Han Chong is on to something special. Malaysian-born and educated at London’s exclusive Central Saint Martins design school, Chong has made more impact on the fashion world in four years than many designers do in four decades.
In less than half a decade, he’s turned a brand new label into an international powerhouse. Stocked by some of the world’s largest retailers, including Selfridges and Net-a-Porter, and with his own London boutique dressing many of the world’s most famous celebrities (like Beyoncé, Khloe Kardashian, Reese Witherspoon, and Zendaya), Self-Portrait is the picture of success.
It’s a story that designers around the world are keen to replicate. Who wouldn’t like to say they went from day one to creating one of Pippa Middleton’s dresses of choice in just a few short years? But making lightning strike twice means understanding what Chong did right the first time around.
Han Chong’s Self-Portrait
Within its first 18 months, Self-Portrait had already caught the eye of Selfridges’ buying team.
This relationship, according to Chong, catapulted the brand to fame.
“When we got the opportunity to sign an exclusive contract with Selfridges, I felt that it was a big turning point for the brand,” Chong said.
But what was it that made Self-Portrait stand out from the rest?
With most new labels—even those headed by experienced designers like Chong—it takes a few seasons to establish a unique voice and resonate with customers.
According to Selfridges buying manager Lydia King, Self-Portrait’s first few collections already had the confidence, clarity, and purpose of a much older brand.
“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,” she said.
Even by this early stage, Chong’s own voice was already clearly established in each piece. His playful, modern approach to lace adorned with leather, suede and sheer panels was already a recognizable favorite of influencers and buyers across the industry, allowing Self-Portrait to quickly carve out a unique niche for itself in the market.
Self-Portrait’s Fashion Brand Voice on Digital Channels
Chong’s strength was in recognizing the appeal of his unique perspective on fashion and allowing it to pervade every part of Self-Portrait.
From marketing to design to business choices such as stocking and pricing, everything about Self-Portrait reflects the brand’s sensibilities.
Key to that is the brand’s dismissal of the elitism and high prices that many other labels engage in, summarized in Chong’s comment to Elle in 2014 that “Beauty shouldn’t only be an option for the privileged few”.
Instead, Chong insists on the brand remaining accessible to more, with dresses available for as little as $500.
This dedication to quality and affordability springs from Chong’s own experiences as a broke student watching his friends struggle to find beautiful outfits on a budget.
This ethos of approachability pervades the collection and marketing, with Chong himself choosing a more casual wardrobe of jeans, t-shirts, and runners capped with his signature fedora and making time to have lunch with his interviewers.
The relatively low price-point and emphasis on accessibility leads Self-Portrait to form far fewer formal relationships with influencers and bloggers.
Where other brands rely on paid partnerships with influencers to evangelize, Self-Portrait lets the products and loyal celebrity fans talk for them. Not to say Self-Portrait is not a tastemaker favorite, simply the brand has successfully leveraged its position as a mid-cost luxury brand fully, reaching customers across demographics through fashion shows and word-of-mouth, without help from intermediaries.
Early on, the business struggled to gain traction. Speaking with Fashionista in 2015, Chong reflected on the first couple years of Self-Portrait and explained the challenges he faced establishing a new label:
“I think it’s always quite difficult as a young designer everywhere, especially for young brands who have a low budget for advertisement and these kinds of things.”
Chong believes it’s gotten easier for brands to broadcast via social media, but also holds the opinion it’s not a solution by itself.
Having the tool isn’t the same as knowing how to use it; to succeed in fashion, you need to know how to reach people who appreciate your unique style.
“Recently, because of social media, [..], you don’t have to spend a lot of your budget on getting the brand out there. You have to know how to get the right audience and how to get it out there. It’s a bit easier for me, but for a young brand, I think it’s really hard if you don’t know [and] if you don’t have the resources and the information.”
What We Can Learn From Self-Portrait
Find Your Voice
Determine your quirk and make it the key message of your campaign.
Much of Self-Portrait’s press focuses on how Chong takes lace—a traditional material thought to be unfashionable—and uses it as the core component of his most flattering and wearable pieces.
That tension between classic materials and modern design is the heart of the brand’s image and draws attention from bloggers, reporters, and industry watchers.
Keep It Natural
Tell your own story.
There’s not a designer out there who isn’t plugged into Instagram on a day-to-day basis.
The daily exposure to thousands of posts tagged with #sp #ad and #partner can make many designers think paid influencers are the only way to reach your market.
While you definitely want buzz—after all, it’s how Chong went from a fresh name to dressing literal royalty in a few years—finding alternative ways of reaching an audience potentially sick of a samey and increasingly homogenized influencer market is where you’ll find true value.
Use social media to amplify your distinct voice. Create an authentic message relevant to the people most passionate about your brand and watch your loyal following build itself.
Between the dollar signs and the multinational corporations, it can be hard to remember fashion is art. As a designer, your work is an expression of yourself, and how you talk about—and how you market it—should be just as personal.
Your unique fashion brand voice is what should shine through in your pieces, and it’s what should shine through in your social media marketing.