Han Chong of Self Portrait Studio tells Moneyish about his celebrity clientele and why he likes to dress non-wealthy women
Even in a world of fast fashion, Han Chong’s rise has been rapid.
The 37-year-old designer was born and raised in Penang, an island off the coast of Malaysia. Far from the fashion capitals of Asia, rural Southeast Asia is no place for artistic kids. So as a young adult, he flocked to the brighter lights of London to study at Central Saint Martins, the fashion school that counts Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and John Galliano among its alumni.
While Chong hasn’t quite reached those exalted— or in Galliano’s case, infamous— ranks, he’s come a long way from Penang. In 2013, he founded Self Portrait Studio, a fashion brand with an emphasis on evening occasion dresses that blend the delicacy of lace with the wink-wink of sheer panels. Chong had previously worked on another brand before parting due to differences with partners, but retained a partnership with Selfridges, the British department store. They bought his debut collection, which sold out even before his launch party.
“I was quite naive then and had never done business besides that partnership,” Chong tells Moneyish. “I thought, ‘how hard can it be?’ But we had buyers who believed in me and from the first and second collections, Selfridges and Net-A-Porter [as distributors]. We were really lucky.” Self-funded from the start, the brand kept the lights on by reinvesting profits right back into the business.
Self Portrait quickly became a hit among the celebrity crowd, with the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle and the Duchess of Cambridge spotted in Chong’s red carpet-friendly garb. (Markle wore a black-and-white lacy number from Self Portrait ($418) to Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas lunch that quickly sold out.)
Stylists became familiar with the apparel thanks to Selfridges pushing it and Chong’s savvy use of social media, which he turned to because he had no budget for traditional ads. Today, It girls like Aimee Song flaunt his wares on Instagram and Self Portrait has 350 points of sale globally. At a time when many brands are retrenching from a physical presence, the label just opened its first brick-and-mortar story in London’s tony Mayfair district.
“I’ve always wanted to have a flagship store,” he says, adding that there are plans to expand physically in the United States, China and Japan. “You have the whole Self Portrait vision there. It’s like inviting someone into your home and I was ready to let everyone know more” about the brand.
“I’m a bit of a fan of Self Portrait myself, we’re always looking for stylish brands that have good quality and a little extra style,” says Phillip Bloch, the celebrity stylist who’s dressed Halle Berry and Melania Trump. “When you’re a devout fashionista and a royal, you can’t really step out in something flimsy and poorly made. Nobody wants to be in cheap, scratchy fabrics, especially the lovely ladies of the royal family.”
For all the celebrity glitz, the brand is also known for its relatively affordable price tags, with much of its apparel hovering around the $500 mark. “Ever since the beginning, I had the end goal of having something of good design detail but affordable,” Chong says. “Fashion is not just catering for the rich woman. Everyone can have fun.”
That said, it was a challenge to make commercially viable luxury clothing in the mid-three digits range. When the collection first launched, Chong spent a month with his factories in Guangzhou and Shanghai working with the producers on a financially and creatively satisfying product. (Now, he spends about 3 weeks there for each collection.)
“They thought I was crazy to do all the details at that price point. But if you have a heart and teach them the finishing, spend more time explaining to them, it can be what you want to achieve,” he says. “Also, we’re not so greedy in terms of margins.”
Chong’s background as a cosmopolitan, accessible and au courant designer means that he’s bandied about by the British press as a possible wedding gown creator for Markle. Other likely designer candidates include Alexander McQueen, Ralph & Russo and Roland Mouret, who’s a friend of the soon-to-be princess.
For his part, Chong won’t comment about Markle’s style, beyond saying that she’s “super modern.” That said, “I get so excited by royalty wearing the pieces,” he says. “My customers will be super happy if they have the same dress as the royals.”
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