How Self-Portrait Became The Label Of Choice For Everyone From Kate Moss To Phoebe Dynevor

Self-Portrait’s Han Chong became the go-to man for post-vaccine social dressing and now he has recruited Bella Hadid as the new face of the brand.

alexa chung self portrait

by Laura Antonia Jordan |
Updated on

For the past year and counting, the only choice of location for interviews has been: Zoom or Teams? So it feels both refreshingly novel and comfortingly old school to meet with Han Chong for coffee at Shoreditch House, a short stroll away from his east London studio. Digital meetings are OK for admin stuff, he says, ‘But how can you chit-chat?’

Digital tedium aside, Han has done OK during the last 16 months. ‘I’m quite a positive person,’ he says, adding he found it surprisingly inspiring ‘to be able to put myself out of the box [of normal life]’. He did tick off a couple of the lockdown clichés, he jokes: living in sweatpants for six months (‘I cannot wear more... I feel like I let myself go’) and learning to cook (fried noodles and Malaysian chicken with green peppers) via YouTube tutorials.

Han Chong - Self Portrait Founder
Han Chong - Self Portrait Founder

Still, as the founder and creative director of Self-Portrait – which he has steered to global brand status in less than a decade – there was inevitably pressure on his shoulders. Not just because the pandemic ravaged the entire fashion industry, but also because of the nature of Self-Portrait: a go-to for playfully pretty occasionwear. It’s unlikely you’ve been to a wedding in the past few years where there hasn’t been at least one Self-Portrait dress present.

Can a party dress brand survive, let alone thrive, when there are no parties to go to?

Bella Hadid For Self Portrait
Bella Hadid for Self-Portrait ©Harley Weir

But Han knew our desire to dress up would return – and he could see it in the sales (his online business grew 65% in the last year). Knitwear performed well in lockdown, though by last winter occasionwear was picking up again. The American market – normally fond of neutrals – was gravitating towards colour. White pieces were surging by February (you do the maths). ‘People are longing to feel good again,’ he says.

Now, amid the tentative unlocking, his instinct has been proved right: see Diane Kruger in a candy-striped miniskirt and sweater set. Nicola Coughlan in a gathered- bodice mididress. Pregnant Princess Beatrice in a puff sleeved polka-dot dress. Paris Hilton in a succession of the signature lace mididresses, Emily Ratajkowski in a knitted midi and Alexa Chung in a lurex playsuit at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Another fan is Phoebe Dynevor, who scored her first campaign as the face of Self-Portrait’s A/W ’21 collection and wore one of his slinky knit dresses to Wimbledon this summer. Thanks to lockdown, Han has spent more time in London than ever and so he knew he wanted a ‘very British’ campaign. Since everyone was watching Bridgerton at Christmas, Phoebe felt like a natural choice. As she shot to fame in lockdown, it felt like a tribute to the times we are living in. ‘[She is] very inspiring for a lot of people – going through what we’ve been through and giving all this positive energy,’ he says. ‘She was so nice, very down to earth, so warm. I feel like her attitude is very Self-Portrait: effortless but kinda cool.’

Phoebe Dynevor in Self Portrait
Phoebe Dynevor in Self Portrait

Shifting gears, he picked – ‘Who else?!’ – Kate Moss to star in the Pre-Fall 2021 campaign. ‘We had so much fun!’ says Chong, who describes Kate as ‘so professional, so chatty, so polite. Full of life!’ and says that the white lace dress she wore was one of her favourite pieces. In their twenties and forties and with wildly different styles, Phoebe and Kate exemplify the broad appeal of Self-Portrait. Phoebe is the embodiment of its sweet side; Kate channels its sexy, sleek confidence. ‘It’s not one type of woman,’ says Han, who adds that, as a designer, he wants to encourage women to inhabit different sides of their personality. He’d love to see breakthrough tennis star Emma Raducanu in a future campaign.

Kate Moss for Self Portrait
Kate Moss for Self Portrait

Fast forward to Spring Summer 2022 - and Chong has landed Bella Hadid to preview key looks for the new season. 'This collection is a love letter to the self-portrait woman - one who is free to face the world, feel like herself and have fun again.' says Chong. 'I wanted to celebrate this spirit with my new collection and wanted to present the different facets of the Self-Portrait woman with a series of images of Bella Hadid transforming into varying sides of her character'. The collection will be released in full in January.

Bella Hadid in Self-Portrait on her campaign shoot
Bella Hadid in Self-Portrait on her campaign shoot ©Harley Weir

He might be an A-list favourite now, but Chong’s story started in a completely different world. Growing up ‘in the countryside, by the sea’ in Penang, Malaysia, his origin story doesn’t involve his mother’s couture collection or even poring over fashion magazines (rather, he says, he didn’t even know he could study fashion until he was 17 – when he went to art college). What did shape his outlook, however, was seeing the way the women in his family and community changed when they got dressed up. ‘When a woman has a great dress, she blossoms straight away,’ he says, creating an hourglass shape with his hands. He was sensitive to women, curious about their needs.

Having decamped to London to study at Central Saint Martins, he initially found it hard to secure a job (‘It’s harder for a foreigner’). Still, spurred on by the anything- is-possible optimism of his early twenties – ‘out until seven, in work at eight’, he laughs – he kept going, eventually landing roles in-house at high-street brands, which gave him a holistic understanding of the business.

Diane Kruger Self portrait
Diane Kruger wearing Self-Portrait

Han noticed a gap in the market for mid-level pricing, that sweet spot between the high street and high-end, still a novel idea when he founded the brand in 2013. Self-Portrait dresses retail for around £350, straddling the attainable and aspirational.

Initially, fashion buyers told him he was pricing them too cheaply, but Han stuck to his guns – and it worked (his first Net-A- Porter drop sold out almost immediately).

princess beatrice self portrait dress
Princess Beatrice wearing Self-Portrait

The democratic spirit doesn’t just apply to the prices but the attitude. Han mans the brand’s Instagram account himself (@mrselfportrait) and welcomes feedback from its 1.1m followers. He’s also buoyed to see a new-generation of brides tagging him in their wedding pictures – there are the pieces he would expect to see getting a big-day twirl, but also those he might not have, like knit sets. It’s inspiring, he says, to see brides dressing for themselves ‘instead of what they’re expected to wear’.

But what about those of us who aren’t anywhere near the white dress stage? Han lights up. ‘There’s a lot of Hot Girl Summer dresses in the collection!’ he giggles conspiratorially, pulling out his phone to proffer suggestions. He pauses on a stretch crêpe mididress, with a slit to the knee. ‘It’s not too revealing and you can eat because it’s gathered here!’ he says pointing out the forgiving ruching around the waist. See, democratic.

This year, Self-Portrait introduced its first childrenswear collection, so what’s next on the agenda? Not to do ‘more, more, more’ but simply to make what he does ‘the best it can be’. Han’s core intention is solid: ‘What I always wanted from the start of Self-Portrait is to make women feel wonderful in themselves. That’s always been my true passion.’

Self Portrait Launches Childrenswear
Self Portrait Launches Childrenswear

Given his newfound skills in the kitchen, might we see a Self-Portrait restaurant perhaps? ‘Umm, not there yet!’ he laughs. Yet. You can’t help but think that if he put his mind to it, it might just happen.


SHOP: The Best Of Self-Portrait

Self Portrait, Cream Ribbed Knit Midi Dress, £3501 of 7

Self Portrait, Cream Ribbed Knit Midi Dress, £350

Self Portrait, Ivory Knit Lace Trim Midi Dress, £3602 of 7

Self Portrait, Ivory Knit Lace Trim Midi Dress, £360

Self Portrait, Dot Mesh Strap Detail Midi Dress, £3503 of 7

Self Portrait, Dot Mesh Strap Detail Midi Dress, £350

Self Portrait, Cinnamon Lace Knit Midi Dress, £3504 of 7

Self Portrait, Cinnamon Lace Knit Midi Dress, £350

Self Portrait, Taupe Taffeta Mini Dress, £2905 of 7

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Self Portrait, Yellow Vintage Floral Maxi Dress, £4206 of 7

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Self Portrait, Canary Yellow Taffeta Mini Dress, £2807 of 7

Self Portrait, Canary Yellow Taffeta Mini Dress, £280

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