Self-Portrait’s Han Chong on dressing the “modern girl”

Monday, February 12 2018

Self-Portrait’s Han Chong on dressing the “modern girl”

Beyoncé in Self-Portrait
Image: Getty
If Chong’s success could be boiled down to a formula, it would be this: designs classic enough for anyone to appreciate, with a level of detailing you would expect from a luxury label—and at a far more accessible price point. (Dresses hover around the £300 mark.) “Han has an incredible eye for detail and this is very much reflected In his designs,” says Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at MyTheresa. “He has truly lead the way in statement dresses that are overtly feminine yet still maintain a contemporary edge.” The luxury e-tailer has stocked the brand since Spring/Summer 2016, increasing the number of styles they sell each season due to “the compelling sell-through rate.” “Self-Portrait is always conscious of price point. They’ve maintained their position as a contemporary brand who always deliver quality, design and practicality in a very competitive market.”
As a designer, Chong is not one to create to satisfy his own creative whims. On the contrary, he spends an extraordinary amount of time thinking about what “the modern girl” needs. Up until recently, the creative studio and sales team shared an office, which means the “feedback loop” as Chong calls it, is instantaneous. Hence the increase in knitwear and the addition of shoes this season. Feedback also comes from social media—and perhaps explains his obsession with it.
“For me [social media] is crucial,” he says, holding his phone close to his chest. The brand’s Instagram account, @mrselfportrait , is managed exclusively by Chong and counts over 583,000 followers. “Social media allows me direct contact with consumers. People can be quite honest,” he says giggling again. “You know when they aren’t happy about something.” From humble beginnings to Hollywood red carpets
Despite having spent the last 15 years in London, Chong is still something of an outsider in the city’s fashion scene. The Central Saint Martins graduate was born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, where his parents owned a beef jerky shop. After completing his fashion degree in 2011, Chong co-founded Three Flour with Yvonne Hoang, but left to launch Self-Portrait in 2013 when he felt he was compromising on his ideas too much. A self-made designer, you won’t find Chong hanging out with Kate Moss or partying with the close-knit fashion circles. He even chose New York over London to host his shows.
Success for Self-Portrait came early. Less than a year after launch Selfridges came knocking, swiftly followed by MatchesFashion, MyTheresa and Net-a-Porter. Now, four years on, it is stocked at more than 400 doors globally including Printemps and Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Harrods and Harvey Nichols in London, and Barneys New York. Almost from the start, celebrities were stepping out in his designs. Jennifer Lopez was among the first, wearing a £250 tuxedo wrap dress on American Idol in 2014. Before long, everyone from Alessandra Ambrosio to Michelle Obama, Beyoncé to Paris Hilton, Reese Witherspoon and even the Duchess of Cambridge were wearing his designs.
“We never saw it coming,” he says, grinning at the memory of the Duchess stepping out in a full-length white dress at a film premiere in London last November. He didn’t even know the Duchess owned one of his designs before he was tagged in an Instagram post, he says. “I almost died.” The £320 dress remains one of his best-selling designs to date. The autumn/winter 2018 collection
Weeks before his autumn/winter 2018 show, we meet Chong at his East London studio for an exclusive first look at his latest collection. Chong is excitable and remarkably humble considering his significant celebrity following. You would expect someone who dresses A-listers as regularly as he to be rather blasé about it, but he’s the opposite; at the barest mention of his success he almost blushes. Dressed in a navy Sandro pullover and dark jeans, with gold and silver chains hanging around his neck, Chong sits at a desk in the far corner of the studio, magazines and books stacked before him. His iPhone is never out of reach; he confesses to be “a little obsessed” with social media—but more on that later.
“We always start with kind of mood she’s in, her attitude,” says Chong as we look through the autumn/winter 2018 collection mood boards. Winter, it seems, has made the Self-Portrait girl a little tougher, though no less poised. “It’s about mixing all these different elements: the tough and soft, the androgynous and the feminine,” he explains. Soft pleats are held together by heavy chain details; crochet lace—a “winter version” of his signature material—is worn beneath sturdy leather trousers; warming knits are paired with bold prints and architectural draping. Eyelets pop up everywhere, adorning the napes of necks, the hems of skirts and cinching in waists of dresses. The colour scheme – a strictly Scandi palette of white, black, navy, tan and the odd flash of red—means that pieces can be easily layered and remixed. “The idea behind this collection was really that versatility and layering: you can buy one piece and wear it in three different ways,” he explains. “Modern girls like options.” A number of the dresses are even designed so that they can be worn back to front.
On the back of collaborations with French footwear brand Robert Clergerie and Australian sunglasses label Le Specs, Chong has designed his own shoes and shades for the autumn/winter 2018 show. Bringing that combination of delicate and tough elements into play again, rather masculine mules are softened with handkerchief ties at the ankle, while boardroom kitten heels are made fun and flirty with oversized bows at the instep. “It’s like cooking,” offers up Chong, “you need to not use too many ingredients; not too sweet, not too salty. [It is about finding] just the right balance.”
Beyond the New York show, Chong and Self-Portrait have plenty more to look forward to. In March, the brand’s first standalone store will open just off Piccadilly Circus in London. Aside from the Albemarle Street flagship, there are plans for a further 10 outposts in the US, China and Japan over the next three years. Understandably thrilled, Chong is steadfast on the secret to his success: “You have to always put yourself into your customer’s shoes: how you want to be treated, how you want to feel in a dress, what you want to buy and how much you want to spend. And that is what I do.”