Self-Portrait's Han Chong on his illustrious 10-year journey in the fashion industry

The Penang-born London-based designer shows off his newest collection in KL.

Chong: My mission has always been to create clothes that lift my customers’ mood (All photos: Low Yen Yeing/ The Edge Malaysia)

Han Chong developed an affinity for fashion early on, mostly from observing how his mother and aunts dressed in their finery during special occasions and from reading international style magazines that arrived months after their release at local bookstores in Penang.

His passion for fashion was heightened by his artist aunt who taught him to see art, design and details in a new light. He enrolled at Equator Academy of Art (now Equator College) — a leading art, media and design institution in the northern part of the country — and it was here that he crossed paths with Jing Ooi, a tutor and graduate of Central Saint Martins (CSM), who inspired him to step out of his comfort zone and continue his education at London’s famed fashion school.

At 19, Chong worked for a designer in Kuala Lumpur, from whom he picked up bits and bobs about fashion shows, styling and photography. All the while thoughts of London constantly played on his mind, but he realised it would not be easy finding a job there. Knowing he could count on family, he begged his father to pay for his bachelor’s degree programme in womenswear design at CSM.

And that was how Chong ended up in the city of his dreams. In 2013, he founded Self-Portrait to dress women (and girls) and empower them through functional fashion, for day or night and every occasion. And the rest is a beautiful history made of lace, fine finesse and success.



From the very beginning, the ethos of the brand has been guided by Chong’s aspiration to design for all women.

“My mission has always been to create clothes that lift my customers’ mood. When they wear my clothes, I want them to feel good, beautiful and confident, no matter who they are,” he says earnestly in halting English. We met recently when he made a rare stop in Kuala Lumpur while on a whirlwind tour of Asia to celebrate Self-Portrait’s latest collection.

That mission has never changed from day one.

“It was never my intention for the brand to overpower the wearer. I have a deep appreciation for women with different personalities, and my clothes are never meant to overshadow them,” he explains the principle anchoring his brand.

A nicely tailored outfit can change a woman’s mood instantly and is a great boost of confidence. Women can do anything when they are self-assured.


Self-Portrait pre-fall 2023 collection lands at Club 21 Multilabel Store, Pavilion KL

This gives Self-Portrait the freedom and ability to speak to a broader customer base, from pop stars and princesses to everyday women. Their individual identity is never lost in a Self-Portrait dress. In fact, Chong wants them to feel the very best version of themselves at any stage in their day or life.

Although he counts celebrities and British royalty among his clients, he is unfazed by the high-profile association.

“Yes, I am honoured to dress Kate Middleton [Catherine, Princess of Wales] but I feel the same way when I dress every other woman. If I can make them feel good, that’s all that matters to me. I think a lot about how someone wants to not only look but, perhaps more importantly, feel in Self-Portrait designs,” he says.

He refuses to drop names but we’ve seen his designs donned by singer-songwriter Beyoncé, former US first lady Michelle Obama, heiress Paris Hilton, actresses Margot Robbie, Reese Witherspoon, Zendaya and Priyanka Chopra, and model Kendall Jenner, among others. Within our shores, Self-Portrait’s feminine frocks have appeared at the glitziest high-profile events, worn by KL’s most fashionable set.


The latest 'self' expression 

Lace has been a mainstay of Self-Portrait and in its latest pre-fall collection, Chong jazzed up his signature silhouettes with new lace fabrics and techniques as well as sequin and rhinestone embellishments. The heavy influences of 1990s fashion are also particularly profound.

“For this collection, we spent hours researching and understanding vintage lace and how to merge it with new techniques. The result is a completely new direction with evening wear, where a minimalist gown or clean-cut top shimmers without overshadowing the wearer,” he says.

For this capsule collection, Chong studied the lifestyle of women during this time, keeping in mind “the fabric has to reflect where she’s going and what she’s doing”. The embellishments appear more than usual and happy colours are aplenty. “I feel these women I design for just want to go out and have fun. A lot of my pieces reflect that.”

When he is designing, there is a lot of consideration for the wearer. It is very important to understand the Self-Portrait woman and her environment, he thinks.

“After the pandemic, I noticed habits and preferences have changed. Women have got used to loungewear or sports attire, and they still look for functional elements and comfort in their clothes,” he observes.

His creative process always boils down to how he makes a woman feel great. “This Asian trip is a great way for me to see how they are doing, so there’s no disconnect between the brand and its audience.”

The pre-fall collection is available at the Club 21 Multilabel Store in Pavilion KL. At a recent meet-and-greet session there, his loyal fans who showed up in full force could not stop gushing about the man behind their favourite brand and his deft talent in making them feel très chic, or fashionable.

What more can we say about the sought-after designer who captured the world of fashion with his Azaelea dress made from textured guipure lace and a contrasting, transparent ladder trim? Held up by delicate spaghetti straps, the skirt stands out with a full, pleated silhouette and a hand-cut, raw lace hemline that gives it timeless appeal.


The pre-fall collection is available at the Club 21 Multilabel Store in Pavilion KL

Celebrating milestones

Self-Portrait is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and Chong has certainly had an illustrious journey since venturing out on his own and building a brand with a cult following. “Over the years, we have been able to forge a strong creative language and a very loyal customer base and community.” That is certainly true.

Last year, the brand entered the accessories market with the launch of its Bow Bag following a successful run in the kids’ and wedding departments. The bag that boasts a classic shape with a top-handle design is finished with the signature motif of the house — the bow. Designing accessories is fun and it makes an outfit complete, says Chong.

“I took my time to introduce the Bow Bag. It was important for it to be fun and accessible. I really wanted it to be a cute arm candy and not have my customers overthink when purchasing it. It is made with high quality materials, but it won’t break the bank.”

He acquired the assets to the Roland Mouret label in December 2021 under his new holding company SP Collection which, he says, “is the most expensive Christmas present I have ever bought for myself”. He brought the flailing brand back from the brink and is taking it on the next stage of its journey by building on its legacy, with Mr Mouret himself on board.

“We’ve put a lot of energy and passion into our new company and the necessary steps to resurrect the brand. I appreciate the positive legacy of Roland Mouret, as we have the same principle of empowering women. The brand is slightly higher-end than Self-Portrait and my idea is to widen its demographics and serve a woman at different stages of her life.”


In retrospect

When Chong sets his mind to something, his determination is unwavering. He believes in taking chances and just “going for it”. Just like the time he moved to London to achieve something bigger.

If he could do it all over again, would he change anything?

“There are always going to be challenges that will continue to test you, but you learn and grow along the way. The biggest thing I have learnt is to always keep an open mind and to adapt to whatever is thrown in your direction. In short, I don’t think I would change anything in my journey. Everything happens for a reason. But I will always be open to change,” he says.

“Fashion is constantly changing. You need to continue learning. For the past 10 years, I’ve learnt to keep an open mind to adapt. Capital is a constant challenge. I started with a very small capital and I needed big funds to keep me going because my dreams were not small. Every day is a problem-solving journey. In this industry, you have to be passionate. Sometimes, that is all you need to keep going.”

Chong says people often think there’s only one way of doing business in fashion but that is not the case.

“We all have different journeys. We can all take different paths and do things differently. When I started, I had no experience in fashion, but I kept an open mind and was curious about everything. There is no one hard and fast rule in fashion. You create your own rules.”


Chong jazzed up his signature silhouettes with new lace fabrics and techniques as well as sequin and rhinestone embellishments

The same applies to his Self-Portrait brand — you create your own rules, your own style. He doesn’t follow trends and doesn’t think anyone has to either if they don’t want to. He trailblazed his own path and is now helping aspiring designers who dream of owning their own fashion label.

The brand is committed to supporting creative talent through a number of initiatives, including a scholarship programme with the prestigious CSM. “I have been mentoring students who are taking their master’s degree in fashion at my alma mater, especially those in real need of financial support.”

He understands their struggle, having been there himself.

“If I can play a small part in their journey, why not? The cost of education and living is high in London. I remember I had to take up multiple jobs just to pay for the materials used in the course.”

He hopes he can help these students so they can focus on their learning instead of worrying about finances.

Chong may have found his base in the UK, but his heart will always be in Malaysia. Every year, he returns during Christmas and it was only during the pandemic that he had to skip the journey home.

“I was travelling so much and the pandemic really taught me to slow down and take it easy. I even learnt how to cook!” he confesses, breaking into a wide smile.

What does he miss most about Penang and Malaysia when he is away? “Family and food!” came his short and sweet reply.

Home will always be where the heart is, but the world is where his art is. And just like that, he is off to the next destination to meet his Self-Portrait women in another country.


This article first appeared on June 5, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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