Inside the Self-Portrait Cult
Shoppers had two thoughts on Han Chong’s debut fashion collection for Self-Portrait when he first showed it in 2013. It wasn’t the clothes – which already looked like the lacy, flattering designs for which it is now known – but their prices. They were considered too affordable.
“At the time, there were no contemporary awards,” says Chong, 43, sitting in the glass-walled conference room at Self-Portrait’s new offices in east London, a stone’s throw from where he launched the brand nearly nine years ago.
Chong stuck to his prices, against the advice of retailers, after spotting a gap in the market for high-quality women’s clothing that costs less than traditional luxury brands. Its aim was to target a wide audience and reasonable prices were its keystone. “All my friends couldn’t afford the luxury, but they didn’t want high-end quality… so I believed in it. I was super focused. Selfridges agreed to sell the brand at Chong’s suggested prices – and all inventory was sold out in the first week.
Today, Chong leads a team of 80 across offices in the UK, Hong Kong and mainland China, and has a dedicated global clientele who rely on him for his protean, refined and decidedly feminine designs: modest openwork lace dresses with skin-nude cuts, sparkly pieces, 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 like Selena Gomez and Dakota Johnson in Self-Portrait.
Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, Chong studied at a local design school and worked with a designer in Kuala Lumpur before taking a look overseas. In 2005, he graduated from Central Saint Martins in London 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 held a similar price tag and feminine aesthetic to Self-Portrait, closed in 2021.)
According to Chong, he started Self-Portrait “without business experience”, or “rules of what was right or wrong”. He credits his success not just to his ideal price point, but his unrelenting focus on establishing a signature look. In 2015, he debuted his best-selling Azaelea dress — a spaghetti-strap, lace-panelled number that graced red carpets and sold 100,000 units to date — in 2015. Subsequent similar lace styles helped ” train” people to recognize the silhouette of the brand. Every time Self-Portrait entered a new category (whether it was children’s clothing or bags), he made sure his designs were on the same page. “In this digital world, information is so accessible that the things you post have to have a point of view.”
This perspective appeals to women of all styles, including British makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench, who worked on Self-Portrait’s AW21 campaign featuring Bridgerton star Phoebe Dynevor. “Han is in a class of his own when it comes to designing luxurious, beautifully designed clothing that is accessible to a much wider audience,” says Ffrench, who poses alongside the designer while filming. HTSI, with musician and multimedia artist Rosey Chan and actress Sabrina Elba. “He really has an amazing eye for trimming and giving women the silhouettes they want to feel sexy.”
Although known for its second-hand clothes rather than loungewear, Chong’s business grew as other brands battled the pandemic; sales for 2022 have already increased by 250% compared to 2021 and 350% compared to 2020. When the closures forced the closure of stores in the United Kingdom, Chong was already in the process of focusing on China, creating a 30 million Rmb (about $4.5 million) joint venture with local group Ellassay; the country is now Self-Portrait’s largest market and has expanded by 40 stores in two years. As European cities reopened and small weddings became de rigueur, the brand sped up a wedding capsule for small ceremonies and laid-back 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 Libby Page, Market Editor at Net-A-Porter.
Self-Portrait Magnolia Lace Midi Dress, £400
Self-Portrait Sequin Knit Maxi Dress, £450
Self-Portrait Crepe Chiffon Mini Dress, £350
Self-Portrait Cable Knit Mini Skirt, £230
This agile, state-of-the-art production system allows Chong’s team to negotiate fast turnaround times and set competitive prices: Self-Portrait produced capsules in six weeks (instead of three months) and frequently concocts exclusive colorways for its retail partners.
The brand also closely tracks sales through its direct-to-consumer channels, which account for 32% of online sales; he keeps a number of top-selling models on hand so risk-averse buyers can replenish their stock mid-season without having to return to producers. “You have to think from the retailer’s point of view, how you can help them. Our [direct-to-consumer business] is so strong, we have information to feed them,” adds Chong. “It’s a two-way thing.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason for Self-Portrait’s success is its ability to appeal to a wide range of customers: Self-Portrait is adored by K-pop group members 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 perfect for day, ideal for evening, and a wide range of things that are structured or more feminine and flowing,” says Sinead McKeefry, stylist for clients such as Claudia Winkleman and Fearne Cotton.
It’s clear that Chong knows what a woman wants – or, when she’s undecided, how to help her choose. At HTSI shoot, he helps style Chan in a coordinating crop top and jacket, cut in shimmering gold bouclé, and a midi skirt. “For me, as an artist, clothes should give me physical freedom and self-confidence…Once I’m dressed, I don’t want to have to think about it and that’s what the clothes of Han give me,” Chan said. “He understands the female form and all of its complexities.”
Now that China, Europe and the United States are at the top of Self-Portrait’s list of key markets, Chong is looking to expand into the Middle East. It creates Ramadan capsules and includes modest designs across its seasonal collections. His success in China over the past two years has also boosted 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 flagship on Albemarle Street and marking a shift towards localized presences in the neighborhood.
It is also diversifying. Late last year, Chong bought luxury brand Roland Mouret and is rebuilding the business, along with its eponymous designer, to sit alongside Self-Portrait in its fashion group, SP Collection. A mood board in the new office offers guidance on the brand’s new direction, which Chong describes as sexy, versatile and modern: “Self-Portrait’s older sister.” The garments will translate Mouret’s archives – clean, sculpting silhouettes awash in bold color – into a versatile wardrobe for occasions other than red carpets and cocktail parties. They will be made in the same factories as Self-Portrait but managed by new teams capable of handling high-end textiles such as silk, wool and cashmere; prices have also been restructured and will go from £295 to £1,300.
But don’t expect SP Collection to add more players to its arsenal anytime soon – before that happens, Chong wants to be sure that his infrastructure and brand-building experience can breathe new life into the game. Mouret label. 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.”
Top pictured: Self-Portrait founder Han Chong with (left to right, all tagged) musician and media artist Rosey Chan in a lace maxi dress, £380, actress Sabrina Elba in a mesh midi dress, £360, and makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench in an off-the-shoulder rhinestone and fishnet midi dress, £400. Talents, Isamaya Ffrench at Streeters, Rosey Chan and Sabrina Elba. Hairdresser, Davide Barbieri at Caren using Balmain. Makeup, Isamaya Ffrench using Clé De Peau & Burberry Beauty. Makeup assistants, Natasha Sultana and Joe Brooks