A decade ago, Han Chong—of the label Self-Portrait—made his first trip to Venice. He had been invited to exhibit at the 53rd Venice Biennale by the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset, who made the unprecedented move of combining the adjacent Danish and Nordic Pavilions into one showcase featuring different artists. The program was called "The Collectors."
“It was a bit overwhelming because, in the same show, there were people like Wolfgang Tillmans—whom I really admire—and all of these really big artists that my work was exhibited adjacent to,” Chong remembers. Under the moniker “Han & Him,” he displayed two pieces: Butterflies, a display of discarded underwear, and She Could Hear Every Breath In the House, an installation of garments in the Danish Pavilion.
Nowadays, Chong is better known for Self-Portrait, a success-story ready-to-wear brand that has stirred up the contemporary fashion market. His $300-600 pieces are often seen on some of the most influential women in the world; Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Helena Bonham-Carter, members of the K-Pop sensation BLACKPINK and royals such as Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle and the princesses of Sweden and Norway are all noted fans.
Over this past weekend, Chong returned to Venice to host a series of events in celebration of his Resort 2020 collection. A key component of his success has always been the loyalty of his influencer friends. Chong knows well how to set up an Instagram moment, and there were many of them over the three days, but beneath the flash and the glam, there was a circularity to the occasion that felt poignant—the Biennale was once again up and running (it's on view through November 18), and Chong’s native Malaysia had its own pavilion for the very first time.
“Coming back here made me think about this path I’ve taken, going back to why I started this brand. You can get carried away with the celebrity and the buzz, but my initial aim came from a very small dream,” Chong says.
Chong was born in Penang to parents who owned a beef jerky store and an aunt who was a local artist. “So I knew about art before I knew about fashion,” he remarks. In 2003, he arrived in London to study fashion design at Central Saint Martins. At that time, the only well-known Malaysian in the industry was Jimmy Choo, founder of the eponymous shoe brand, whose parents' business is only five minutes away from Chong’s family home.
Earlier this year, Chong launched his new swimwear collection with a trip to his home country. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with Malaysia, but I lived half of my life there. It's what grounds me.” This year, the Malaysian Pavilion joined the Biennale through the efforts of the gallerist and curator Lim Wei-Ling, who petitioned the government to get it established. For its inaugural exhibition, she chose to feature four different artists: Zulkifli Yusoff, H. H. Lim, Anurendra Jegadeva and Ivan Lam.
The exhibition is titled "Holding Up a Mirror," a phrase taken from Hamlet, which questions identities of self, society and culture. The moniker bears a striking resemblance to the name Self-Portrait, which was chosen by Chong to reflect the women for whom he designs—the label has never been about his own name or ego.
“Creating art is about self-expression, but fashion is not about you,” he says, “it’s about the people physically wearing it, respecting them and their comfort is more important than my personal view of what a dress needs to look like.”
When he was showing at the Biennale, Chong was also working for the English company Topshop, balancing dual identities as an artist and a clothing designer. But it was participating in one of the most prestigious events in the art world that cemented his decision to pursue the latter. “Art has such a strong power for commentary, but I still felt it wasn’t so accessible to everybody.”
For someone who has since made his name selling intricate lace dresses, Chong’s own visual taste has always been pared back. As we enter the Giardini della Biennale, he takes me straight to his favorite building, the Nordic Pavilion, designed by Sverre Fehn in 1962.
There is, of course, an obvious sentimental connection, but as his London home and his store on Albemarle Street both attest, his preferred spaces are clean and concrete. “I don’t find it barren,” he responds, “the fashion that I do is quite decorated, so sometimes I long for another side of me to be more straightforward.”
We carry on, and he points out the pieces that speak to him. It’s all work with intense clarity, “no fussiness” as he puts it. We stand mesmerized before Can’t Help Myself (2016)—a trapped robot that is forced to shovel red liquid which oozes with the consistency of blood in endless repetition, by the Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu.
We wander amongst the lost objects, frozen in imaginary water at Laure Prouvost’s Deep See Blue Surrounding You—immaculately executed, profoundly sad—in the French Pavilion. “I don’t like art that’s overly ornate,” he says, “I like a very strong message.”
If Chong finds meaning in the connection between fashion and art, it’s in emotion, not form. “A powerful piece of art and a great dress, it’s about how they make you feel. Physically, art doesn’t inspire my designs, I understand what fashion is meant for and it’s a very different medium.” He's a maximalist by trade and a minimalist in his way of life, but as he points out, “everybody has so many different layers, it’s boring if you only like one thing.”