Self-Portrait’s Breakthrough Year

In the last year, Han Chong’s breakout label Self-Portrait has attracted 250 stockists and sold out on Net-a-Porter in two hours. How did he do it?

When Dasha Zhukova, Russian-American heiress and editor-in-chief of Garage magazine, attended Pierre Casiraghi’s wedding at Lake Maggiore this summer, she wore a dress crafted from leaf-patterned guipure lace and lattice embroidery, with delicate spaghetti straps and a sand-coloured mesh lining that fell just below the knee.

“People started asking, ‘Where’s that dress from?’ The more people started wearing our designs, the more we became a mystery,” says Han Chong, founder and creative director of Self-Portrait, the London-based label behind the dress. “Dasha is a millionaire! To think that she chose to wear a dress that costs about $300 to an event where all the women were wearing couture.”

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But this is all part of Self-Portrait’s appeal. The label’s intricately-detailed garments involve the kind of technical work one might expect from a luxury brand. “I could see such big potential in launching a contemporary brand that moves at the speed of the high street, but has a luxurious quality,” says Chong.

It’s a formula that appears to be working. Spring/Summer 2015 has been Self-Portrait’s best-selling collection so far, with a 92 percent sell-through rate. From 2013 to 2015, sales grew by 300 percent — 90 percent of which was driven by wholesale, and 10 percent by online sales. And in just over a year, Self-Portrait has attracted 250 stockists worldwide, including Dover Street Market, Harrods and MyTheresa.com, who have signed on for Spring/Summer 2016.

How did Chong do it?

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Chong’s interest in womenswear design came from unlikely beginnings. “My parents own a shop that sells beef jerky in Malaysia — nothing to do with fashion!” he says. “But I grew up with my aunt, a local artist, who specialised in paintings. She was very creative and had a big influence on me.”

Jennifer Lopez was the first star to publicly step out in Self-Portrait, wearing a $262 tuxedo wrap dress from the label’s first collection, when she was a judge on American Idol in 2014. A few weeks later, model Alessandra Ambrosio was spotted in São Paulo wearing the same dress. But it wasn’t until a year later that the brand began to gain significant red carpet buzz, appearing on celebrities as diverse as Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Stewart, Katy Perry and Beyoncé.

The real breakthrough for Self-Portrait, came when Selfridges became the label’s first major stockist in 2014. “When we got the opportunity to sign an exclusive contract with Selfridges, I felt that it was a big turning point for the brand,” says Chong. Since launching the label, Selfridges has sold over 100 Self-Portrait pieces each week.

“The label continues to be one of our best performers,” says Lydia King, buying manager at Selfridges. “The collection was genuinely different; approaching a very clear ready-to-wear opportunity from a different perspective, and taking contemporary womenswear in an exciting new direction.” According to King, Self-Portrait has been such a hit with customers that the brand has been allocated its own shop-in-shop in both Selfridges London and Manchester.

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Today, the Self-Portrait team consists of seven full-time staff, plus two additional team members in Hong Kong who help oversee shipping and production. “When I first started, I didn’t understand things like margins and sell-through. I always thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ But I definitely learnt a lot of things along the way; learning how to run the business, realising I have to do things like register my company,” says Chong, who attributes some of his business acumen to the experience of running his first fashion label.

Going forward, Chong’s top priority is growing the business in the US, Self-Portrait’s second-largest market after the UK, in terms of both online customers and wholesale orders. “The US is important for us, but I also want to do things in a way that is controlled. I want to grow the brand as organically as possible. It’s easy to get carried away,” he says.

New product categories are also in the pipeline. Chong plans to launch a bridal collection, and a sunglasses collaboration with Le Specs is set to launch in March 2016. “Kidswear might also be a future opportunity for us,” Chong says. “A lot of our customers have asked if we’ll do childrenswear. Imagine that! They want a mini-me version of themselves.”

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Autumn/Winter 2015-16 Balmain

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Those transfixed by Kim Kardashian’s new platinum blonde hairdo, which she debuted on the front row at Balmain, were shocked from their trance when Alessandra Ambrosio opened the show in full, in-your-face, wham-bam, glamazon glory.

She entered in a cut-to-the navel, floor-length, mustard pleated gown, belted with glossy leather. Glamour is to be expected at Balmain, but the fab-factor was dialled way up.

Vintage undertones ran deep here – if it was J.W. Anderson‘s job in London to banish the Seventies revival in favour of the Eighties, then Olivier Rousteing has picked up the baton in Paris. Although Rousteing’s show notes claimed a Seventies reference, most of these proportions – and that fierce femme attitude – felt more at home in an Eighties context.

When the collection did riff on the Seventies, then that was visible in the billowing chiffon jumpsuits, printed with popping florals and finished with a ruffled décolletage.

A focus on proportion asserted itself in wide-leg ballooning flares in fine, high-shimmer fabric, pin-tucked to accentuate the pertest of derrières, which were divine; think Pleats Please meets Kim Kardashian and you’re part way there.

In fact, Rousteing may have a #BalmainArmy but Kim was clearly the muse inspiring this collection. The newly blonde bombshell looked particularly taken with a pair of sheer lace kick flares, worn with a sheer lace top tucked into a high waist, and cinched with a wide, pearl-embellished belt.

And below the waist? Perhaps the biggest surprise came in the cover up. These clothes were designed to be less fleshy than what we have come to expect from 28-year-old Rousteing. He chooses long-legged, glowing, robust-looking girls to walk in his show (the kind of gloriously sexy goddesses you’d find walking the Victoria’s Secret runway) and there’s always oodles of skin on display. Legs when visible were in tights – a low, possibly eight-denier by the looks of things.

This was of course an autumn/winter collection, so perhaps that explains the long-sleeves and the heavier handwriting, but it must have been about more than seasonality. Perhaps this woman wants to trade less on her sexuality and more on her talents; let’s face it…

The Balmain woman is so fierce she doesn’t feel the cold.

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