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Margaret Zhang:Digital Siren

陈雯西 Wenxi Chen 2016-05-21 16:38

It’s a little after 6am and I’m already running late for the interview with Margaret Zhang. Registering at the check-in desk, the girl at the hotel front desk frowns suspiciously at the book of names and remarks that surely it must be getting crowded – there are already four people registered to that room. To assure her that it isn’t just a house party going on up there, I mentioned that I will be there for an hour or so to interview the person staying there. Instantly her face lights up. “Oh yes! There’s a celebrity staying there right? I saw her! She is so nice. She’s a really good person.” Fascinated by the front desk girl’s strong reaction, I make the ascent up to the 15th floor where Margaret’s room was located. 

Activity buzzed despite the early hour. The room was already covered in clothes provided by HARDcANDY Fashion Management and Zhang sat at the desk getting her makeup done. She was more petite than I had imagined, but that was often the case with seeing celebrities in real life. Away from her photos, Zhang looks very young but that impression ended there, for she sounds wiser and more disciplined than anyone her age had any right to be, and despite being only 22 years old, has been working at the forefront of the cut-throat fashion industry for six years. 


Zhang is the Australian-born daughter of Chinese immigrants from Zhejiang. Like many other second-generation immigrant children, Zhang excelled in her studies, taking just one subject short of what Australians jokingly call ‘The Asian Five’ – maths, chemistry, physics, economics and advanced English. “I didn’t take physics,” Zhang laughs, “so I guess I’m not the perfect Asian. But you know, high school exams are very much about ticking the boxes, and I was a very creatively driven person.” At the age of 16 and looking for a creative outlet for her interest in fashion, Zhang started up her website Shine by Three. Attracted by her refreshing take on style and the fashion design scene, Shine by Three started to gain an ever bigger following. The significance of her number of avid followers didn’t even dawn on Zhang until one day she was in New York and had her first fan encounter in real life. “I didn’t realize that I had a huge amount of followers until I went to New York when I was around 17. I was on the street after a dinner and it was quite late at night in a completely random part of town and this girl comes up to me and wanted to take a photo together because she recognized me from my website,” Zhang recalls, “I was thinking who is this person? I don’t know anyone in New York!” 


Fast forward to present day and Zhang is taking her fame in her stride. In addition to her personal celebrity, Zhang also runs a successful fashion strategy consulting business for brands looking to connect with the younger, tech-savvy generation. While the mainstream focus has been on the plight of millenials – hit by a major recession while at the start of their careers and priced out of the housing ladder by extortionate housing prices – Zhang instead acknowledges that part of the reason for her success was being the right age at the right time. She says: “When I was starting out, Twitter and Instagram were only just beginning to take off. So in a way I was right on the cusp of it all.” Zhang muses that Australians are straightforward people who like simplicity, and as such she does her best to keep her views just that… her views, untainted by commercial influences and advertising money. “You see so much content in blogs now that are obviously paid for and I think that’s irresponsible because you have people looking up to you and trusting your opinion. Nobody can pay me to say something nice about something.” 

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Clearly Zhang’s specific brand of non-conformity yet high-achieving has struck a chord with the public. As Shine by Three started to get more traffic, Zhang noticed that a lot of those visitors were coming from China and this came as a surprise to her. “I obviously have an affinity with China,” she says, indicating her heritage, “But the women who are influential here are very pretty and have super white skin and are super girly. Whereas I’m like the opposite of all these things; I dress like a boy, I’m not super tall, I have dark skin. Everybody I’ve met here has asked me if I’m from Harbin. I’m like, where did you get this information?” Perhaps her difference from mainstream beauty standards in China is one of the reasons for her popularity here, as young women see a role model that breaks falls outside the conventional and is celebrated for it. Not everyone is happy about this it seems. “If you line up the celebrities in China and put me next to them, people would ask who’s that random short dark girl?” Zhang laughs, “I’ve had legitimate articles written about me in China asking what the big deal about me was. They wrote ‘she’s short and she’s dark and she wears oversize clothes’, I’m dead serious. But then they qualify with ‘oh but she seems smart and she takes a good picture and she’s friends with Miranda Kerr.” She looked rather scandalized at this point at the mention of this article: “It’s as if my only validation is that I’m friends with Miranda Kerr! I mean, I guess I’d rather be ugly and smart than be dumb and pretty.” 

Having completed her makeup session, Zhang scrutinizes her hair and deliberates about the best way to wear it for the photo shoot. One of the things that she does that stands out is doing a photo shoot all herself, from styling to shooting to post-processing. Rather than posing in front of a photographer, Zhang fixes her camera on a tripod, sets a timer, and throws poses in front of the lenses as the camera snaps away. After the decision about what to do with her hair is made, we continue our conversation, which has moved to the topic of design in China. Having been invited by HARDcANDY Fashion Management for Shanghai Fashion Week, it only makes sense that the matter of Chinese designers would arise sooner or later. “I think that people outside of China are oblivious that there’s a big design scene here,” she says, “I feel that also a lot of young designers here aren’t proud of being Chinese. A lot of them that I met over the past couple of days would say that they’re from London, or that their label is from Paris, as if they don’t want to attach to Shanghai. I’m like, that’s fine, but you’re not fooling anybody, we all know you’re not French. I think they should just own it, you know? Being Chinese is awesome and people have definitely learnt internationally over the past couple of years that ‘made in China’ doesn’t necessarily mean bad quality.” 

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With bangs falling just the way she likes, and a perfect smoky eye now in place, Margaret Zhang heads over to the pile of clothes on the bed. She names designer labels like we might name old friends – familiar and natural. Her entire trip is packed full of interviews, fashion shoots, and media events in a non-stop whirlpool of activity. After Shanghai, her next stop is New York for “a bunch of meetings”, and after that it’s back to Australia. Zhang admits that her life is a constant stream of airports and meeting rooms. She’s long since stopped trying to deal with the jet lag: “You just have to take it as it comes,” she sighs, “I had a few really bad nights about two weeks ago. I was sleeping an hour a night and working 13-hour days because I couldn’t sleep. I can definitely say that I’m not very good with the work-life balance because my work is basically my life. I love what I do but I definitely sacrifice things, such as a social life.” 

Zhang sorts through the clothes on the bed, all designed by Chinese designers represented by HARDcANDY. She layers items that don’t look like they should belong together, but somehow she makes the outfits work. Leather and chiffon sit side by side. In China, Zhang has developed a reputation for being “badass” – her edgy boyish styling setting her apart from feminine Chinese celebrities. Despite the immense workload, the periods of near exhaustion, and the lack of social life, Zhang can’t imagine herself doing anything else. If her life hadn’t taken this path, she reckons that she would have followed the standard path of a law school graduate; doing internships until she lands a job in a law firm. “I couldn’t do that,” she says, “I would have just been so uninspired… one way or another I would have found my way to this life.” 

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