Inside the cult of self-portrait

Buyers were on their minds about Han Chong’s first Self-Portrait fashion collection when he first introduced it in 2013. It wasn’t the clothes – which already bore a resemblance to the lacy and dainty designs he’s now known for – but their prices. They were considered very affordable.

“At the time, there was no contemporary price point,” says Chung, 43, sitting in the glass-clad meeting room of the new Self-Portrait offices in east London, a stone’s throw from where he launched the brand nearly nine years ago. Years.

Chung stuck to his prices, contrary to retailers’ advice, after spotting a gap in the market for high-quality women’s clothing that costs less than traditional luxury brands. His goal was to target a wide audience, and reasonable pricing was the focus of his work. “Not all my friends can stand luxury but they don’t want high quality…so I believed in this. I was very focused.” Selfridges agreed to sell the brand at Chong’s suggested price points — and all stock was cut in the first week.

Isamaya Ffrench wears portrait mesh midi dress, £360 © Lee Whittaker

Today Chung heads a team of 80 across offices in the UK, Hong Kong and mainland China, and has a dedicated global client base who count on him for his refined, polished and unfeminine designs: open-cut lace dresses in both skin and leather. Sculpted cuts, glamorous separates, scalloped ribbed dresses, preppy knit jackets and skirts, from £120 to £650. “Han’s clothes stretch and move, and are made for real bodies,” says stylist Kate Young, who has donned the costumes for stars like Selena Gomez and Dakota Johnson in Self-Portrait.

Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, he studied at a local design college and worked under a designer in Kuala Lumpur before setting his sights abroad. In 2005 he graduated from Central Saint Martins in London with a degree in womenswear design before cutting his teeth at high-end retail. He then co-founded Three Floor, where he worked as Creative Director for two years before leaving to launch his own brand. (Three Floor, which occupied a similar price point and feminine aesthetic for a selfie, closed in 2021.)

Founder Han Zhong at the brand's new workspace in East London

Founder Han Chung at the brand’s new workspace in East London © Lee Whittaker

According to Chung, the Self-Portrait program started with “without business experience,” nor “rules for what is right or wrong.” He attributes his success not only to his great prices, but to his sharp focus on creating distinctive looks. He launched his best-selling Azaelea dress—a spaghetti-covered, lace-paneled number that has frequented red carpets and has sold 100,000 units so far—in 2015. Subsequent similar lace patterns helped “train” people to recognize the brand’s silhouette. Every time Self-Portrait entered a new category (be it baby clothes or bags), he made sure his designs were on the same page. “In this digital world, information is very accessible, so the things you put on should have a point of view.”

This perspective appeals to women across the style spectrum, including British makeup artist Izamaya French, who worked on the Self-Portrait’s AW21 campaign featuring Bridgeton Actress Phoebe Denivore. says French, who is standing side by side with the stylist for the shoot HTSIAlong with musician and multimedia artist Rosie Chan and actress Sabrina Elba. “He really has a great eye for tailoring and giving women the silhouettes they want to feel sexy.”

Rosie Chan wears Portrait tinsel jacket, £450, matching crop top, £150, and wool skirt, £260

Rosie Chan wears Portrait tinsel jacket, £450, matching crop top, £150, and wool skirt, £260 © Lee Whittaker

Despite being known for occasion wear rather than sleepwear, Chong’s business has grown as other brands struggled during the pandemic; Sales for 2022 were already up 250 percent from 2021, and 350 percent from 2020. When lockdowns forced store closures in the UK, Chong was already focusing on China, where he earned 30 million renminbi (about $4.5 million) A joint project with a local group El Lasay. The country is now Self-Portrait’s strongest market, and has seen 40 stores expand in two years. When European cities reopened and small weddings became a must, the brand was quick to track the wedding capsule for small celebrations and casual brides. Self-Portrait is now “the go-to for weddings…whether it’s the contemporary bride or the guest choosing an easy-to-wear dress,” says Net-A-Porter’s Senior Market Editor, Libby Page.

Portrait lace Magnolia midi dress, £400

Portrait lace Magnolia midi dress, £400

Portrait sequin mesh maxi dress, £450

Portrait sequin mesh maxi dress, £450

Portrait crepe chiffon mini dress, £350

Portrait crepe chiffon mini dress, £350

Portrait cable knit mini skirt, £230

Portrait cable knit mini skirt, £230

This rapid production system, drawn from the popular rulebook, allows the Chong team to negotiate quick turnarounds and set competitive prices: Self-Portrait has produced capsules in six weeks (instead of three months) and often creates exclusive colors for retail partners.

The brand also closely follows sales on its direct-to-consumer channels, which make up 32 percent of online sales; They keep a certain number of best-selling styles on hand so risk-averse buyers can replenish their stock mid-season without returning to the producers. “You have to think from the point of view of the retailers, how you can help them. Ours [direct-to-consumer business] Very powerful, and we have information to feed them,” Chung adds. “It’s a two-way thing.”

Sabrina Elba wears Lurex midi dress, £370

Sabrina Elba wears Lurex woven midi dress, £370 © Lee Whittaker

Perhaps the most obvious reason for Self-Portrait’s success is its ability to speak to a wide range of clients: Self-Portrait is loved by K-pop band members Blackpink, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge, who wore the brand’s long silk dress to the premiere. In London in November 2016. “You’ll find something cool for day, great for evening, and a wide range of things that are structured or more feminine and streamlined,” says Sinead McEvery, stylist to clients including Claudia Winkelman and Vern Cotton.

Chung clearly knows what a woman wants—or, when she’s indecisive, how to help her make a choice. In the HTSI Fire up, it helps style Chan in a coordinating cropped blouse and jacket, cut from a shimmering gold bouquet, and a midi skirt. “For me, as an artist, clothes should give me physical freedom and self-confidence…Once I’m dressed, I don’t want to think about it again and that’s what Han’s clothes give me,” Chan says. “He understands the female form and all its intricacies.”

Now that China, Europe and the United States top the list of major Self-Portrait markets, Chung is looking to expand into the Middle East. He makes Ramadan capsules and incorporates modest designs through his seasonal collections. His success in China over the past two years has also increased his confidence in physical stores, which he says is crucial. This year, Self-Portrait will unveil a boutique on London’s King’s Road, adding to the main Albemarle Street and marking a shift towards a local, local presence.

Left: Rosie Chan wears a self-portrait fleece jacket, £380, and lace maxi dress, £380.  Sabrina Elba wears Portrait mesh midi dress, £360

Left: Rosie Chan wears a self-portrait fleece jacket, £380, and lace maxi dress, £380. Sabrina Elba wears self-portrait mesh midi dress, £360 © Lee Whittaker

It also diversifies. Late last year, Chong bought luxury brand Roland Mouret out of management and is now rebuilding the company, with his eponymous designer, to sit alongside Self-Portrait in his fashion collection, SP Collection. The new office mood board offers advice on the brand’s new trend, which Chung describes as sexy, versatile, and modern: “Self-Portrait’s big sister.” The Mouret archives clothing—clean, sculpted silhouettes in bold bold—will translate into a versatile wardrobe for events beyond red carpets and cocktail parties. It will be manufactured in the same factories as Self-Portrait but will be managed by new teams that can handle high quality textiles such as silk, wool and cashmere; Pricing has also been restructured and will range from £295 to £1,300.

But don’t expect the SP Collection to add any other players to its arsenal anytime soon – before that happens, Chong wants to be confident that his expertise in his infrastructure and brand building can give the Mouret label a new lease on life. But he assures fans that as the SP Collection grows, there will be something for everyone. “It’s about building a 360-degree collection for different women, so I have the opportunity to serve everyone.”

Top photo: Self-Portrait founder Han Chung with (from left, all wearing the poster) musician and multimedia artist Rosie Chan in a long lace dress, £380, actress Sabrina Elba in a mesh midi dress, £360, and makeup artist Izamaya wear Off-the-shoulder diamond and fishnet midi dress, £400. Talents, Isamaya Ffrench at Streeters, Rosey Chan and Sabrina Elba. Hair, David Barbieri of Karen using Balmain. Isamaya Ffrench makeup using Clé De Peau and Burberry Beauty. Makeup Assistants, Natasha Sultana and Jo Brooks

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