From Penang to London, Han Chong is the Malaysian designer celebrities and royals want to wear
Han Chong, the Penang-born founder of the fashion label Self-Portrait, has found success in five short years with a client list that includes royals and celebrities such as the Duchess of Cambridge, the Duchess of Sussex, Beyoncé and Priyanka Chopra.
The graduate of Central Saint Martins started the London-based label in 2013 offering designer womenswear at affordable prices. Han believes that anyone can be fashionable, not just the privileged few. Self-Portrait is inclusive, and the look is lace, which Han has modernised and incorporated into dresses that make women feel feminine and confident.
What made you decide to become a fashion designer? Was there a defining moment?
My tutor introduced me to Fashion while I was studying Art in Penang. I became really curious and interested about the industry, coming from a small town.
You grew up in Penang. Did your childhood have any bearing in your interest in fashion?
My aunt was a local artist. She taught me to open my eyes to the world around me, viewing art and design in new ways. The saying ‘the devil is in the details’ is something that really resonates with me. I’m obsessed with analysing and perfecting the tiny details as they are what can make a piece so special. Fashion is something I naturally gravitated towards and I worked in various positions in the industry to gain experience. This knowledge and experience have made me a better fashion designer today.
What’s the story behind naming your label Self-Portrait?
It is a play on the modern and traditional. Historically, artists have always painted self-portraits. Today, we have the selfie culture, it’s a reinterpretation of the classic self-portrait. I’ve always been intrigued by the self-portrait as a form of personal expression.
Why did you choose London to pursue a career in fashion? Why not Paris or New York, even Japan?
I originally came to London to study at Central Saint Martins. It’s an inspiring city to live in as it is so diverse. There’s always something happening and exhibitions to see. For me, it was the best place to continue my career in fashion.
Your success has been meteoric since Self-Portrait was founded in 2013, with royalty and A-list celebrities among your fan followings. Did you ever expect it to turn out this way?
No, not at all! I started Self-Portrait to bring something new to the industry by making fashion more accessible. I’m still shocked and excited when I see a new celebrity wearing one of my designs and have to pinch myself to see if it is real. More people are discovering the brand every day, and it’s so interesting to see how they choose to wear it.
Why did you choose to focus on lace in your designs? Your dresses are super-feminine and they flatter the female body, but do you agree that not everyone can carry off a lace design? How do you get around this?
There was a fabric market close to where I grew up. I always found the intricacies of lace to be so beautiful. It was a material I wanted to explore in greater detail. I don’t necessarily agree that not everyone can carry off lace. Instead, I believe in refreshing the way women wear it. The modern woman is sophisticated and driven. I try to design pieces she can incorporate into her everyday wardrobe and feel feminine and confident.
What is your philosophy on fashion?
I think fashion is not for the privileged few. It should be inclusive. I’ve worked really hard to prove that a brand in the contemporary price point doesn’t have to sacrifice design and quality.
Where do you find inspiration?
I think inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone. It’s so important to keep an open mind. I like to bounce ideas off people to help me realise an idea. Even the most casual of conversations can inspire you.
Malaysia must feel like a long way away. Do you keep up with what’s happening back home? How often do you go back to Penang?
I speak with my family often. I try to visit as often I can, even if it’s only for a few days between business trips. They often send me articles they think I would be interested in or should be aware of.
You have fans back home. Have you ever thought of opening a standalone store in Malaysia?
We opened our first standalone store in London in March this year. The experience was a learning curve for myself and everyone on my team. There is so much involved! That being said, it’s so great to have a space to interact with our customers. I love popping in to speak with them. Their feedback is so key when I’m designing; it is all for them after all. For now, we are still refining how we work in the store but hopefully we’ll be able to open more in the future.
How do you see women’s fashion changing in the next couple of years?
I think it will be about breaking down the relationship between the customer and the brand. Through social media, you can have a more honest relationship. They give me lots of feedback and that has an impact on how I design. I want my garments to make them feel confident. That being said, you can’t forget to offer them a bit of a surprise each season. Offering them something new keeps people excited.