For a brand that first appeared on fashion floors in autumn 2013, Han Chong's Self‑Portrait has created quite a stir. Last Christmas, Selfridges sold a Self-Portrait piece every six minutes; at Matchesfashion.com its red Azaelea dress, in textured lace with a camisole top and full, lightly pleated skirt, sold out in 24 hours. A seasoned PR in the fashion world who looks after a host of top luxury labels told me that of all the brands out there, it is Self-Portrait he most wants to bring into his fold, while a financier on the lookout for small luxury companies to invest in is keeping a very close eye on the label. "Chong has managed to persuade the sort of woman who could easily afford Valentino to wear his clothes instead," she said.
So what is it that has made Self-Portrait such a talking point? First of all, Chong has successfully bridged the gap so many others have tried to fill – the one between designer clothing (which at the top end now commands couture-like prices) and the high street. Secondly, his clothes have the sort of details – lace, embroidery, sheer overlays – that make them really stand out. Dresses (and it's the dresses that are the bestsellers) are sophisticated, offering structure and shape, and feminine. Occasionwear is Chong's speciality: dresses with elegant mid-length skirts and flattering sheer cutouts, a finely judged exercise in balancing female grace with a frisson of something sexier. Best of all, they don't come at sky-high prices, ranging from £150 to £500.
Malaysia-born Chong studied at Central Saint Martins and designed for various British high-street retailers before launching online luxury fashion platform Three Floor with some friends in 2011. In 2013 he decided to do his own thing and Self-Portrait was born – so called, he says, because the self-portrait celebrates the individual and is so enduring, spanning from the earliest art to the ubiquitous selfie.
The individual is ultimately what this label is all about. Once you've "clocked" it, Chong's handwriting is unmistakable. "The Self-Portrait woman is at the heart of every collection," he says. "She's a fictional character, but I'm inspired by actresses such as Rita Hayworth, Anna Karina, Brigitte Bardot, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett, who have something timeless about their style. I also find the new wave of actresses such as Rachel McAdams, Rooney Mara and Dakota Johnson very alluring. I take my trademark lace and juxtapose it with modern silhouettes so that there is something ethereal going on, but the clothes are also confident and strong."
New for spring/summer are guipure lace dresses, layered with contrasting fabrics (crepe, organza) and textures (ruffles, pleats, panels of smocking-like lace), such as on the bodice and hem of the black bow-strap design (£320). There's an off-the-shoulder burnt-orange pleated dress (£320, pictured) with exquisite lace at the neck and sleeves; maxis – monochrome with a simple solid crepe bodice and full lace skirt or floral with a long-sleeved white crocheted top and flowing red or white pleats (£320, pictured); a scalloped lace midi dress (£260) in burgundy or navy with a raw scalloped hemline and a sheer panel on the bodice; and ethereal plain neon slips (£60) for summer-holiday cool. Dresses aside, there are guipure lace tops (example pictured below, £180) with high Victoriana necks and long sleeves, pleated skirts (£205) and jumpsuits – black with long tapered legs, a sculpted bandeau and straps (£280) or high-waisted with sheer balloon sleeves (£230). As for the elusive Azaelea dress – those who missed out last winter will find it reincarnated in a plethora of pastels (example pictured, £240) or a deeper blue made exclusively for Selfridges.
Chong's aim, he says, is not to create clothing that makes a statement, but to give women the sort of pieces that make them feel special – distinctive dresses they can wear easily and that don't cost the earth. "Above all, I want to give the Self-Portrait woman something she could wear almost anywhere – all she needs to do when she goes out in the evening is to change her accessories."