LONDON — Han Chong, the London-based Malaysian-born designer behind Self-Portrait, is looking to work on a larger canvas with plans to open a stand-alone store in London later this year, expand the brand’s retail network and launch a footwear line. The contemporary label, which debuted in 2013 and is known for its flirty, feminine dresses that incorporate hand-cut embroidery, lace and sheer overlays, has been growing in the double-digits with retailers including Selfridges, Net-a-porter and Neiman Marcus.
“When I started, I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that this would become what it is today,” said Chong who is the label’s creative director and founder. “I have been very determined to get my message out there about what contemporary is in this climate. It was really hard at the beginning because contemporary was not taken so seriously. But now we have our place in the industry. We’re building a global brand to challenge the notion of luxury by creating a marketable consumer product with beautiful innovative design.”
With prices fringing from 160 pounds for a top to 445 pounds for boots, affordable pricing has been a key to Self-Portrait’s success. Chong, a graduate of Central Saint Martins, said it’s important to him to keep his prices very competitive given the economic climate. His new store, he said, will be all about accessibility.
“When I was a student, I would go into all these luxury stores, but I only experienced going in. I have never experienced buying because it was too expensive for me,” he said during an interview at Shoreditch House in London. “So I want to give my customer that experience and make it so they can afford to buy. That would be so much fun. You have the whole luxury experience and service, but you only pay 300 pounds for a dress.”
The designer plans to open the store on Albermarle Street in London’s Mayfair by December. It will carry the main line collection as well as store exclusives. “I always wanted to open the first one in London because it’s close to home,” Chong said. “I wanted it to be not so obvious but at the same time cool. I want to change people’s perspectives of what a contemporary brand is.”
“Self-Portrait has shaken up the contemporary rtw space with its fun, quirky and architectural silhouettes,” said Helen David, chief merchant at Harrods. “And is really giving all of its competitors a serious run for their money. I haven’t been this impressed by a newcomer in years. Self-Portrait is commercial, feminine with an edge, relevant and clearly a massive hit on Instagram. Bravo to them and I look forward to continuing to support and watch the brand go from strength to strength.”
For the past two seasons, Chong has been expanding in a variety of directions, introducing separates alongside occasionwear dresses. He said while he is still designing for the same woman, he is now focusing more on lifestyle products.
Last year, Self-Portrait teamed with Australian eyewear brand Le Specs on a sunglasses collection and has worked with Robert Clergerie on footwear. He introduced his own footwear capsule collection during the runway show which took place on Sept. 9 at SIR Stage37 in New York and sees it as a step toward launching a fuller offer.
“This runway capsule is what I think the Self-Portrait woman would wear. We mixed in leather and we’re going to make it a bit more feminine [than the Clergerie collaborations], but at the same time, it’s still super cool.”
While Chong did not disclose figures, he said the brand’s growth has been organic and has increased 70 percent over last year. The brand is sold through 350 multibrand stores globally with shops-in-shop at department stores such as Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Harrods as well as Net-a-porter, Stylebop.com and Mytheresa.com.
As a part of the global rollout plan, Chong said he plans to open about five stand-alone stores within the U.K., the U.S. and Asia over the next five years and the designer clarified the money would come from the company.
The U.K. is a key market for the brand and accounts for 30 percent of sales followed by the U.S. at 26 percent, Europe is at 24 percent and Asia is 15 percent. Chong said e-commerce makes up about 15 percent of brand revenue and he is looking to bulk up his web site with more content and make it more of a destination, with exclusive online offers.
Social media is also a key tool for the designer, who prefers to manage the brand’s Instagram account himself. Chong noted that it is key to react to a particular moment. Last year, when the Duchess of Cambridge attended the U.K. Premiere of “A Street Cat Named Bob” at London’s Curzon Mayfair theater she stepped out wearing one of his long white lace crochet maxi dresses. Self-Portrait fans were reactive on social media and the brand saw a huge demand for the dress.
“Before, we didn’t have this platform, but now I feel like you can be close to your consumer,” Chong said. “You can get information firsthand to see whether they like it or not. I’m not on the shop floor like the shop assistants. They have direct contact with the consumer. I talk with them often to see what the customer actually wants. It is super important for me to do that.”
With a studio based in Hoxton in East London, Chong said his team has grown organically over the past few years: He now has teams for merchandising, sales, design and customer service. New hires will include a chief financial officer and a chief operations officer.
“We’ve been working a lot to keep our foundations really strong,” Chong said. “We’ve been hiring a few more senior positions in the company and we’ve continued to do so. Also we were focused on working very closely with retailers, which we’ve partner with since the beginning. We want to give all the support we can to some of the businesses.”
Chong, whose business is self-funded, said he is keeping an open mind about potentially taking on an investor. “I definitely will look into investors if it is right and it is what the brand needs,” Chong said. “I never think of selling outright because there is still so much I want to explore with Self-Portrait that I haven’t done yet, so this is just the start.”