021.)
According to Chong, he started Self-Portrait “with no experience in business”, nor “rules for what was right or wrong”. He attributes its success not only to its sweet-spot pricing, but his razor-sharp focus in establishing a signature look. He launched his bestselling Azaelea dress – a spaghetti-strapped, lace-panelled number that has frequented red carpets and sold 100,000 units to date – in 2015. Subsequent similar lace styles helped “train” people to recognise the brand silhouette. Every time Self-Portrait entered a new category (be it childrenswear or bags), he ensured his designs were on the same page. “In this digital world, information is so accessible, so things you put out have to have a point of view.”
That perspective appeals to women across the style spectrum, including British make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench, who worked on Self-Portrait’s AW21 campaign featuring Bridgerton star Phoebe Dynevor. “Han is in a league of his own when it comes to designing luxury and beautifully crafted garments that are accessible to a much wider audience,” says Ffrench, who poses alongside the designer in the shoot for HTSI, together with musician and multimedia artist Rosey Chan and actress Sabrina Elba. “He really has an amazing eye for tailoring and giving women the silhouettes that they want in order to feel sexy.”
Despite being known for occasionwear rather than loungewear, Chong’s business grew as other brands struggled through the pandemic; sales for 2022 are already up 250 per cent from 2021, and 350 per cent from 2020. When lockdowns forced store closures in the UK, Chong was already pivoting to focus on China, inking a Rmb30mn (about $4.5mn) joint venture with local group Ellassay; the country is now Self-Portrait’s strongest market, and has seen an expansion of 40 stores in two years. When European cities reopened and small weddings became de rigueur, the brand fast-tracked a wedding capsule for smaller ceremonies and casual brides. Self-Portrait has now become the “go-to for weddings… whether it’s the contemporary bride or the guest opting for an easy-to-wear dress”, says Net-A-Porter senior market editor Libby Page.
Self-Portrait lace Magnolia midi dress, £400
Self-Portrait sequin mesh maxi dress, £450
Self-Portrait crepe chiffon minidress, £350
Self-Portrait cable-knit miniskirt, £230
This agile production system, taken from the high-street rulebook, allows Chong’s team to negotiate quick turnarounds and set competitive prices: Self-Portrait has produced capsules in six weeks (as opposed to three months) and frequently concocts exclusive colourways for retail partners.
The brand also closely follows sell-through on its direct-to-consumer channels, which make up 32 per cent of online sales; it keeps a certain number of bestselling styles on hand so risk-averse buyers can replenish their stock mid-season without going back to producers. “You have to think from the retailers’ point of view, about how you can help them. Our [direct-to-consumer business] is so strong, we have information to feed them,” Chong adds. “It’s a two-way thing.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason for Self-Portrait’s success is its ability to speak to a broad range of customers: Self-Portrait is beloved by the members of K-pop band Blackpink, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge, who sported a silk maxi dress by the brand to a London premiere in November 2016. “You’ll find something that’s great for the day, great for evening, and a broad spectrum of things that are structured or more feminine and flowy,” says Sinead McKeefry, stylist to clients including Claudia Winkleman and Fearne Cotton.
It’s clear that Chong knows what a woman wants – or, when she’s indecisive, how to help her choose. At the HTSI shoot, he helps style Chan in a co-ordinating cropped top and jacket, cut from shimmering gold bouclé, and a midi skirt. “For me, as a performer, clothes have to give me physical freedom, and self-confidence… Once I’m dressed I don’t want to have to think about it again and that’s what Han’s clothes give me,” says Chan. “He understands the female form and all its complexities.”
Now that China, Europe and the US top Self-Portrait’s list of key markets, Chong is looking at expansion in the Middle East. He’s creating Ramadan capsules and including modest designs through his seasonal collections. His success in China over the past two years has also upped his confidence in physical stores, which he says are crucial. This year, Self-Portrait will unveil a boutique on London’s King’s Road, adding to the existing Albemarle Street flagship and marking a shift towards localised neighbourhood presences.
He’s also diversifying. Late last year, Chong bought the luxury label Roland Mouret out of administration and is now rebuilding the company, with its eponymous designer, to sit alongside Self-Portrait in his fashion group, SP Collection. A moodboard in the new office offers tips as to the brand’s new direction, which Chong describes as sexy, versatile and modern: “Self-Portrait’s older sister.” The clothes will translate Mouret’s archives – clean-cut, sculpting silhouettes awash in bold colour — into a versatile wardrobe for occasions beyond red carpets and cocktail events. They’ll be made in the same factories as Self-Portrait but managed by new teams who can handle higher-end textiles like silk, wool and cashmere; pricing has also been restructured and will range from £295 to £1,300.
But don’t expect SP Collection to add any other players to its arsenal any time soon – before that happens, Chong wants to be confident that his infrastructure and brand-building experience can give Mouret’s label a new lease on life. But he assures fans that as SP Collection grows, there will be something for everyone. “It’s about building a 360-degree group for different women, so I have the opportunity to serve everyone.”
Pictured top: Self-Portrait founder Han Chong with (from left, all wearing the label) musician and multimedia artist Rosey Chan in lace maxi dress, £380, actress Sabrina Elba in mesh midi dress, £360, and make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench in diamanté and fishnet off-the-shoulder midi dress, £400. Talents, Isamaya Ffrench at Streeters, Rosey Chan and Sabrina Elba. Hair, Davide Barbieri at Caren using Balmain. Make-up, Isamaya Ffrench using Clé De Peau & Burberry Beauty. Make-up assistants, Natasha Sultana and Joe Brooks