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Conversations: Self-Portrait’s Han Chong Talks The Road To Success

(Plus, what he REALLY thinks about all those Self-Portrait copycat dresses out there in the market.)

We think Self Portrait’s Han Chong should really consider moonlighting as a fashion business lecturer. After all, he’s got plenty to teach. In just a little over two years, the London-based designer has brought his label to a level that many others take years, perhaps even decades to reach. Chong’s pretty and reasonably affordable lace dresses are such hits with everyone – and we really do mean everyone – that he has earned an audience spanning from the likes of Beyoncé and Rachel McAdams to social media’s It girls and, well, everyday girls like yours truly. It’s to the point that you know when you’re looking at a Self-Portrait dress. A signature aesthetic and an international audience under three years? It’s nothing short of impressive.

Of course, Self-Portrait’s success didn’t just drop out of nowhere. Plenty of careful research, putting in the time and amassing all the necessary experience and knowledge that it takes to run a clothing label – there are no shortcuts. Here, the Penang-born Chong talks about the secrets to his success, his expansive clientele and that one designer that he has plenty of questions for. (We also ask him about his thoughts on the scores upon scores of Self-Portrait replicas on the market.)

Was it difficult to start your brand?
I would say I got the experience I needed in the industry before I decided it was time for me to go on my own and start Self-Portrait. I had worked at several labels and eventually also started out Three Floor with two other partners. It definitely wasn’t easy coming out of my comfort zone and starting a brand entirely on my own, but I think it is important to understand that even if you want to have as much control as you can over your company, there is no way you can do everything alone. So, slowly from my past experiences, I met people and built my team.


It’s quite hard for Asian-based labels to break into the international market. Was your move to London a strategic one?
Pursuing my studies in London and eventually working and living permanently here has been the best decision I made. I am really lucky that I got my work experience in London, so I had connections that supported me when I started Self-Portrait.


You were from Penang originally and you went on to work in Kuala Lumpur before moving to London. Was it an easy move to make? I mean, there are many young people from our part of the world who want to start their own lives in the UK, for example, but are finding it hard to do so.
I definitely went through rough periods and adjusting to a completely new city without my family wasn’t easy. Penang is a really small town, so I had grown up with a very close community of people around me. However, I couldn’t see my future there. I knew I belonged elsewhere. So, when I had the opportunity to go to London, I jumped at it and I now call London my home. I didn’t know anyone in London then, but you just have to put yourself out there, meet people and make friends.


What do your parents think of your success back home? Are you a bit of a local celebrity?
[Laughs] Not really a celebrity, but I won’t deny that my family is very proud of me. They respect what I do and that is good enough for me.


When did Self-Portrait really take off? Was it something you expected or planned for?
We took off about a year after launching the brand. We were already doing well for a start, but it was until Selfridges picked us up, and then slowly other retailers like Net-a-Porter came along and we started being taken seriously as a brand.


One of the many reasons behind Self-Portrait’s success is your ability to create beautiful, quality clothing that don’t break the bank. It’s earned you the A-listers and the girls who follow them. Why do you think this model isn’t adopted more?
Costs to make a dress of good quality are extremely high these days, so even if brands wanted to adopt this business model, they simply cannot afford to if they want to make enough profit. It takes a lot of time and effort to source the right materials and techniques that do not cost a fortune. I spend weeks sourcing for fabric while working closely with my team in developing a print or fabric.


Your designs have been quite heavily copied. What are your thoughts about it? Are you an “imitation is the highest form of flattery” kind of guy?
I think [being copied] is something that is inevitable for every brand. It is flattering, but it is frustrating at the same time as it affects the business. A replica will show up no matter how hard you try to avoid it as factories are just that good these days and everything is so accessible. But I believe that if I continue to further develop my techniques, thoughtfully focus on every detail of a design, and work on coming up with fresh new ideas for my collections, it will be difficult for these factories to come up with a good replica.


Many celebrities have worn Self-Portrait. Which one was the one that really made you go, “OH MY GOD, IT THIS REAL LIFE”?
Beyoncé! She wore Self-Portrait recently at Wimbledon, so that’s a dream come true. But I feel just as excited when I see someone on the streets wearing my designs.


The Fall/Winter 2016 collection is slightly different from the usual Self-Portrait. It seems darker, edgier, more boyish.
It is definitely different from what people are used to seeing at Self-Portrait. Francis Bacon and his raw, emotional portraits inspired me. On top of this, I was thinking a lot about Charlotte Gainsbourg and how effortless she is. She is such a cool girl. So, it was a combination of the two.


Will Self-Portrait always be synonymous with lace, you think? What’s one thing we won’t see at the brand?
Lace is what we are known for, and it’s something I am comfortable and confident designing with. I think there are still many ways to explore lace, so yes. I guess you’ll never see something very hip-hop or over the top.


Your label’s called Self-Portrait, more to do with the art form than the selfie culture. Are there self-portrait artists whom you find particularly inspiring?
Yes, Francis Bacon, as I have mentioned. I find his portraits to be so emotional yet disturbing at the same time, and I get inquisitive, like “Who really is this guy?” That’s how powerful his portraits are to me.


Are you a social media kind of guy, though?
[Laughs] Yes. I manage @mrselfportrait myself. I love social media. It has definitely played a huge part in allowing us to gain an online presence, and I am curious to see where it will be heading towards in the time to come.


Self-Portrait has garnered an incredible amount of exposure and famous fans in the last two years. Is there someone whom you’d love to meet and have a good, proper conversation with?
John Galliano. I think he has such an intelligent mind and his work is far deeper than it seems, something that I find really admirable. I have so many questions I would love to ask him. Loved him at Dior. Loved what he did for his own brand. And it’s been mind-blowing following his journey all these years, especially now at Margiela. Three fashion houses with aesthetics and beliefs that are vastly different from each other, and yet he is able to understand them all so well.


Psst, we just got Facebook. Like us over here, maybe?

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