From lo­cal blog­ger to in­ter­na­tional tastemaker – we go in­side the charmed life of dig­i­tal dar­ling Mar­garet Zhang

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - / Pho­to­graphs by Ge­orges An­toni Styling by Rachel Way­man

A stylist, pho­tog­ra­pher, writer, cre­ative di­rec­tor and law grad­u­ate with a 1.5 mil­lion-strong fol­low­ing and an ear for pi­ano: Mar­garet Zhang is no or­di­nary so­cial-me­dia star. Genevra Leek meets the fash­ion phe­nom­e­non

In­ever wanted to like Mar­garet Zhang, in the way that I never re­ally wanted to like any of the new wave of blog­gers who were in­fil­trat­ing the in­dus­try at the time when we first met. It was 2012 in New York and we were sit­ting wait­ing for the Calvin Klein Col­lec­tion show to start. We recog­nised each other enough to in­tro­duce our­selves and I lis­tened to her talk of her com­merce/law de­gree and how she’d taken time off from her stud­ies to be there, mildly amused that I’d been sat next to an 18-year-old stu­dent who’d made her way into the ex­clu­sive in­ner sanc­tum of fash­ion with lit­tle con­ven­tional train­ing and naught, I as­sumed, but a knack for pos­ing for the cam­era. More fool me.

I’m pretty sure Zhang didn’t care whether I, or any­one else, liked her. She wasn’t try­ing to win any­one over. She was no flash-in-the-pan hob­by­ist, just in it for the free stuff. She was play­ing the long game, whether she knew it or not. Hers was a cre­ative pur­suit that started with a side-project style blog, Shine By Three, con­ceived in her teens as a way to share her thoughts and pas­sions with a small-but-loyal fol­low­ing. Eight years later, she’s one of the most sought-af­ter and pro­lific slashies on the in­ter­na­tional scene, shift­ing seam­lessly be­tween writ­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, styling, mod­el­ling and cre­ative di­rec­tion, col­lect­ing awards and court­ing some of the world’s big­gest lux­ury brands (and Kanye West) with her mil­len­nial view­point and 1.5 mil­lion-strong fol­low­ing.

Just don’t call her a dig­i­tal in­flu­encer. It’s a ti­tle Zhang strug­gles with – she’s strived to prove she’s so much more. “I have no trou­ble rec­on­cil­ing the fact that, yes, a lot of my ca­reer pro­gres­sion has been be­cause of my on­line in­flu­ence, and that’s amaz­ing – 20 years ago, there’s no way that could have been the sit­u­a­tion,” she says, re­fer­ring no doubt to re­la­tion­ships forged with brands from Swarovski to Uniqlo to Clin­ique. But the term in­flu­encer, Zhang con­tin­ues, must surely come at­tached to an­other skill set. Cit­ing pho­tog­ra­phers like Se­bas­tian Faena and Pe­tra Collins who wield sig­nif­i­cant sway by virtue of their work and their per­son­al­i­ties, she says “your ca­reer can­not be to have in­flu­ence”. “I have a blog but I don’t nec­es­sar­ily iden­tify my­self as a blog­ger be­cause I don’t get paid to be a blog­ger – I get paid as a freelancer, a pho­tog­ra­pher, a con­sul­tant. Blog­ger is not on my busi­ness card be­cause it’s not my job.”

Her un­con­ven­tional ca­reer tra­jec­tory may have ruf­fled some feath­ers, but in the new world or­der of things, the old rules don’t ap­ply. “Peo­ple can say what they like, peo­ple can project their in­se­cu­ri­ties onto you or they can project their tra­di­tional mind­set onto you and there’s noth­ing you can do to change that,” Zhang says over a chai latte at Syd­ney cafe Mecca. “You can’t be up­set by it. At the end of the day, if you make good work, you make good work. It’s a longevity thing. I don’t re­ally care about a person who doesn’t want to be­lieve in what I do to­day – they’ll prob­a­bly come around even­tu­ally. If they don’t, they don’t. It’s not a bad re­flec­tion of them; it’s just their per­spec­tive based on their cir­cum­stance right now in their work­place, what chal­lenges they’re fac­ing.”

No mat­ter the route she’s taken, it’s clear she’s worked hard to get where she is. It’s only 9am but Zhang has al­ready chalked up a ses­sion with her pro­ducer, an emer­gency brain­storm with the pho­tog­ra­pher of to­mor­row’s ELLE cover shoot ow­ing to a can­celled lo­ca­tion and put in a ses­sion at a nearby stu­dio over­see­ing the large-scale print­ing of some of the “un­seen” im­ages that will line the walls of an up­com­ing ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion. For any­one else, the con­cept of a show cel­e­brat­ing an artist’s life work at just 24 might seem pre­ma­ture, but for Zhang it some­how seems en­tirely plau­si­ble. She’s man­aged to pack a lot into a quar­ter cen­tury.

“In the time I’ve known Mar­garet, she’s gone from pro­duc­ing her own con­tent to pro­duc­ing con­tent for other peo­ple to ex­plor­ing pho­tog­ra­phy and film, and cross­ing over

“I HAVE A BLOG BUT I don’t iden­tify my­self as a blog­ger... IT’S NOT ON MY BUSI­NESS CARD BE­CAUSE IT’S NOT MY JOB”


into jour­nal­ism. She’s got a very in­tel­li­gent per­spec­tive – all her work comes from a truly cre­ative place – but what I re­ally re­spond to is [that] she has some­thing in­ter­est­ing to say,” says de­signer Dion Lee, a friend and fan who’s col­lab­o­rated on var­i­ous projects with Zhang. “The land­scape is con­stantly chang­ing and she’s very in tune to how mul­ti­di­men­sional that can be. The way we com­mu­ni­cate now has changed so much and she re­ally un­der­stands that and re­ally em­braces new me­dia and dif­fer­ent forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

Zhang first learned to shoot on a film cam­era at age 11. If it sounds pre­co­cious then it’s worth look­ing at her up­bring­ing for con­text. She was born in Aus­tralia to mi­grant Chi­nese par­ents who, al­though from a com­mu­nity of ac­coun­tants, lawyers and doc­tors, were nev­er­the­less en­cour­ag­ing of her cre­ativ­ity. “I was re­ally lucky in that my par­ents wanted me to try ev­ery­thing and then pick what I liked, so my brother and I grew up do­ing bal­let and pi­ano – mu­sic was a huge part of our up­bring­ing,” she says. “I feel like all im­mi­grant par­ents have this, where all they want for their kids is the bet­ter life that they could never have.” While they didn’t know about her blog un­til one of her dad’s col­league’s chil­dren men­tioned it well into her de­gree, and still don’t truly un­der­stand what she does, they’re happy to see Zhang is fi­nan­cially sta­ble and con­tent liv­ing in an apart­ment in New York’s Green­wich Vil­lage that she was able to buy her­self last year.

From an early age, the im­por­tance of hard work was im­pressed upon Zhang, who re­calls at just 14 de­cid­ing she was go­ing to be a CEO – “I just thought it meant you had an of­fice and you bossed peo­ple around!” In a way, the pre­dic­tion has come true, al­though the of­fice is wher­ever in the world she finds her­self and she’d prob­a­bly pre­fer the word as­sertive over bossy in her busi­ness deal­ings to­day.

If her par­ents are proud, her fol­low­ers are po­ten­tially prouder. For those who’ve tracked her work from the start, no doubt it’s her ded­i­ca­tion to au­then­tic­ity that’s kept them loyal. “It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s the big­gest lux­ury brand in the world, if it’s not the right thing, it’s just not go­ing to

work,” she says of the col­lab­o­ra­tions she chooses. “It’s bet­ter they put that with some­body else whose con­sumers would re­spond to the ‘buy this, buy it now’ kind of sen­ti­ment, whereas my au­di­ence would never re­spond be­cause I’ve never done it... I don’t do spon­sored posts, I don’t do paid In­sta­gram posts, I don’t do paid blog posts.” Nor does she do posts in ex­change for free prod­uct, and it’s re­fresh­ing to see she’s wear­ing a Mango beige suede coat she picked up on sale at the air­port in Barcelona and car­ry­ing a $30 Zara bag she brought for the plane. “I think a lot of peo­ple as­sume if you send peo­ple stuff they will post it, but I don’t do that.”

Like most twenty-some­things work­ing out their place in the world, Zhang is full of con­tra­dic­tions. She up­loads count­less pho­tos of her­self yet muses on the nar­cis­sis­tic and po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing na­ture of a so­cial me­dia that pro­motes a kind of “ac­cel­er­ated striv­ing for per­fec­tion”. She’s built a small em­pire off the back of dig­i­tal me­dia yet makes a “con­scious ef­fort” of lim­it­ing her time on tech­nol­ogy. It’s part of what makes her so appealing to brands hop­ing to tap into the com­pli­cated minds of mil­len­ni­als.

She’s got a re­ally mod­ern eye that’s rel­a­tive to what’s go­ing on now for a younger gen­er­a­tion,” says hairstylist Alan White, who works reg­u­larly with Zhang. The day af­ter our in­ter­view, he’s tend­ing to her re­cently per­ox­ided locks on the ELLE shoot. “She’s not jaded. I think the hard­est thing for cre­atives is to not rest on what you know and think that that’s awe­some, be­cause times change.”

Zhang is break­ing new ground with the ELLE team, be­ing shot on Ap­ple’s iphone 7 for a trail­blaz­ing cover and fash­ion ed­i­to­rial. Within mo­ments of ar­riv­ing on set, she’s re­marked on the unique mar­ble lin­ing the foyer, com­pli­mented the fash­ion as­sis­tant on the way she’s styled a kit bag around her hips and, in true mil­len­nial fash­ion, snapped a photo of the avo on toast wait­ing on the cater­ing table. She’s open to be­ing di­rected and in­stinc­tively knows what the pho­tog­ra­pher needs. It’s a level of ma­tu­rity not al­ways ex­pected from mem­bers of gen Y. “The age el­e­ment has al­ways been a chal­lenge,” Zhang ad­mits. “On one hand, it’s re­ally served me to have fresh ideas, but then you do find your­self in board­rooms pitch­ing con­cepts to peo­ple who re­ally don’t want to lis­ten to you... They feel you’re not en­ti­tled to tell them what to do be­cause of your age.” Be­ing a fe­male also brings chal­lenges. “I went to an all-girls school; they drilled into us that you can do any­thing, but when you leave you re­alise it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the case.”

Be­ing able to draw on the jar­gon picked up from her busi­ness de­gree has helped, along with main­tain­ing con­trol for ev­ery as­pect of her brand. Is she a con­trol freak? “100 per cent!” she laughs. Which doesn’t help when com­bined with worka­holic ten­den­cies. But this year, Zhang says she’s try­ing to work smarter. “It does get to you af­ter a while... if you’re work­ing on a dif­fer­ent shoot with a dif­fer­ent person ev­ery day, it’s a lot. I’m mak­ing a con­scious ef­fort to work on things that take a lit­tle longer, and work with the same peo­ple over time.” Right now, she’s col­lab­o­rat­ing on a short film, and with so many bud­ding Mar­garet Zhangs hot on her heels, film di­rec­tor seems a clever ti­tle to add to her list of skills.

“[The in­dus­try] is al­ways go­ing to evolve, you just don’t know,” she says. “My mum’s al­ways en­cour­aged me to plan for to­mor­row, put away money. Her idea of longevity is very much the same as mine in the sense that peo­ple might be able to grow faster than you or some­body might be do­ing some­thing re­ally amaz­ing right now, but if you have the skill set and are gen­uinely good at what you do and you con­tinue to push your­self to learn... be­cause your vo­ca­tion is not just go­ing to stand still.”

It’s not likely Zhang is go­ing to stand still for long ei­ther. “I had some­body in my man­age­ment com­pany ask if I wanted to do a book, just about my life. That’s so stupid. I’m 24 and that’s not re­ally a life that has been lived yet. There is so much more.”


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