It’s as true today as it was in 2010 when MTV’s The City (season two, episode eight: Work Horses and Show Ponies) postulated that those working in the fashion industry can be divided into two titular camps: work horses and show ponies. From a glance (at her Instagram), you might assume that Margaret Zhang also shares the show pony tendencies of her contemporaries, but you would be grievously mistaken at best.
Even then, Margaret Zhang defies easy categorisation as a workhorse. Instead, she’s something more like a one-woman cavalry, capable of fitting into a working week a schedule that might otherwise play out over a series of months for some. Hers is a CV that’s well documented: “Consultant, photographer, writer, stylist,” is how she concisely describes herself in a bio that, were it written at-length, would surely exceed the character limits imposed by the social media platforms where a captive audience obsesses over every location shot, outtake and table setting artfully laden to within an inch of its life in what’s becoming Zhang’s signature blend of maximal minimalism, steeped in filters and a healthy dose of fantasy.
It’s that particular skillset – a keen eye and a sense of whimsy – both behind and in front of the camera that Zhang has employed in two of her most recent projects, both bookending either end of the vast fashion spectrum. On one end, Zhang collaborated most recently on a shoot with Fendi ahead of their 90th anniversary haute fourrure Trevi Fountain extravaganza; on the other, she shot an Alice in Wonderland-themed campaign for Disney’s collaboration with high street retailer Seduce. Despite their ostensible differences, Zhang says she approaches each project she undertakes with the same tact.
“In a commercial context, you have to have a context with both clients as to what they’re really hoping to achieve. Obviously Alice in Wonderland was kind of a [critical] element that needs to be conveyed in this instance, but we didn’t want it to be too literal, inaccessible [or] too cheesy.
“My background is in ballet and photography,” the Shine By Three founder recently told GRAZIA. “I grew up training to be a dancer, and I’ve been shooting since I was 12-years-old on film. I feel much more at home kind of in this kind of set design and this kind of scale production than most would think. I do a lot of studio work and a lot of location work, which is great. But at the same time, I grew up in huge ballet sets and in performing arts and costume design [and] so this is kind of a much more exciting way of shooting for me because you’re able to tell a story.”
Storytelling, visually and otherwise, is Zhang’s strong suit be it through the painstaking arrangement of the elements in frame (“It wasn’t about just sticking a pile of books on the floor. Like, I spent half an hour setting up the books to make it look like there was a [staircase] going towards her”) or through rabidly devouring diverse cultural narratives on a range of topics from classical literature and composers to the titans of her industry that precede her – Helmut Newton and Miuccia Prada being just two inspirations she mentions in passing.
“Whenever I’m in a different city,” Zhang says, “I try to get to at least one gallery in one afternoon, or some kind of exhibition or museum, and just really concentrate.” It was no coincidence then that the Prada Fondazione was next on Zhang’s hit list during her brief stopover in Milan, having attended the brand’s Spring 2017 menswear show the day prior. It too “told a story”, albeit one far removed from the works of Lewis Carroll.
“[Prada] pushed the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with, [what] you think you’re comfortable with when it comes to fashion. [The collection was] basically like fishing attire, or hiking attire. [It was] less about the individual garments and more about much broader concepts.”
But as with anything new and conceptual, there’s always room for misinterpretation, or misconceptions. Asked what she considers to be the greatest misconception she faces as an individual charting a new course in her industry, the soft-spoken Zhang’s passion for the career she has crafted really comes to the fore.
“The greatest misconception of me definitely is kind of – it’s a double dose thing. I guess on the one hand, [people think] ‘Margaret has an Instagram following, therefore she gets paid to breath and just travels the world without having a brain, with no education, and just takes pretty pictures of herself in clothes’. I do a lot of consulting, photography, styling and freelance writing behind-the-scenes that I don’t think people necessarily need to know about, most of that [being under nondisclosure agreements].
“I’ll post a picture of something really beautiful where I am. I’m not going to post a picture of things that I’m not allowed to post a picture of when moonlighting or writing strategies for clients. I’m not going to post pictures of myself jet-lagged. I was never going to post pictures of all my study.”
“I guess it’s like that misconception [shared] by the public and the industry that your social media is everything. None of my personal life is on my social media, but people think they have more access than they actually do, and they jump to a conclusion.”
“People like to think that [because] I’m 23 that… ‘You’re young and stupid and you don’t know anything,’ or they’d like to. It’s really fun to prove people wrong in a boardroom or conference environment.”
The latter is a fact I can personally attest to. Earlier this year, when the Business of Fashion – an industry authority who have twice listed Zhang amongst the 500 most influential people in their index of global fashion industry – hosted a series of panel discussions moderated by founder Imran Amed and chief critic Tim Blanks earlier this year, Zhang was the first and perhaps the most articulate of her local industry peers to step forward with a question, breaking the lengthy silence that initially fills a room whenever the Q&A portion of a talk inevitably rolls around. You simply can’t argue that she’s a helpless bystander or a noncompliant party to her own success.
“I’m very fortunate to have a lot of opportunity to kind of bear that flag and support and championing youth opinion,” she continues. “In this day and age, [young people] really do know more than they think they do.”
If that sounds exhausting, it’s because it is. Zhang counts sleep and the typical social life enjoyed by an average 23-year-old (“I don’t have a ‘girl squad'”) as being amongst the biggest sacrifices she has made in order for her to enjoy a level of success that has enabled her to collaborate with fashion’s biggest luxury brands – Swarovski, Clinique and Matches amongst them – while finishing a double degree in law and commerce. Zhang remarks that over the past three months, she has been in a different time zone every week – a taxing statistic that is undoubtedly “hard on the human body” and yet is still “nothing to complain about, because if anything, 23 is the time to do it.”
Five years after her first paying photography job and seven years since the launch of her initial ventures in online self-publishing, Zhang’s future in an industry grappling with the transition into digital having for so long “dictated the corporate space with bureaucracy” is certain and yet unclear. However, when asked as to what she’d like her legacy to be, she remains equally as certain of one thing.
“I’d love to be held as an example of high work. I actually don’t know where I’ll end up in 10, 15, 20 years. The industry keeps changing. I work across so many different fields that at any given point in time it’s a different breakdown of [the type of work] I’m doing. I think more and more I’d like to promote for young people that if you want to go down that path, and that’s your role and people need to do it, that’s awesome. It’s okay to build a career path that isn’t conventional and isn’t something that some body has come up with before. My career path is, in fashion, unconventional, and there are hundreds of careers paths that are yet to be realised I think. My family has nothing to do with fashion at all, in fact they actually don’t know what I do.”
Despite their (blissful) ignorance of their daughter’s chosen industry, Zhang’s parents – both Chinese immigrants – have played a far greater role in her career than they perhaps realise, even if they don’t fully understand what exactly it is that her day job entails.
“My parents are both just the epitome of hard work in the face of significant social, political and economic challenges. My mum has always said, ‘It’s about your real skills at the end of the day’. Somebody might win short term because they can talk the talk, but if they don’t have real skills, they’re going to fail immediately.”
“It’s not about, ‘How many Instagram followers do I have right now?’ It’s not about short-sighted things like that, or how many countries I’m visiting. It’s about the work you’re doing. Do you job. Be respectful, be kind. You’re never too big or too small to do anything.”