In less than five years, publicity-shy designer Han Chong has turned his contemporary womenswear brand Self-Portrait into a household name.
You may not know his name or his face, but it is likely you have heard of Han Chong’s brand. Either that or you will recognise one of his designs: via his legions of fans, who include everyone from Beyoncé to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; one of his 350 global stockists; or through the many imitations of his dresses. The Malaysia-born, London-based designer has built his contemporary, accessibly priced womenswear label Self-Portrait into a global success.
In less than five years since launching, Self-Portrait’s winning combination of cool luxury, quality craftsmanship and competitive prices – its most famous Azaelea dress retails from £260 – has had buyers, shoppers and celebrities buzzing about Chong’s designs.
On top of his catwalk shows, a booming wholesale business and powerful social media presence (more than 600,000 Instagram followers), last month Chong reached a new career milestone with the opening of his first store: a minimalist, marble-filled manifestation of Self-Portrait, sandwiched between Dover Street and Old Bond Street at 49 Albemarle Street in London’s Mayfair.
Women should be able to have beautiful clothes without breaking the bank
At the weekend you might find Chong in the store, casually dressed and with an ever-present hat, inconspicuously interacting with his customers, most of whom have no idea who he is. The publicity-shy designer says it is the best way to receive honest, direct feedback.
“I like being behind the scenes,” he says in his lilting Malaysian accent. “I am not the important point. It’s more about the product and my woman than me. I don’t have that ego,” he adds with a cheeky laugh. But do not let his modest shyness or his youthful, boyish looks fool you: Chong is a shrewd businessman with a razor-sharp understanding of his customer.
After studying art in his native Malaysia, Chong found a design job, which was his doorway into fashion. He saved up and, aged 22, came to London to study fashion at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins.
“It was good. Very competitive. Very creative,” he says. “But I think having had some experience of the fashion industry made me a lot more mature.”
After graduating he stayed in London and went on to launch womenswear brand Three Floor with co-founder Yvonne Hoang in 2011. A forebear to Self-Portrait, the mid-priced label featured design-driven, feminine dresses at competitive prices. Chong left to launch Self-Portrait in November 2013.
“I found my vision and my ideas were getting diluted [at Three Floor] because there were too many partners,” he confesses. “I’m much happier by myself because I can do exactly what I believe in. Maybe I’m a control freak,” he says with another giggle.
Self-Portrait started life in October 2013 as 17 dresses with a fresh femininity that offered a new, modern way to dress for special occasions. The collection, for spring 14, re-contextualised lace and frills with a sexy edge, and were well made and exceptionally flattering, as well as perfectly designed to shine on social media. Given their design credentials and quality, people were surprised that they retailed for just £150 to £250. Chong opened the wholesale books and transactional website – the brand’s “digital home” – from the outset.
“I always wanted to do a contemporary line because there was this gap in the market for [products with] designer details but not-too-expensive prices. There was the high street or luxury brands, but I had a vision of what was missing in the middle. Women should be able to have beautiful clothes without breaking the bank.”
Everything I do I want to make sure it’s the right timing and I’m 100% behind it
Chong admits it was hard to keep prices competitive in the beginning: “I put a lot of effort into teaching my factory the finishings and spent a lot of time in China making sure everything had the quality that I wanted. We worked a lot on sourcing the right materials too. If you put a lot of effort into thinking out those processes, then these prices are achievable.” He explains one of his cost-saving methods: “If you find an expensive fabric that you want to use, maybe you just do it in a patchwork with different cheaper fabrics, then you don’t use as much of the expensive one. It’s all about putting a lot of thought into it.”
It turns out that Chong’s vision was exactly what buyers were looking for. Department store Selfridges was the first retailer to take the risk.
Contemporary womenswear buyer Thea Jones says: “We started stocking Self-Portrait from 2013. Although it was an edited buy, the reaction was phenomenal.”
Chong recalls: “We were supposed to have a party [in Selfridges’ flagship London store] a week after we launched, but everything sold out before the party. There wasn’t anything left.”
Jones continues: “The real turning point was autumn 15, when there was a 300% growth in sales. It entered the market at a time when occasion and event dressing were becoming a real consumer focus. It provided something unique but at a fantastic price point [and it] remains one of our most popular contemporary brands.”
Next came Net-a-Porter. “I woke up in the morning [that the product went live on the website] and was so excited, but I checked [the website] and it said, ‘out of stock’. We thought something was wrong,” says Chong. In fact, the pieces sold out within two hours.
For the brand’s second collection, for autumn 14, Chong introduced the Azaelea dress and, he says, “everyone started going crazy”.
With its nipped waist and flared, mid-length skirt, the Azaelea had a classically glamorous air, but its edgy play on cut outs and modern laser-cut lace made it fresh, while its flattering fit worked for all sizes, shapes and ages. It sold out instantly, sparking reorders and waiting lists – as well as many copies – and remains a bestseller.
Wholesale now represents 80% of the business across 350 accounts. Sales are split 30% UK, 30% America, 30% Asia, 10% rest of the world. Chong reveals that, on average, sales have increased 120% every year.
“Not bad,” he blushes.
Chong will not discuss figures, but accounts filed with Companies House show that, for the year to 31 May 2017, Self-Portrait’s turnover was up 70% on the previous year, while operating profit quadrupled.
The team has now grown to 23 people in the UK, and 10 in Hong Kong, who manage shipping and deal directly with factories.
The brand started showing at New York Fashion Week for spring 17, which meant the collection had to expand. For autumn 18, Chong created 130 pieces including separates, outerwear, shirting and knitwear, offering a fuller Self-Portrait wardrobe. Following a collaboration with Robert Clergerie for spring 17, footwear was launched for spring 18, and after a collaboration with Le Specs in early 2016, sunglasses will launch for autumn 18.
“Everything I do I want to make sure it’s the right timing and I’m 100% behind it,” he says of the brand’s development. “You have to think of what your customer wants instead of what you want [to design]. Women always want flattering shapes, but you also need to surprise her.”
“Chong has been smart about continuing to deepen Self-Portrait’s core pieces,” believes Elizabeth Leventhal, general merchandising manager at luxury online retailer Moda Operandi. “Every season feels fresh but true to the brand’s identity [and it] continues to be one of our top contemporary brands. It’s incredibly hard to resist its charm – special yet undeniably accessible.” Moda Operandi’s best-selling piece for spring 18 has been an asymmetric polka-dot top that Beyoncé wore the week of our interview.
“That will make a dent in our inventory,” comments Leventhal.
Coco Chan, head of womenswear at etailer Stylebop, agrees: “The approach of taking elements of what was successful in the dresses, such as the asymmetry, and applying that to tops and skirts was a wise move. The asymmetric blouses in particular have become a real staple for the brand, and something that we sell as fast as the dresses now.
“Looking at the current spring collection, we already have a few styles with 100% sell-through.” She notes that many other brands have revised their pricing structure to emulate Self-Portrait. “The evolution has been a successful one.”
Another element of Chong’s strategy was his early adoption of digital. Self-portrait-studio.com has existed since the outset, and now accounts for 20% of sales.
“I just don’t understand why people don’t launch their online store at the same time, otherwise no one can buy your pieces directly,” he says. “You get so much direct feedback that way too. You can see directly what’s selling from your core customers.”
What I’m happiest about is that my customer can say, ‘I have the same dress as a princess’
His website has also enabled Chong to react quickly. For example, when the Duchess of Cambridge wore Self Portrait in November 2016, she chose a £320 dress from an earlier collection that was no longer for sale.
“We didn’t know she was going to wear it, but we put it back online straight away, so it was available to pre-order the next day.” More than a year later, that dress remains Self-Portrait’s number one bestseller.
Social media has also been crucial. Chong manages the brand’s official Instagram account, @mrselfportrait, himself and it has more than 600,000 followers. As well as leveraging its vast Instagram following, Self-Portrait also works with influencers – which he describes as “the new celebrities” – to boost its profile. Aimee Song (4.8 million Instagram followers), was the first social media star to wear the brand and remains a vocal supporter.
“The new generation is all about digital,” Chong says. “Everything is on their phones, so you need to adapt to that.”
The final piece in the puzzle was the opening of Self-Portrait’s store, adding offline to create “the total experience”, which Chong admits was a dream since his student days spent window shopping in Mayfair.
Like his designs, the store is intended to convey a luxury experience without the hefty price points. Its bespoke interior, all thick, plush carpet and elegant marble, helps it blend in among its top-end neighbours – everyone from Dior to Alexander McQueen.
More stores are in the pipeline.
“We’re looking at locations in different cities,” he smiles. “In America and Asia.”
As the Self-Portrait empire continues to evolve, Chong is self-effacing about his success. As always, his customer is front of mind.
Referring back to the Duchess of Cambridge wearing Self-Portrait, he says: “What I’m happiest about is that my customer is able to have the same dress [she wore] and it’s not that expensive. They can say, ‘I have the same dress as a princess.’ How good will that make my customer feel? That’s the greatest thing.”