Designer Han Chong, a Malaysia native and graduate of Central Saint Martins, has been in the fashion business for over a decade. After co-founding label Three Floor, he decided to strike out on his own in fall of 2013 with Self-Portrait, and its success has been rapid. Net-a-Porter and Bergdorf Goodman have both already picked up the line, attracted to its feminine dresses and separates with lots of lace, embroidery and sheer overlays, as well as its appealing price point: Dresses fall in the $500 to $600 range.
Now, the brand is quickly gaining red carpet buzz, appearing on celebrities as diverse as Reese Witherspoon and Elizabeth Banks to Lucy Hale and Kristen Stewart. Chong tells Fashionista how Alexander McQueen has influenced his works and why Self-Portrait is different from any contemporary brand on the market.
What were you doing before fashion school, and how did you decide to go to fashion school?
I was living in Malaysia before I came to London 15 years ago, and before going to fashion school I studied art. In Malaysia, fashion wasn’t a big deal; my parents wanted me to study art, but slowly I discovered fashion. I started in Malaysia, I worked for a few years with a designer back home before I came to London and studied at Central Saint Martins.
How did you choose Saint Martins?
Because Alexander McQueen went to Saint Martins, and I get a lot of influence from him. It’s a very good school. I think it’s the energy, making you want to be better than anyone. The environment was super creative and you can do anything you want there; there’s no restrictions. They don’t tell you, "You cannot do this, you cannot do that," and I think that’s very good at a very young age to experience that, and also prepare you for the real industry afterwards because of the competition.
How did you decide to launch your own line?
I always wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what, and after Saint Martins I worked for different brands and different retailers. When you work for people, it’s never doing what you believe in. After I was working with different brands, I gained a lot of experience, I got all of the resources, and then I wanted to do something myself. I started working with Three Floor, and then, after awhile, it’s not really me; if I got another trade partner and everything, there's too much disagreement, etcetera. And then I thought, I am young so why don’t I do my own brand? So I started Self-Portrait.
How did you come up with the name Self-Portrait?
Self portraits have always had a specific role in art history — and especially now, it’s about ‘selfies,' it's about the individual. And then I thought, Self-Portrait is quite a good name for that and I like how the words look quite pretty on everything we show.
What are your design inspirations? What do you think makes your line different?
I design thinking what women actually want, and then I design a wardrobe for them. It’s easy to wear and we have just enough design details, it’s not very avant garde, because from my experience working in the industry, there's a big gap and I tried to close that; there's either high street or designer brands, and there’s nothing really focused on a bit more design detail, a bit more effort in its feel. It's affordable, it’s not too expensive. We develop the fabrics and try to do something a bit more special, I think.
Who do you think best represents the Self-Portrait woman?
She’s not afraid to stand out. She definitely doesn’t want to blend in. She wants to light up, she likes attention, I think, because you get noticed when you wear Self-Portrait. She’s feminine and at the same time, sometimes she’s not afraid to kind of play with gender and clothes. We have some pieces slightly more androgynous, cleaner lines. I tried to design pieces which you can wear when you go to work, but at the same time you go out and put your heels on, put your makeup on — quite a modern approach.
What difficulties do you face as a young designer in London?
I think it’s always quite difficult as a young designer everywhere, especially for young brands who have a low budget for advertisement and these kinds of things. But recently, because of social media, that has helped a lot of young brands because you don’t have to spend a lot of your budget on getting the brand out there. I’ve worked in the industry for awhile, you have to know how to get the right audience and how to get it out there. It’s a bit easier for me, but for a young brand, I think it’s really hard if you don’t know, if you don’t have the resources and the information because London is the best there is and if you're a young brand and you haven't got the budget to spend, it’s very competitive.
So you’ve dressed some celebrities — how important is that to your business?
I don’t know a lot of celebrities, but they definitely play a big role for a young brand like Self-Portrait. They get a lot of media coverage and then you get your brand out there quicker, because everyone is watching them and what they are doing — especially nowadays, celebrity culture is huge, especially for our target customer. So, I say again, when you don’t have a lot of budget and that is the only platform we can have and use to get us out there. So yes, I think it’s important.
What are your hopes for the line?
At the moment, we try to get our face to be really strong and to get all the resources we need. One thing at a time, I want to grow it organically — make sure all the production, all the good things have been made. I don’t think [far in advance], to be honest, but I want it to be organic.