Leaving the swing tag on your new dress is admittedly one of the more unfortunate fashion faux pas someone can make, but not one that normally warrants international news. That is, unless, you are Meghan Markle and you’re on your first official royal tour. The belted red dress that the then-expectant royal was pictured wearing stepping off the plane in Tonga last November went viral thanks to the innocuous white cardboard label bouncing along its hemline. It read “Self-Portrait”, the London-based brand founded by Han Chong five years ago, and for him it was as if Christmas had come early.
“That red dress generated 1.5bn brand mentions in two days in the USA alone,” Chong laughs incredulously when we meet in his sprawling east London studio, where his teams are working amid a jovial hum. “I do not normally get CNN reporting on my clothes.”
It is normal, however, for there to be hype around his brand. This is exactly this kind of viral marketing that has made Self-Portrait the runaway fashion success story of the past five years. In opting to wear one of his distinctive lace designs, the Duchess of Sussex followed in the footsteps of Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Reese Witherspoon, Zendaya, Priyanka Chopra, Michelle Obama, Maisie Williams and Kate Middleton, who all sent the social stratosphere into meltdown about what they were wearing – albeit without a swing tag in sight.
It’s a familiar fashion story: a celebrity wears a designer dress, the world wants it but only the wealthy can afford it; cue myriad high-street copies at a cut price. Here lies the secret to Self-Portrait’s success. From day one, Chong has defiantly kept his prices at the lower end of the designer market. They consistently hover around the £350 mark. As a result, if someone wants to wear what their icon has modelled, many will have a chance of buying the real thing (the accessible messaging is clearly attractive to those in the public eye).
“From the start I wanted to create a brand that is really inclusive, so price point was always a big part of it,” he says. “At the start, brands [either] designed for high fashion or low fashion and there was little in between.”
It’s achievable, he says, by considering how price dictates design rather than the other way around. “When I started, I had really small capital and had to make money within nine months, so I didn’t have the luxury of being crazy and fabulous. I had to come up with a really creative idea to see how it could work in that term.” The brainwave was to use expensive fabrics, but sparingly: “If I want to make a dress for £300 using fabric that is £50 per metre, we only use a quarter of a metre, put it on the best part of the body and then mix it with other fabrics.” Chong would like to use more expensive materials, but says: “I design for people to wear, not just for my own creative desire.” As it turns out, his mixed-texture method has become a much-coveted USP.
Intricate lace panels made on a bespoke laser-cutting machine in China are still his signature. Chong frequently visits the factories that produce his clothes, and has technicians there make sure working conditions, quality and ethical processes adhere to international standards. “Everything we do is tested against industry standards, which is actually the most expensive thing for us – but it’s really important that anything that is not good for the environment we don’t do.”
If a designer label selling at these prices sounds commonplace, that’s because many brands – from Ganni to Kitri – now do the same. But when Self-Portrait launched in 2013, the fashion world wasn’t ready. “Five years ago, it was so difficult to get into [somewhere like] Net-a-Porter because they loved the pieces but didn’t know where to place us because we would conflict with other brands. Our dresses were £300, but [everything else like it] was practically £2,000.”
After the online retailer Shopbop bought his first collection of 17 pieces in 2013, his break into the mainstream came when Selfridges took a punt and bought his second the following year. “We did a big event [in store] and a week later everything was gone,” he says. “Net-a-Porter picked us up [shortly after] and sold out in 24 hours. I checked my phone the morning after the collection went live and called the buyers and asked if there was something wrong with their website as nothing was for sale. They said, ‘No it’s sold out.’”
Poppy Lomax, the buying manager at Selfridges, confirms the brand’s ongoing popularity, calling the new collections – which now average 113 looks – a “consistent hit with customers”. She affirms its “instant popularity really paved the way for the explosion of successful contemporary brands”. Five years later, Self-Portrait is now stocked at 13 leading online retailers and has more than 100 stockists in 48 countries.
Pivotal to Self-Portrait’s success has undoubtedly been tapping into wedding season. Since the summer of 2015, a year after the brand was launched, it has been the unofficial go-to for wedding guest and, frequently, bridesmaid attire. Several silhouettes to fit a range of shapes and sizes, fresh prints and a quality finish have made them a sensation – not to mention their look-at-me appeal.
“When I design I imagine what kind of attention it is going to get. When someone walks [into a venue wearing my dress] I want people to turn their heads. If someone buys a new dress and it doesn’t get noticed, it’s a waste of money!”
The value for money extends to an awareness by Chong of how women want to shop. “It’s very important to have pieces that you can wear over and over and have fun with. There are some dresses that you couldn’t have fun with because they are too expensive and you worry about spilling a drink on them. You’re not so worried with my dresses. They are dresses you can have memories with, which is important.”
At 40, Chong’s own sense of mischief – not to mention his slight frame and smooth complexion – belies his years. He reveals with delight that at his Mayfair flagship behind Bond Street (where, contrary to Net-a-Porter’s original placement concerns, being situated next door to the world’s luxury labels pays off at his prices) he regularly hits the shop floor incognito. “People think I am a shop assistant,” he says, rolling his head back laughing. “But it’s important because if people know who I am, they say how beautiful things are, not: ‘This doesn’t fit me properly.’ Getting direct comments from my customers is really honest and makes the collections stronger.”
It was while studying art in his native Malaysia that the fashion match was struck. Having moved to Kuala Lumpur from the island of Penang at 18, he studied art under a Central Saint Martins graduate. He moved to London and by 2002 had graduated from the prestigious school with a BA in womenswear. He went on to spend his 20s and early 30s working in the design teams at several brands in the UK, including Topshop, and after a short stint at Three Floor, the company he co-founded in 2011, he went solo with Self-Portrait in late 2013.
Like many fashion designers, Chong adopts a uniform when it comes to his own wardrobe. “In the morning when you’re thinking about what you’re going to design, you just think about what’s comfortable for the day.” He can currently be spotted in white T-shirts from Prada, Jil Sander shorts and his signature trilby from the hat maker Christys’ in St James’s on his short morning walk from his Shoreditch home to his Hoxton studio.
As well as launching swimwear, sunglasses, shoes and a collaboration with the denim brand Lee in the past year, expansion into Scandinavia (currently untapped) and working on distribution in Japan and China are on the cards. Most recently has been the launch of the Icons collection. “Lots of people were asking us on social media to bring back a dress that they didn’t get a chance to buy, so we reissued [the most popular] from the past five years.” Customers who missed out on Michelle, Maisie and Meghan’s dresses the first time round have the opportunity to snap them up. Swing tag optional.
Self-Portrait Icons collection is available now; self-portrait-studio.com