Han Chong Of Self-Portrait On Success And The Future Of Fashion
A welcome staple at summer weddings and on red carpets, London-based, contemporary label Self-Portrait has become a household name in the six short years since its conception. At an alarmingly accessible price point (dresses retail around £300), the brand’s cult it-girl pieces remain favoured by ‘real people’ and royalty alike, both musical and traditional.
On a seemingly unstoppable quest for world domination, the dresses, unlike their publicity-shy creator, are subjected to constant media attention thanks to the brand's elite following. The luxury label is the brainchild of Han Chong, a young Malaysian-born designer with a penchant for art and sartorial beauty. Chong launched Self-Portrait in 2013, after co-founding Three Floor alongside Yvonne Hoang, yearning to explore his own creative vision undisturbed.
His latest spring-summer collection sees a deviation from the classic, ultra-feminine pieces we’ve come to expect from the brand. Han’s signature lace detailing is still there, softer this time, with a more relaxed, refined aesthetic. The collection forgoes formal wedding attire in favour of modern, desk-to-disco designs.
We chatted with Han about Self-Portrait’s rapid rise to success, updating house codes, and challenges to be faced by the next generation of young designers.
Sabrina Soormally: You come from quite humble beginnings, tell me how you go from a beef jerky shop in Penang to CSM and NYFW?
Han Chong: I was born and raised in Penang, Malaysia. By 18 I was studying art under a CSM graduate who made me open my eyes to a world beyond Penang and I moved to London to study womenswear design at CSM. After graduating I worked for several different brands and in 2011 I co-founded Three Floor. I decided to launch my own label, Self-Portrait in 2013.
SS: You’ve achieved a lot in a really short space of time, have things grown organically?
HC: I wanted to bring great design and quality at an accessible price point. The initial focus was establishing a brand-specific signature, and it helped the brand get noticed. Our designs consistently made it into red carpet events, worn by big celebrities and influencers. Our digital platform and social media really helped to bring awareness and helped the brand grow organically.
SS: What have you learned about yourself since the brand blew up? It must change your perception of reality when Beyoncé and Michelle Obama are wearing your designs.
HC: When I see women wearing our brand and hear how Self-Portrait was part of a special moment in their lives, it makes me incredibly proud and happy. As the brand is growing and evolving, so are our customers. I’m always very curious and conscious of what a real modern-day woman might want in her closet. It’s imperative for the brand to evolve while still maintaining our signature style. We always like to introduce new materials, silhouettes, textures and products. This continues to challenge me creatively as a designer, which is something I need.
SS: Who is the Self-Portrait woman?
HC: The Self-Portrait woman is not afraid to stand out and doesn’t want to blend in. She wants to light up with positivity. She’s feminine, yet unafraid to play with gender and clothes. We have some slightly more androgynous pieces with cleaner lines. I tried to design pieces you can wear to work, but at the same time, you go out and put your heels on, put your makeup on – quite a modern approach.
I find inspiration from the incredibly talented women that I know. How they live their lives, what challenges they face and how my clothes fit into these multifaceted lives. These are the things that continue to inspire me.
SS: Tell me about your design process. Your pieces are accessible but appeal to such a wide and varied market.
HC: I have always considered my collections to be feminine and modern that has been and will continue to be our foundation. Self-Portrait is inspired by contemporary culture and created for our girl, her life and to make her feel great.
Our team travels all over the world to source the newest fabrics each season. We spend a lot of time researching new techniques and constantly looking for ways to enhance our designs. Sometimes it can be the smallest details.
After the research stage, we create a mood board for the season. This helps me focus in on what I feel the Self-Portrait woman wants for that particular time. While designing I like to really be alone with my thoughts while I’m first sketching out the collection. After that, we start sampling the pieces then do fittings to see how it looks on a body. Then we make adjustments and corrections to the garments.
SS: Your work often focuses on intricate designs and feminine silhouettes; the latest collection feels like a deviation from that. The mood feels more modern, simple and a laid back kind of sexy – talk to me about SS20.
HC: For SS20, I focused more on optimism, simplicity and balance for our woman, while her wardrobe shifts and brightens as she resets her sights after winter. It has a palette of solid colours, vernal-fresh lilac, mid-tone khaki and clear-sky blue that complement one another.
The silhouettes are proportioned and streamlined, I wanted them to be effortless with wide collars and featherweight sleeve details, tops and jackets have a hint of a corset waist. This season we also used cotton poplin, vegan leather and our signature lace layered in, this sets a comfortable tone while building texture.
We also collaborated with the milliner, Noel Stewart, to create all-weather hats this season. The hats have curved, free-falling brims in varying lengths, I wanted the shapes and colours to be wearable for every day.
SS: You’re based in London, but show in New York. What excites you about NYFW?
HC: Each city has its strengths, and New York is one of the most energetic and incredible cities in the world. There’s a lot of diversity and power statements. I think it’s a very positive place to show and a benchmark for success as it’s really the gateway for us to reach the American retailer and wholesale market.
SS: I know that you can usually be found at your Mayfair store on a Saturday – that’s incredibly rare. What do you find to be the most beneficial aspect of staying involved from the ground level and up?
HC: I love to visit the flagship in Mayfair as it’s the best way to receive honest, direct feedback from customers and store staff. I like being behind the scenes but it’s more important to educate myself about customers and how they feel in the products.
SS: Your scholarship program with Central Saint Martins is about to launch this year. You’ve paved the way for a set of new, business savvy fashion designers. Tell me about how you think the industry has changed since you studied there.
HC: I’ve been through a lot and made mistakes, it’s a tough industry and often you only have a few chances. I’m determined to support creative talents in developing their business capabilities and to cultivate commercially visible brands, so when people have questions we can be there for them.
The industry today is becoming more transparent and accessible – making positive changes to welcoming talents from all backgrounds and supporting career opportunities.
SS: What’s next for Self-Portrait
HC: We want a brand that transcends category and geography. We want to continue to have a brand that empowers and celebrates our customers.
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