Hubert Burda Media

Why Self-Portrait is on everyone's radar

As Self-Portrait, the brand he founded, becomes the label du jour, designer Han Chong tells us about his Instagram-ready dresses and his first foray into eyewear.

Han Chong, founder of Self Portrait
Han Chong, founder of Self Portrait

The fast rise of label Self-Portrait is one of those success stories tailor made for the Instagram age. Established three years ago by Malaysian-born and London-based designer Han Chong, this young brand came seemingly out of nowhere, an overnight sensation selling out of its flattering lace dresses at top retailers and becoming ubiquitous on the red carpet.

Thanks to their flattering cuts, affordable price points and the way they stand out in photographs, Self-Portrait’s lavishly embellished and beautifully embroidered frocks strike a chord with a generation of girls who love nothing more than getting a fashion fix without breaking the bank and showing off their outfits on social media, ideally in a well-lit bathroom selfie before a big night out.

It’s a formula that’s worked well for Chong, who has also expanded into bridal with a line of demure gowns conceived with millennials in mind, young women who are shying away from the extravaganzas of yore to just focus on having a good time in a dress that’s easy to wear and won’t keep them from enjoying their big day.

The bridal line, along with an exclusive capsule collection of white separates, is available at Lane Crawford, where Chong has also debuted his first eyewear range in collaboration with Le Specs Luxe.

A look from Self Portrait

How did you end up in London from Malaysia?

I was doing a bit of fashion in Malaysia, but I felt a bit trapped in the situation. I couldn’t grow there so I decided to move to London when I was 21-22. I studied there and I worked, and I got stuck there for 15 years. It’s a bigger platform compared to Malaysia, more international.

How did the red carpet propel your label forward?

We don’t have a lot of budget as a small brand, so social media and celebrities are our strategies. Everyone looks up to them, especially the younger generations. It was hard at the beginning because people don’t appreciate contemporary as much for the red carpet, so offering a good product is important because the pieces are quite versatile – glamorous but not over the top. It’s quite young, so people liked that approach.

When you started out, did you plan to make the label affordable?

In London it’s either high street or high fashion, but my friends have normal jobs, they can’t afford two-thousand-pound dresses, but they still want to look good. It’s really hard to find a good product in that reasonable price range, so that’s what I always wanted to do – make it accessible, but giving just the right amount of design details because it’s a more modern approach. I travel a lot to look for the right fabrics at the right price, which we develop in-house, and we work with a good factory that I have a relationship with to get a decent price. If you’re not too greedy you can offer something special for everyone.

Lace has become a strong signature for you. How will that evolve?

It’s come quite naturally because I like fabrics with texture. It can be a lot of different things, like laser cut, but it always looks like lace. This season we tried a new technique of lace, a patchwork or mixed it with mesh and different fabrics, so we evolve every season to make it a bit more special. And then maybe next season we’ll do different things because I want to keep it current, so maybe we’ll change but that signature is still there.

Your dresses are also known to photograph really well.

When I started, I knew that I needed my dresses to photograph well, so during fittings we photograph everything and if it doesn’t look good in the picture, like some black colours that get lost, we do everything to make sure they look like you can see the details; that’s why there’s so much texture and it’s transparent, translucent. It’s because it’s a digital kind of world at the moment, so you need to photograph well.

Is that where the name also came from?

It actually took me a very long time to come up with the name. I just wanted a name that could be anything, that didn’t have to be a particular thing, but also previously I did art stuff, so it’s kind of like a mix of self-portrait and selfie.

Your success came very quickly. What do you attribute it to?

People get bored with things so quickly because of social media, they see it today and everything feels so old so quickly, so they don’t want to spend so much money. So I was coming in at the right time.

Why did you decide to create a white collection for Lane Crawford?

I think it’s quite natural for summer, because people like white dresses for summer and then when Lane Crawford asked me to do a capsule, I thought, “Let’s do all white”, because it makes Asian skin look good.

A pair of sunglasses Han Chong designed with Le Specs Luxe

A pair of sunglasses Han Chong designed with Le Specs Luxe

What about your first foray into bridal?

There are already a lot of customers wearing the pieces as bridal, like the Azalea dress. I love that approach, which is not to be stressful about it like when women spend so much time, so much money and then get so stressed out because that dress doesn’t fit at the end or something. I don’t like that attitude and I wanted something that’s slightly more laid-back so you can have fun with it. So on her big day, if she wants to move around, she wants to dance, she can.

And finally, how was it to create your first range of eyewear?

I always wanted to do sunglasses because I have a lot of pairs and then to make it happen it was a dream come true. We wanted to have a feminine kind of approach but at the same time pretty modern, still cool.