Style profile: Self-Portrait designer Han Chong
It's the label that went from obscurity to A-list in two years, and at its helm is Penang-born Han Chong
You may not have heard of Self-Portrait, let alone the elusive designer behind the label, Han Chong, but you will definitely know the dresses. Whether it's Beyoncé in a clinging knit racerback, Reese Witherspoon in kneelength teal lace, or Kristen Stewart at the height of her awkward elegance in a green cutwork lace jumpsuit, Self-Portrait has a signature look that celebrities love. Style stars Chiara Ferragni and Louise Roe are fans, and it's a rare night on Instagram when a casual scroll won't turn up another #SelfPortrait post.
What you may not know is that the designer behind the label is Malaysian. Han Chong joins the short list of local designers who have succeeded overseas, a list that includes the likes of Zang Toi, Bernard Chandran and, of course, Jimmy Choo. But Chong seems cut from a different cloth, one that has nothing to do with elaborate luxury and enormous price tags.
Self-Portrait launched in London in 2013 with an 18-piece collection that celebrated urban femininity and took a leather-and-lace sensibility. The brand's only claim to fame at the time was Chong's role as the former creative director of Three Floor, a casualluxe brand favoured by the Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner crowd. That soon changed, but even before Witherspoon was seen wearing Self-Portrait's Liliana dress, the label had carved a niche for itself by giving women thoughtfully designed pieces at a price they could afford.
A sweet blue lace mini dress is £200 (roughly RM1,325) on the Self-Portrait website. Not exactly cheap thanks to our currency, but a small price to pay for a dress that's been seen on the red carpet. There is a curious thrill scrolling through the website, knowing that an outfit worn by Kerry Washington or Olivia Palermo is within one's decidedly non-celebrity reach.
Yet the designer behind these creations remains something of a cipher. Every interview mentions him being a former student at the prestigious Central Saint Martins – alma mater of such high fashion stars as Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Riccardo Tisci, and contemporary designers such as Mary Katrantzou and Jenny Packham. But he wasn't spawned fully formed from those hallowed halls.
So where did Han Chong come from? Penang, the culinary pearl that is also home to Jimmy Choo possibly there is something in the water there). It's no surprise then, that his upbringing had a savoury edge to it. "My father sold roasted pork and my mum helped out in the shop," he says, "so I really don't know where this creativity came from." He was fascinated by everyday things as a child, and kept a daily sketchbook. "My aunt was an artist and she inspired me a lot." Chong's first foray into the creative world was as an artist, rather than a designer. He studied fine art in Penang, even exhibiting at the 2009 Venice Biennale as one half of the duo Han & Him. For the Danish and Nordic Pavilions' 'The Collectors' exhibition, Han & Him created a display case of used swimming trunks titled Butterflies. But Chong brushes off this mark of artistic prestige. "I had previously worked with [Michael] Elmgreen and [Ingar] Dragset, so when they got the gig to curate the Danish and Nordic Pavilions in 2009, they invited me to be one of the artists to show in the space."
Despite his success as an artist, Chong felt that his calling lay elsewhere. He was still drawn to the act of creating, but wanted something that was accessible to a wider audience. "I see art as something for a very specific audience," he explains. "With fashion, it is on a much larger scale and I am able to interact with people through my designs."
When he moved to Kuala Lumpur, he ended up working under Syeba Yip, founder of the Malaysian International Fashion Alliance (MIFA). Eventually a teacher from his art school suggested he apply to Saint Martins. Inspired by Alexander McQueen, Chong followed his teacher's advice and pursued his studies in womenswear design in London.
He credits his success so far to a combination of education and experience. His rise in contemporary fashion certainly seems like a series of well-thought-out steps executed with perfect timing, whether or not he intended it.
In 2011, Chong launched Three Floor Fashion with fellow Saint Martins graduate Yvonne Hoang and a small team. As creative director he was already implementing his ideal of remarkable yet affordable clothes for women. The alchemy of textures and precise cutting that has made Self-Portrait's name was also visible in Chong's designs for Three Floor.
In 2013, just as Three Floor was becoming a favourite on social media, he left to start Self-Portrait. "I realised that if I really wanted to create a brand that was true to myself, I would need to start it myself," he says. In previous interviews, Chong has spoken of how having partners meant that an individual vision – in this case, his – would necessarily be compromised.
"Leaving Three Floor was very tough for me, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my career. It's not just about the clothes, but every aspect of how the brand is represented. It is important for me to be able to follow my dream, and to do so without having to compromise." I ask if he could see himself working for a fashion house, in the vein of Hedi Slimane, who had a similarly artistic background before turning designer, but Chong is adamant he would prefer to work for himself.
Self-Portrait is clearly the result of a vision uncompromised. Where the Three Floor aesthetic was described by bloggers and fashion writers as "feminine with an attitude", a combination of clean lines and quirkiness, Self-Portrait is that same woman a little more grown up and with a taste for elegance. "I like to think that she is a fearless and confident modern woman," Chong says.
(Photo: Adrienne Pitts)
And the name? "There is a lot of talk about selfies in today's pop culture and social media," he says, "but the idea of a self-portrait is actually something that's very traditional in art history. For centuries, self-portrait artists portrayed the time they lived in through the way they drew and painted on their canvases. The name Self-Portrait plays with the idea of personal identity, how we see ourselves and express our personality through clothing."
Speaking of selfies, Self-Portrait has grown to have a dizzying social media reach in the short time it's been in existence. Every fashion blogger worth her salt has Instagrammed a photo of herself in a Self-Portrait dress, and younger celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon too. But the real star power comes from the pap photos of Beyoncé in New York, wearing Self-Portrait not once but twice; and multiple pictures of Rachel McAdams at movie screenings in a sheer green top, or a tea-length dress with a twisted bust, and on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in a blue-and-black belted dress with wavy lace, all Self-Portrait.
The label has been embraced with quite remarkable receptiveness by the A-list crowd, while at the same time being hailed by fashion magazines as a saviour of sorts – the contemporary brand that dresses you like a star without the stratospheric price tag. "Self-Portrait is still a very young brand, and we wouldn't say we are big," Chong hedges. "It did take about a year before people really took us seriously as a brand."
Still, they started small like most self-run, independent labels. "At first we were stocked at a lot of smaller boutiques in Europe and America. Eventually we were picked up by retailers such as Selfridges, Net-a-Porter, Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Galeries Lafayette and Harvey Nichols."
There seems to be something about Self-Portrait's pieces that women find irresistible. The same stars have been photographed multiple times in different Self-Portrait designs, indicating a customer loyalty that is quite a feat for so young a label. Witherspoon is a repeat buyer, as are Kristen Stewart, model Miranda Kerr and dancer Julianne Hough.
A lesser ode to Chong's skills is a case of alleged plagiarism. At Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Johannesburg last March Cape Town-based designer Gavin Rajah sent models down the runway in dresses featuring lace and sheer panelling – designs that were practically identical to those from previous Self-Portrait collections, as local newspapers pointed out. Chong himself seems untroubled by the imitation. "These situations are inevitable," he says. "I guess I should feel flattered?"
When designing Chong says he prioritises quality, adhering closely to his principle of delivering memorable pieces at a reasonable cost. "I travel a lot looking for the right materials and techniques. Sometimes it is difficult, but there is always a solution to achieve the prices you want, in my opinion, and it's important for me to create something that women can feel beautiful in."
Right now, he is pretty busy. With Self-Portrait's Autumn/Winter '15 collection out (the campaign stars rising Dutch model Damaris Goddrie), Chong and his team – assistant designer, brand manager, merchandiser, customer service staff and interns – were preparing to show Spring/Summer 2016 and planning their next campaigns from his East London studio when we spoke.
It doesn't seem like anything will lure Chong away from the land of fish and chips and back to the land of sambal sotong anytime soon. "London has been home for me for the past 13 years," he says. "I love East London, but I do miss Penang laksa and char kway teow."
This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of ELLE Malaysia.