It’s a proposition that might sound simple now, but when Malaysian designer Han Chong set up his label Self Portrait to sell statement dresses at a more affordable price, the move was seen as radical. “At that time, I felt there was a big gap,” he explains from his studio in London. “All my friends couldn’t afford those luxury brands, but they wanted something a bit more special. So, I thought, ‘Why don’t I start a brand which offers a high quality of work and attention to detail, but not at a luxury price point?’”
He did just that, launching a first collection in 2014 that centred on a parade of intricate, guipure, lace-adorned dresses that retailed for around HK$3,000. The most distinctive was the Azelea, a flattering midi in cut out lace that seemed at once a timeless take on modern femininity, and also a breath of fresh air. Immediately, the world took notice. “Selfridges were the first ones to put me on their shop floor, and they sold out in three days,” says Han. “Net-a-Porter put me on the site and sold out in three hours. I actually woke up that morning to look, and was like, ‘the website’s not working!’” In fact, every item had gone.
In the five years since, Han has built a rocketing business, profitable since season two, with over 375 stockists in 70 countries, and still privately owned. “It’s gone crazy. Growth has been in triple digits every year,” he states with pride. Still, it’s not necessarily the road he expected to travel. Born in Malaysia, he grew up in Penang. “My parents had a pork jerky shop. Where I come from is a very small island, so there was not so much happening.” There was, however, a tutor who had studied at Central Saint Martins in London, and encouraged the budding designer to apply. “I felt like the whole thing was a dream,” he remembers. “But, I was young and naïve enough to go with it. It was beneficial for me that I didn’t have so much fear. And, it’s the same thing in this business. I have no fear, I go with what I believe. I am very determined.”
That determination has been key in delivering on his key proposition – a little bit of luxury for a lot less. “I spent a lot of time in China, training my factory. At first they thought I was crazy! There can be 50 different pieces on one dress, and initially they said, ‘I’m not doing this with that price point!’” But, he kept pushing. Today, from his office in Hong Kong, which he visits every couple of months, he continues to develop his designs, helped by the ingenuity of the people he works with. “There is so much amazing technology and craftsmanship in China,” he enthuses. “A lot of people have the wrong impression of what ‘Made in China’ is. There’s such positive energy, everything is possible as long as you put the effort in.”
What has marked Han out as a designer as much as his tenacity, is his innate understanding of what women across generations and all around the world want from a good frock. “J Lo was the first celebrity to wear one of our dresses,” he recalls. And, since then, everyone from Michelle Obama to Kirsten Stewart, Priyanka Chopra to the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex have stepped out in his designs, time and time again. “It’s very important to make women feel empowered,” he says of why he thinks they all head to him for an outfit, be that for a key-note speech, red-carpet premiere or dinner with the Queen. “A lot of customers come to me and say that, when they put on my dress, it makes them feel the best of themselves.”
Han’s dresses help women stand out in all ways. You can spot a Self Portrait item a mile off, and, for him, that’s been a strategic decision as much as it is one governed by aesthetics. Coming of age in the era of Instagram, Self Portrait’s visibility on social media has meant he can compete with much bigger labels wielding much heftier marketing budgets. “We created this signature that was very photogenic and recognisable,” he explains. “It’s easy to tell it’s a Self Portrait dress straight away, and, in a crowded market, that’s been beneficial.”
Marrying that signature with an accessibility that everyone wanted-in on has been the catnip that has catapulted him to such stratospheric heights, creating a desirability within reach of a much broader group of women – be they a one-day Queen or a wedding guest. “It makes me so happy when the royals wear a dress to a big event. They set an example for a lot of people that it’s ok to wear a contemporary brand,” he says. “Feeling beautiful shouldn’t be expensive. It’s very inspiring.”
It’s no less inspiring than the story of a man from Penang who built a business from scratch that has proved to be one of the biggest commercial successes of his generation, in just five years. “I’m always very focused, very curious, I want to know everything,” he tells me, of how he’s learnt along the way. “This is my first business, and that’s maybe helped me. I don’t have any rules, I just do what feels right and I do it my way.” And what places that has taken him.
See the Resort 2020 collection below.