LONDON — The day after Roland Mouret was forced to shut his business last November, he got a call from Han Chong, founder and owner of the contemporary label Self-Portrait, who said he wanted to buy the brand.
“Han called me on a Saturday, and the first thing he asked was: ‘How is your mental health?’ And then he told me he would only buy the company if I agreed to stay and work with him,” said Mouret in an exclusive interview alongside Chong.
“For me, this has been a chance to reset, and together we’re creating our own blueprint. There is beauty in reinvention and starting again,” added Mouret, whose title is now founder and co-creative director of the brand.
Chong purchased the intellectual property and assets of Roland Mouret through a newly formed company called SP Collection, which is based in a sprawling new 10,000-square-foot space in east London, not far from the Barbican.
Design, merchandising, sales, PR and e-commerce operations for Self-Portrait and Roland Mouret are now under one roof. There could be more acquisitions to come, although Chong said he’s in no hurry and wants to focus on building Self-Portrait and Mouret’s label.
Chong said he bought the company because he’d followed Mouret’s career closely and liked his style. He also felt he could tweak Mouret’s business model and build sales by appealing to women’s changing needs post-pandemic.
“We have a similar vision. And it’s inspiring to talk to Roland. It’s like we’re speaking the same language,” said Chong.
“I also have the infrastructure and resources to help the brand grow. We have to make sure the prices are relevant to how today’s women are shopping and we can’t compromise on quality,” he added.
Chong is an unusual London designer in that he’s able to strike a balance between creativity and commerce, and has built a considerable business with turnover now in the high double-digits.
Born in Penang, Malaysia, Chong moved to London in 2003 to study womenswear design at Central Saint Martins. He initially pursued a career in the visual arts, but later shifted his focus to fashion, founding Self-Portrait in 2013.
It was a vertical operation from the get-go: Chong relied on his own factories in southeast Asia and had direct oversight of the production, supply chain — and profit margins.
He also pitched Self-Portrait as a contemporary brand at a time when the designer luxury space was brimming with designers who were struggling to build businesses.
He now has offices in China, a team on the ground in Hong Kong and a network of factories in different Chinese regions. He pressed those factories into action during the pandemic, switching production from one to the other depending on lockdown restrictions.
“We’ve had to be flexible with shipping, too, and now we’re used to doing fittings on video call. In order to sustain a business, you have to adapt and be flexible,” said Chong, who has seen turnover rise 250 percent between 2021 and 2022.
Self-Portrait, which specializes in lacy, broderie anglaise designs, has stand-alone stores in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok, Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenzhen and Taipei.
It also has a robust e-commerce business and sells through 350 retailers including Selfridges, Net-a-porter, Matchesfashion.com, Le Bon Marché, Harrods, Mytheresa, Saks Fifth Avenue, Galeries Lafayette and Lane Crawford.
As reported earlier this month, Chong tapped Naomi Campbell to be in Self-Portrait’s debut handbag campaign, which features Brandy and Monica’s 1998 hit “The Boy Is Mine.”
At the time, Chong said he’d always wanted to move into accessories and that, going forward, “bags will be at the heart of our collections.” Earlier this year he also added a bridal collection to the Self-Portrait mix.
Chong’s network of Chinese factories will be making Mouret’s latest designs, which have a lower price point than before when the designer was playing more in the luxury space.
Prices range from 295 pounds for separates to 1,395 pounds for gowns, with dresses starting at 600 pounds.
That’s still more expensive than Self-Portrait, whose customers range from the Duchess of Cambridge to Beyoncé to Bella Hadid and whose price points hover around 300 pounds.
Mouret said he and Chong did a lot of talking about the new direction of Roland Mouret before they sat down to create the collection.
“It’s a whole new baby” from a creative and business point of view, said Mouret.
“We walked down Regent Street, looked at what was on offer, talked about the client, what she needed, and what the positioning should be. We can talk honestly with each other about creativity and commerce, and we are learning from each other,” he added.
Chong said: “We love women and we want to celebrate them.” He added that the aim has always been to stay true to the identity and DNA of Mouret’s brand, “but to make these clothes for 2022. Women’s mentality changed after the pandemic. They want much more versatile pieces, and ones that are not so trend driven.”
The first new Mouret collection is resort 2023, and during a walk-through, Chong talked about the importance of hanger appeal and how customers need to be able to envision instantly what looks will, and won’t, work for them.
He also likes the idea of easy fabrics that don’t crinkle, and can be popped in and out of a suitcase. “You have to be very focused — it’s a crowded market and we put a lot of effort into every piece,” said Chong.
Chong also wanted more clean lines and believes women are looking to dress “sexier,” post-pandemic. “It’s a sexiness for yourself, one that comes from the inside,” he added.
“Han was adamant that I open up the necklines — ‘Give me more neckline!’” Mouret recalls Chong telling him. Hence the deep v-neck on an orange gown with power shoulders, and on a turquoise off-the shoulder midi-dress.
“He also likes things to be practical and pure, without being boring and plain,” said Mouret, adding that this collection has “more movement and draping — and fewer zippers. It’s as if I’m trying to ‘control’ the outfit less. The silhouettes are more supple, and I’m trying to destroy this idea of an ‘office dress.’
“These outfits need to be a woman’s best friend, to go from day to night, and be relevant for now,” he said.
Fabrics include stretch viscose, wool crepe, jersey, cashmere and wool, with embellishments including sequins and diamante. There’s certainly more flesh on show, but the curvy silhouettes and punchy colors are unmistakably Mouret.
There’s great tailoring in the mix, too, including a black tuxedo coat, while a viscose wedding gown can be popped out of a suitcase, in keeping with the collection’s easy, versatile approach.
Chong has a razor-sharp vision both for Mouret’s business, and for SP Collection.
As part of Mouret’s new chapter, there’s a new logo and e-commerce platform. The back end and interface have been custom-built for both mobile and desktop and will launch in line with the resort collection in October. The domain name remains rolandmouret.com.
Chong said he wanted to build a strong direct-to-consumer business right away and then choose a few “best-in-class” retail partners.
He said a strong d-to-c operation has allowed Self-Portrait to remain more flexible and in control of sales. It has also provided the brand with a trove of data on sell-throughs, and customer feedback.
“With your own d-to-c you can build a brand story, drive traffic and work with so many more categories,” Chong said, adding that, for him, “design is only one part of the journey.”
“It’s very fulfilling to be able to take a 360-degree approach, and look at marketing, communication and commerce, to say, ‘I’ve created this dress — now, how do I put it out there?’”
Chong has always taken a holistic view with Self-Portrait, juggling the creative with the commercial. “If I don’t have a business then I can’t design another collection. I’ve always had to think of the business. I have rent to pay, and bills,” he said.
Asked why he was keen to start SP Collection and set about building a portfolio of brands, Chong said he has always wanted to serve a bigger audience.
“I already had the infrastructure, and I was ready to take the next step.” With Self-Portrait still in expansion mode and Roland Mouret on board, he’s not planning an acquisitions spree anytime soon.
“I’m open to opportunities to take brands to the next level, but I won’t add for the sake of adding. I need to know I can make a difference. Also, the brand has to excite me, and allow me to use my knowledge, experience and passion,” Chong said.