When most people think of Self-Portrait, the women’s wear brand founded by Malaysian native Han Chong in 2013, the Azaelea dress comes to mind.
The dress has become the brand’s signature piece, seen on everyone from Michelle Obama to Meghan Markle. It’s decidedly the brand’s signature piece, but Chong doesn’t view that as a bad thing; he believes that, rather than pigeonholing the brand as only capable of one thing, having a strong, identifiable look has helped establish the brand to the extent that it can now take on more experimental designs.
Since it launched in 2013, Self-Portrait has doubled its sales year-over-year (the brand declined to provide specific sales figures) and is currently sold in 350 stores in 67 countries, along with its first store opened in London in March of this year. It’s e-commerce reaches 127 countries with a near-even distribution among American, Europe and Asia.
Glossy met up with Chong at Spring Place in New York’s Soho during the brand’s pre-fall 2019 preview, and asked him about building a brand identity, balancing consistency and innovation, and getting feedback directly from customers.
How long did it take you to nail down the brand’s identity?
Since the beginning, I knew what I wanted to deliver that feminine look. The first three years, we just worked on our signature. It’s a crowded market. Every day, there’s a different brand coming up, and if you don’t have a strong signature, people forget about you. Are you this, or are you that? Especially for young brands, it’s hard to get that notice. The first three years, we kept repeating similar things in different ways to nail down our signature look, trying to figure out exactly what our brand was. Then from there, we started introducing other categories.
Are you worried about being pigeonholed as just the Azaelea dress brand?
Not at all. It’s beneficial for a brand, especially since we don’t have a huge budget for campaigns, to have a signature piece. Some people see our dresses, and they know immediately it’s a Self-Portrait dress. I quite like that. There’s a good branding opportunity there, so I don’t think it’s bad that people associate us with the Azaelea dress.
Is the pre-fall 2019 collection different from earlier collections?
There will always be a Self-Portrait signature — feminine with a twist — but every season, we like to introduce new ideas and techniques, and different fabrics or different production styles. It’s designed for the same feminine girl, but with new ideas every time.
How do you stay true to your signature look and also innovate?
We do have the signature and we want customers to come to us for our signature looks. Some brands are famous for their tailoring or for their interesting fabrics. You have to keep that in mind when you’re designing, but you also have to give them a surprise each time.
Are your designs motivated by your personal preference?
They’re motivated by what’s happening in the world. It’s important to know what’s going on out there in fashion. It has to feel right in that particular time. It’s more like we use our signature as a starting point and then think about new details.
For example, we recently reintroduced knitwear. We’ve had it for a while, but it was never right; we didn’t have a good idea of what the signature Self-Portrait knit was. At the beginning, I wanted these sexy knits, but they just weren’t working. People don’t come to us for that kind of thing, so we kept developing to see what our version of knitwear would be. The past year, it’s been doing really well. We have to do things one at a time. We didn’t get knitwear right straight away, so we rethought it.
Do you get your feedback directly from customers?
At the beginning, it was from social media, but now we have shops, so I go to the shops now. I see what customers pick up and I talk to them without them knowing who I am to get the inside story of what they’re looking for, what they like what they don’t like. They can be really honest. You can get great direct feedback.
What feedback did you get that led to this collection?
Our customer wants to feel good, and they want to look amazing and wear something flattering. Designers sometimes feel like they have to make the most interesting silhouette or be the most unique. Customers don’t always think that way — they just want to look good. They want to have fun. I’m always thinking about how they are going to feel in the dress, not about how I feel making it.
Is there a risk of being too concerned with feedback from consumers?
At the end of the day, it’s you who make the decision. It is very important to know your customer. Different customers in different places have different desires.
Do you design around that?
Definitely. Our business is built around America, Europe and Asia. A lot of Asian customers tend to be smaller, so we design our pieces and distribution around that. In some areas of the Middle East, they want something that’s just as fashionable but more modest. I am not a designer who designs for my own creative style. I get more satisfaction if my customer likes what I make.
Do you ever design something with one market in mind, only to find it’s more popular somewhere else?
All the time. You can only predict so much. A lot of times, stuff will blow up somewhere else, and you never know where it’s going to resonate. The Azaelea dress is very popular everywhere, but the way they wear it in Asia is very different than how they wear it in Europe, for example. People in Japan are less inclined to wear revealing clothes, so they might wear a T-shirt underneath. And some people wear it with sneakers, others with heels. Our customers always surprise us.