From local blogger to international tastemaker – we go inside the charmed life of digital darling Margaret Zhang
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”
“IT DOESN’T MATTER IF IT’S THE BIGGEST LUXURY BRAND IN THE WORLD, IF IT’S NOT it’s not going to work” RIGHT,
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.”
“YOU DO FIND YOURSELF PITCHING don’t CONCEPTS TO PEOPLE WHO want to listen BECAUSE OF YOUR AGE”