Han Chong Of Self-Portrait Reveals The Secret Behind His Fashion Brand's Global Success

By Koyyi Chin

Self-Portrait has become one of the biggest international cult fashion labels since launching seven years ago. The brand's founder, Malaysian entrepreneur Han Chong, explains what he's learned along the way

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Image: Han Chong
Cover  Image: Han Chong

For Han Chong, the founder and creative director of fashion label Self-Portrait, the only connection he had with fashion were moments when his mother and aunts would dress up for weddings or the few special occasions held in the small, sleepy town he grew up in. Raised in his father’s bak kwa store in Penang, London seemed like a faraway dream woven by his tutor, whom Chong met while studying art and design in Kuala Lumpur.

“When I first arrived at Central Saint Martins, I could scarcely believe it, I was just so shocked,” recalls Chong. “Here I was, standing before this famous institution with its rich history of amazing creatives It was definitely a ‘pinch me’ moment.”

Despite the initial culture shock, the simple pleasure of wearing one’s best was a memory that stuck with him, and soon became the core purpose of Self-Portrait’s highly sought-after pieces. Known for feminine, sartorial style and comparatively more affordable price points (starting from about US$400), the label’s focus was to create accessible high-fashion. The designer sought to empower the wearer with comfort as well as style as she goes about her day.

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And while the label continues to use its signature guipure lace, Chong is always on the lookout for new ideas as trends evolve. From colours and textiles to silhouettes, he makes sure to remix the classics with a modern edge.

“Whenever I design collections, I always think of the everyday woman—what she’s feeling, what she needs or wants in her life at that very moment. I want the woman who wears my dresses to feel like she can do whatever she wants without feeling restricted or uncomfortable. I want her to live in my designs, to feel good in them and make memories with them, just like my mother as well as my aunts did. Like something you’d wear at an intimate dinner with friends, or a wild Friday night with the girls.”

Running a fashion business takes a lot of work. It’s not just about being creative, it’s also about being aware of what it means to be commercial without having to compromise your artistic direction
Han Chong

Like many designers, one of Chong's biggest early hurdles was getting a foothold in the industry. 

“After I graduated, I basically threw myself into many different roles from the ground up as I wanted to try out all these creative roles. Even when it meant having to struggle with paying rent. Despite the difficulties, that experience was invaluable because in order to realise my vision, I needed to first build my foundation and expand my horizons.”

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Image: Han Chong
Above  Han Chong

Having had firsthand experience what it was like to struggle as a young graduate with little to no connections, and without the knowledge of how the industry operates, Chong has since launched a five-year scholarship programme with his alma mater; the programme provides a total of five students the financial backing they needed to complete their MA degree in fashion.

“Running a fashion business takes a lot of work,” says the designer. “It’s not just about being creative, it’s also about being aware of what it means to be commercial without having to compromise your artistic direction. You have to be willing to put your nose to the grindstone. Determination and resilience are the biggest contributors to success.”

“Sometimes, the difficult moments end up being the greatest lessons,” he adds. “I often remind myself to follow my own instincts, and that you should never, ever be afraid of dreaming big. It’s important to have a positive mindset, to focus on what works and what you want to achieve. By the time I created Self-Portrait, I was more mature and confident in my own abilities.”

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Social media has been instrumental in the label’s rapid growth, says Chong as it allows the Self-Portrait to directly engage with its consumers. “Since physical connections are now limited, online communications are crucial for us to get customer feedback, which has always been my priority and inspiration whenever I create a collection.”

As people become more educated about sustainability and are beginning to reassess the way they consume fashion, Self-Portrait has also started thinking seriously about greener production methods.

“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to work differently,” he explains. “Now that travel has become restricted, we’re sort of forced to really amp up our tech game, which gives us a new perspective on how we can further reduce our carbon footprint.”

“We’ve learned about what we can live with and without, so, moving forward, I think people will reassess what they really need as they become more conscious of the environment around us as well as how that inadvertently impacts our lives and vice versa.”

See more honourees from the Fashion & Beauty category on the Gen.T List.

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