From school friends to leading partners in fashion, Han Chong and Vatanika go way back. Now, the two are opening Bangkok Fashion Week together this year with their first-ever collaboration, titled ‘After the Lovers’. We chatted with Self-Portrait’s cool Malaysian designer and Thailand’s favourite fashion icon about their long-standing friendship, Fashion Week plans, and what it’s like to work together.
So, you guys met while studying Art together at Central Saint Martins in London. What were your first impressions of each other?
Han Chong: I actually remember the first time I saw Prae [Vatanika’s Thai nickname] because she was so distinctive. The other students walking into the room were all in their usual student-y clothes like sneakers and sweatshirts. When Prae walked through the doors, she was wearing high heels and looked super stylish. She’d always been a fashionista and always knew how to make an entrance.
Vatanika: To be honest, I knew he and I had to be friends because he was pretty much the only one who talked to me.
Did you think the other would become a successful designer?
Han Chong: (Gives Vatanika the side-eye) Yes…otherwise I wouldn’t be friends with her! (Whole room laughs.)
What’s in the DNA of a Vatanika woman?
Vatanika: The Vatanika woman is strong, confident, knows who she is and knows what she wants. In fact, it’s easy to know what she wants – because it’s everything. She doesn’t choose, because why choose when you can have it all?
And what about the Self-Portrait DNA?
Han Chong: Self-Portrait is for the modern woman. And the modern woman can have many roles and many sides to her. She’s powerful, feminine, playful; she could be a mother, a businesswoman, a lover…all at once. Self-Portrait is something women can put on everyday and feel like she can do anything and everything.
Is Vatanika a Self-Portrait woman too?
Han Chong: You could say she was a key inspiration for Self-Portrait! Making an entrance is kind of Prae’s signature move, and I wanted Self-Portrait women to have this head-turning effect too. I wanted Self-Portrait to redefine “everyday” wear; I didn’t understand why daily wear had to mean ordinary wear. So, I wanted to make clothes that women wore on a regular basis, but that would still catch people’s attention.
Your collaboration is called ‘After the Lovers’. Any explanation?
(They exchange a cheeky glance and burst into laughter.)
Vatanika: You’ll have to watch it in order to feel it.
How mysterious! Well, what can we expect to be a highlight of the collaboration?
Vatanika: (Another hesitation.) Something that’s never been done before…
(They both giggle.)
This is all very secretive. Ok, we’ll move on before we collapse from curiosity. Were there any challenges in working together?
Both: The fighting.
Oh, really? Who would win?
Han Chong: The lady always wins.
Fair enough. Does that mean the collaboration has more of Vatanika’s style in it?
Vatanika: You will definitely see a lot of the brand’s signatures, like pinstripes, lace, the distinctive Vatanika silhouette. But the Self-Portrait theme is pretty clear too!
And what’s the Self-Portrait theme for SS19?
Han Chong: The summer collection was inspired by my recent trip to Ibiza.
Hey, Vatanika was there too, right!? We all saw your photos on Instagram…
Vatanika: (To Han) We agreed not to talk about this!
(The whole room laughs.)
Han Chong: Well, it was a special trip because it was my first holiday in, like, five years. I’ve been so busy with work so this trip was all about having fun and enjoying the summer. So that’s the idea for the collection – just having a lot of fun.
As a Malaysian designer, has your home country had any influence on your designs?
Han Chong: I was born and raised in Malaysia, only moving to London when I was 22. So I definitely have Malaysia in my blood and in my creativity. It comes through in every detail from my colour choices to the materials. The tailoring is also very much done with Asian women’s figures in mind. Even though Self-Portrait is now based in London, I think it’s still so popular in Bangkok because the inherent Asian genes in the brand makes it more relatable for women here.
What do you think about the Thai fashion industry?
Han Chong: I think Thai fashion has really strong points of view. You definitely need a point of view to succeed in this industry. These days it doesn’t matter where you’re from – international acclaim always comes from having a strong point of view, something special and unique. Thai designers have this very much.
Is it harder for us in South-East Asia to reach an international audience? Mr Han, you once struggled to even get a visa to your own show in New York! How can we get through to a worldwide stage?
Han Chong: I think things have become a lot easier since my struggle back then. The world has become a lot more connected, with social media and technology and everything. I think what’s most important now is to have a strong point of view, have something special and unique to offer, and just have the confidence to put yourself out there. Do that and the world will listen.
Would that be the key advice you’d give to new designers?
Vatanika: I would definitely say that for our new talent today. Where you’re from isn’t an obstacle anymore. The world has become so much more connected with so many more opportunities for young designers. We just all have to be confident that we’re good and our idea is good, which we are and they are. Thai designers really are the best!
What a lot of people forget about Bangkok Fashion Week is the fact that it’s actually supposed to be Bangkok International Fashion Week. Yet you’re actually the only collaboration between a Thailand-based brand and an international one. Does Bangkok still need to step up its game to be more included in the global fashion scene? Do you think there’ll be more collaborations like yours in the years to follow?
Vatanika: We definitely hope to inspire more international collaborations. It’s a real possibility.
Han Chong: Thai designers have a very unique, original, exotic aesthetic. There’d be lots of international designers who would want to come work with you guys. Hopefully our collaboration will give an idea of how well it could work!
Finally, what’s the key thing that makes Self-Portrait a successful brand?
Han Chong: I think it’s in genuinely trying to understand what a woman wants to feel. Women have a very personal relationship to their clothes and they feel different things depending on what they’re putting on. I really try to provide them with what they want to feel – whether that’s empowerment, femininity, or what have you.
What about Vatanika? What’s the key thing that makes Vatanika such a success?
Vatanika: Well, firstly I must thank you for thinking that Vatanika can be called a success. But, the truth is, I still think it has a lot of room for improvement. That’s the key, I think. Real success comes from never settling. It comes with never believing that you’ve fully reached success because if you do, that’s when you stop moving forward.
That’s a great point. Thanks so much for speaking to us today. Any final words for your fans about your show?
Both: You have to see it…in order to feel it.
Well, you heard them. Don’t miss out – be sure to tune into the Self-Portrait x Vatanika ‘After the Lovers’ show for BIFW2019 tonight at 7pm. Click here for the full schedule for Bangkok International Fashion Week 2019.