In 2013, when designer Han Chong launched his contemporary womenswear brand, Self-Portrait, he faced a stern response from retailers: Nice designs, but not expensive enough, they said. Shoppers expect a certain price point from luxury brands, they said. Tough, he said.
Well, essentially that.
He stuck to his guns, determined to offer luxurious wares at prices that aren’t cheap, by any means, but aren’t astronomically high either. The gamble paid off. His ultrafeminine dresses, with sheer lace, delicate eyelet, and frilly trim, quickly won over high-profile fans, including Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, royals Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton, plus Kate’s sister, Pippa Middleton, and a slew of other bold-faced names.
Born in Penang, Malaysia, Chong, 40, now lives and works in London, and his label is sold at major retailers, from Selfridges to Net-a-Porter to Neiman Marcus.
When you launched Self-Portrait, retailers pushed you to go for a luxury price point. You resisted. Wouldn’t it have been easier to go along?
There are plenty of brands out there designing luxury fashion, but it’s not accessible. Although it might have been easier, I wanted to bring something new to the table by bridging the massive gap between high street and luxury. I’ve always believed fashion should be more inclusive. Luxury shouldn’t only be for the privileged few. My goal in starting Self-Portrait was to change people’s perspectives on what makes a luxury brand.
Leaving Malaysia to come to London—how tough was that transition?
It was my tutor at college who encouraged me to move to London to study at Central Saint Martins. [Which he did, and this year Chong will launch a scholarship program there to support young talent.] It’s been the most rewarding experience. London is diverse and inspiring. There’s always a gallery opening or a pop-up. I could think of no better place to live and set up a business.
What did you find most surprising about London?
It never stops moving.
And the one thing you’d change about it, if you could?
Ah, yes. Does being an expat give you a perspective that’s helpful in your business?
In London, almost everyone you meet is from somewhere else.
Everyone has a unique perspective on the city. However, within a business, you have to focus on building your own story and vision, rather than looking at what others are doing. When I launched Self-Portrait, I focused on creating a signature—the “Azalea” [a dress style of sheer textured lace that fast became a red-carpet staple, worn by Miranda Kerr, Bella Thorne, and Maisie Williams, among others]. It helped to get the brand noticed.
A designer’s schedule includes lots of travel. Do you enjoy that, or are you a homebody?
I spend half my time traveling. At the moment, I’m still enjoying it! It’s the nature of the job that you get to meet many interesting people during your travels. But London will always be a home that I’m happy to come back to.
You opened your first stand-alone store in London last year. How’s that going?
The experience was a learning curve—there is so much involved! That being said, it’s so great to have a space [in which] to interact with our customers. I love popping in to speak with them. Their feedback is so key when I’m designing. It’s all for them, after all.