Fashion is meant to be fun. It is meant to empower, to serve as an honest reflection of significant socio-political affairs and the times we live in. A good brand is able to encapsulate all that and more, perfectly balancing weighty topics with light-hearted dashes of sartorial amusement. A shining example would be the London-based brand Self-Portrait, a ready-to-wear womenswear label established in 2013 by Malaysian-born designer Han Chong. Often lauded for its elegant occasion wear that celebrates femininity, the label has melded contemporary design tropes with classic silhouettes that maintain a certain measure of functionality.
The journey to fashion success was one of endless blood, sweat and tears. A fellow Central Saint Martins alumnus, Chong recalls being the only Southeast Asian face within the fashion design (MA) course. He shares: “Back then, Saint Martins was mostly made up of Japanese kids that came from wealthy families. I was the only Malaysian at that time, and I had to learn early on how to navigate very competitive environments.” He looks back at the various part-time jobs he took on to make a living as a fashion design student, which included working retail at high-street stores and even a hairdresser at one point.
In 2010 Chong started the brand Three Floors with his business partner, a venture that would last two and a half years. He eventually left due to restrains in his creative freedom, explaining: “I realised that with another partner my brand vision and goals were compromised, so I left to start Self-Portrait. I was very determined to develop a brand that I was proud to stand by.” Self-Portrait was officially launched in 2013, consisting merely of Chong himself and a sole design intern. Nevertheless, there was endless grit and resolve. “ I was very determined to make this brand successful, to achieve what I couldn’t with Three Floor. Being young definitely helped, as I was bursting with energy. The passion overpowered all tangible obstacles, from a diminutive capital to lack of manpower.”
“I have always wanted to design pieces that empowered women, invoking self-confidence in the wearer.”
Fast forward eight years, and Self-Portrait has seen major success, donned by some of the biggest celebrity faces. Chong elaborates on the what the label means to him, stating that he had set out with the goal to elevate his consumers’ moods. “I have always wanted to design pieces that empowered women, not just for my own creative desires but a greater focus on how I could invoke self-confidence in the wearer. We offer a wide selection of garments that range occasion dresses to workwear. I feel like women play different roles day-to-day and require different outfits to perform these respective roles. We want to be part of our consumers’ journeys.”
One only needs to take a look at the latest pre-fall 2023 collection to notice the versatility within the garments. Timeless silhouettes that feature intricate detailing reflected relaxed styles that maintained a level of pizzaz and allure. Pastel shades of bone and baby blue were present throughout the collection, contrasted with jet black and neon pink. Muses Chong of the collection: “With this collection officially being in a time post-covid, I wanted the self-portrait woman to have fun. The pieces are reflective of ease and vacation—happy colours and shapes that are more streamlined while remaining functional and comfortable.” There was an emphasis on the development of innovative fabrics as well, such as lace, mesh and a new type of denim.
“With this collection officially being in a time post-covid, I wanted the self-portrait woman to have fun.”
An exclusive campaign was also shot for the pre-fall 2023 collection, featuring one of the brand’s ambassador—famed Chinese actress Zhao Liying. Chong brings up the first tine he chanced upon Zhao’s work, and extols her impact within the Asia-Pacific region: “I saw her in a tv series last year and her powerful acting resonated with me. For ambassadors we always seek strong, empowering women such as Gigi Hadid, Naomi Campbell and now Zhao Liying who all represent similar traits but speak to different groups of women.”
Self-Portrait also has an ongoing sponsorship program with Central Saint Martins since 2018, supporting the new generation of creative talents. This program includes financial backing as well as mentorship opportunities for the students during the duration of their studies within Saint Martins. Shares Chong of why he decided to start this program with his alma mater: “Being a designer in London is extremely expensive. Since I have been in the shoes of these young designers, I want to use my expertise and resources to help them out.”
He also started this fund to set an example, hoping other bigger brands will follow suit and play their part in nurturing the next era of designers. “The new generation has a very strong point of view, and it is no longer necessary in today’s day and age to follow the traditional route of working your way to the top at a large luxury house.” As for what the future holds in store for his label, Chong has his sights on expanding further into lifestyle products. “I recently started delving into producing accessories, so I would love to hone in on that. I want to be an all-encompassing brand that has items for every situation.”