JUMP START

Margaret Zhang: Beyond the Haute Couture and Hashtags

Words by Lana Guineay

By Lana Guineay, 24/5/2016
Inspired by Westpac We've partnered with Westpac to bring you inspiring stories on The Cusp.

With global influence, integrity, and a bankable currency of cool, Sydney native Margaret Zhang has ditched the rulebook to carve out a unique career as one of Australia’s leading creatives. We go beyond the haute couture and hashtags to talk success, being your own boss and why hard work really matters.

“I’m so jet-lagged right now.” The upbeat voice of Margaret Zhang sounds only slightly raspy as she speaks to us over FaceTime from New York. “I’m so used to being semi-hazy all the time now, I just push through, and sleep whenever I have a chance.”

The sleep-when-you-can mentality is born partly of Margaret’s natural passion for what she does, partly of the indefatigable drive that has seen her rocket from teenage fashion blogger to multi-national media maven, all while completing a double degree in Law and Commerce.

A photographer, writer, stylist and creative director, Margaret’s CV is peppered with names like UNIQLO, Swarovski, Clinique, Lexus, Matches and Louis Vuitton. She’s regularly featured as a model and personality, and her diverse skills have seen her work with the likes of L’Officiel, Harper’s BAZAAR, NYLON, Marie Claire, Buro24/7 and ELLE. She’s been recognised as shaping the global fashion industry by the Business of Fashion BoF500 Index, ELLE Magazine’s ‘Best Digital Influencer of The Year Award’, as well as Time Out Sydney’s cover star for their ‘40 under 40’ issue.

With a skill-set as layered as her distinctive personal style, Margaret is emblematic of a new breed of digital-driven Renaissance woman, all while totally killing it on her personal channels (Exhibit A; her Instagram).

In her seven-year journey, she’s stood by the same line: if you’re young today, you don’t need to blindly follow the career paths laid out by past generations – you’re the one in control. 

The jump start

Margaret didn’t hatch from an egg as a fully-fledged fashionista wearing Gucci. Yes, she’s graceful. Yes, she’s gorgeous. Yes, she slays that effortless-looking fashion form that street-style paparazzi froth over. She’s also a gritty worker, a due-paying fashion die-hard, and a digital native who launched her career way back in the early days of blogging.

Margaret-Zhang-Fringe-Polaroid

But it didn’t start out as a career master plan. Margaret began her blog Shine By Three as a way to explore her creativity and document a newfound love for fashion. Having spent a childhood as a professional ballerina, by high school Margaret’s love of theatricality and costume design found natural expression in the world of fashion: Raf Simons, Nicolas Ghesquière, Viktor and Rolf, Martin Margiela.

“I started my website because I found myself talking about Jean Paul Gaultier’s tights at school with friends, and they were like ‘we don’t know what you’re talking about, please stop being weird!’,” laughs Margaret. “I’d filled my dad’s computer with all these inspiration images which weren’t conducive to his mechanical engineering work, so I thought OK, I’ll upload everything to a Blogspot, so at least I have this archival situation going on – and that’s how it started. Me uploading stuff, writing a few lines of what it was and why I liked it.”

Keep following your natural inclination

It’s weird to think about now, but only seven years ago the blogger boom was yet to really impact Australia. But it was also that opportune moment when very few fashion bloggers were in the Australian space, and there was no formula for success. “I didn’t even know there were fashion bloggers at the time because I was so focused on maths,” Margaret says.

Margaret soon moved to snapping her personal style, quickly gaining an enthusiastic online audience. Her warm personal writing (seriously, try to read her blog without cracking a smile); sophisticated style and slick photographic skills drew in many and diverse supporters. “It was all kind of by accident, and that was great because they were genuine followers; they were all really interested.”

By age 20, Margaret was being flown around the world to attend fashion weeks and model in advertising campaigns. Brands came knocking. The fash paps chased her down streets.

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Photo by Jake Terrey. Image: shinebythree

Since then, Margaret (almost 23) has leveraged the global zeitgeist for fashion bloggers and deftly expanded both her skill-set and industry connections to explore wider areas of styling, photography and creative consultancy.

“People always ask me ‘what’s the secret to your success?’ – there is no secret! You just work hard, that’s all it is.”

Throughout, she has kept her personal online channels, despite the fact they make her “no money.”

“My social media is how it has always been, it’s just my personal space,” she says. “I’m really opinionated, so I just say whatever I want. I understand that a lot of my career wouldn’t have happened but for my online profile, and I appreciate that, so it’s important for me to stay in touch with my readers, show them what I’m doing, keep them in the loop, and not just forget about that.”

IRL > URL 

While digital has been her launch pad, Margaret is quick to hero the importance of genuine, real-life personal connection.

“It’s all about the conversations and relationships you have. With brands I’ve worked with it’s a really organic evolution. It’s never been ‘oh Margaret, will you do one Instagram post for us?’ It’s more like, OK let’s have a conversation about what you guys are working on, what I’m working on, how can we support each other – just understanding them, just taking the time.”


In other words, it’s not about billable hours – it’s about investing in relationships. “My biggest client contracts aren’t a result of people just finding me online. I fostered the relationship – not for monetary gain, but to have a relationship with a brand and grow together. That’s how a lot of the biggest relationships in the creative industries happen.”

“You need to build a solid 360-degree understanding of the people you’re working with,” she adds. “There’s so much value in that, because some people are only in it for a quick dollar.”

Work, work, work, work – then some more work

“People always ask me ‘what’s the secret to your success?’ – there is no secret! You just work hard, that’s all it is.” It may sound flip, but this simple tenet has been key to Margaret’s career.

Margaret says she’s “militant” about time management. “I sleep a lot less than most people, and I don’t get to go out as much, but in the long run I’m happy with that; that’s my character. I’m a total workaholic and I’m OK with that – for other people, maybe they’d go crazy!”

Her approach is pretty logical: “Think about all the time you spend watching The West Wing and sitting on Instagram or Facebook, doing things that aren’t productive at all; you have quite a few more hours in the day [than you realise].”

“The only reason I’ve progressed is because I do more than one thing – it has accelerated the learning process for all of them.”

When asked where this resilient work ethic comes from, Margaret is quick to mention her parents. “As Chinese immigrant parents in the ‘90s, obviously it was not an easy situation. I’ve seen my dad go from, really, not an easy life at all, to doing as well as he could do in the context of where he came from, so it’s always been instilled in me.”

Education is a privilege you’d be crazy not to take

Being so well known – and so successful – at such a young age, Margaret could have dropped out of uni to work full time in the fashion industry, but maintains the need for education. “You need to have the knowledge and the skills to back up what you’re saying,” she says.

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Self portrait. Image: shinebythree

“It’s so cheesy – but you are only as good as your skills and education. You can spout bullshit, you can bullshit through life, and that’s cool, but that’s such a short-term solution, because there’s no substance. You need to be a substantial human being: emotionally, socially, and academically,” she says. “Education is such a privilege – if you have the opportunity to have a tertiary education, how crazy not to take it. I use my degree every day.”

Real talk: you can’t have it all 

Misleading media myths aside – Margaret straight up protests against the idea that you can have it all, all at once. “You make sacrifices. I’m not going to lie – because I work so much, I definitely have much less of a social life than someone my age would normally have,” she says, remembering the time the reality of this schedule was made crystal clear: “I did this article for a magazine, where they asked me to shoot my squad – I don’t have a squad! They wanted 15 to 20 people, I was like, ‘I literally have nine friends and one of them is my brother – you’re just going to have to deal!’”

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Margaret and her brother, for i-D Australia.

She is the first to admit that she’s not “the best” at balance. She works when she has to, sleeps when she can, fits in a bit of yoga or the gym if she can, and generally maintains a level of health by avoiding alcohol and coffee, drinking loads of water and sticking to a vegetarian diet. “I don’t have the luxury of having a daily routine. As much as I’d like to be one of those celebrities who are like ‘oh yeah every morning I get a smoothie and go to yoga and that’s how I stay really healthy’ I’m like OK, well that’s really unrealistic for the rest of us, it’s so unrelatable!”

Creativity (and business) benefits from cross-pollination

In her ever-growing portfolio of consultancy work, Margaret switches fluidly between being a writer, photographer, creative director, model, and social media expert. The nebulous nature of her job might be non-traditional, but cross-pollination is only a plus in the creative space.

“The only reason I’ve progressed is because I do more than one thing – it has accelerated the learning process for all of them. As a photographer, there’s no way I could ever usually work with another photographer, because you don’t have two photographers on a shoot. So to be able to work sometimes modeling, sometimes styling, sometimes art directing, I work with so many photographers that I can see their process. I have my own style, but just to be able to see them on set, how they interact, how they work with the model, the questions they ask the stylist – that was super useful for me.”

“If you’re a doctor, you should totally just specialise. But in the creative world – especially for young people now – you can’t specialise unless you have some artisanal knit situation going on as a designer, or you’re a gun at selling ads and that’s all you know how to do. If you’re a great photographer, chances are you’re also a good art director or graphic designer as well, and expanding your skill set heightens your skill set.”

Plans are essential, but stay open-minded 

Where do you want to go? Having a plan is critical according to Margaret – but it’s also important to leave your vision open. “You definitely need to have goals right in front of your face that are beyond the next two months. Not a five year plan as such, you can’t restrict yourself mentally in that way, like OK this month this is going to happen, then at this age I’m going to have babies… life just doesn’t work like that! I think you’ll actually just get more stressed.”  

“Just have a general vision of well, in five years’ time, where does my head space need to be? What kind of people would I like to be working with? Even if it’s as vague as ‘I want to be working on my own and working with people who want to innovate in the environmental space’. It’s not like, ‘I’m going dominate the world in X, Y, Z specific ways’ – life just doesn’t let you do that.”

Keeping a vision in mind – however vague – means that you’ll be extremely aware when you come across the right people through work, life and travel. Focus on your relationships and the rest will fall into place.

Being your own boss: rad or bad?

Self-employment comes with its own rewards and risks – as seductive as the idea of having no boss can be. “The best part [of being my own boss] is that I only get out as much as I put in,” says Margaret. “If you make a mistake, it’s your fault; but if you do really well you can take all the credit for it.”

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Photo: Margaret Zhang for Shona Joy.

 

“To be able to get in a position where you’re in control of what you’re doing and you are able to work with the people who continue to inspire you, that reads as success to me.”

And while many young people dream of making the leap straight into self-employment, Margaret emphasises the need to work for others and build experience first. “I did my fair share of internships when I was younger, jobs too, when somebody else’s priorities were my priorities. It’s an important training exercise for everyone to do; you need to be able to prove yourself, and you also need to be able to apply yourself and do something that someone else is telling you to do, because that gives you the discipline to be able to do it for yourself.”

Like every job in the history of the world, there’s also boring stuff; and when you work for yourself, it comes down to you. “There is so much admin and boring paperwork and back and forth… you have to be across everything but you’re only one person, and even if it’s only five hours, you still do need sleep!”

Success = brain gains 

So what does success mean to someone who is living her dream? “I think for a long time, society imposed unrealistic guidelines as to what success was, in the framework of a capitalist society,” says Margaret.

Sneak peek: the big unveil coming soon to @elleaus 📽 @dior

A photo posted by Margaret Zhang 章凝 (@margaret__zhang) on

“But to me, success is feeling really strongly about everything you’re doing. You know when you work hard for a day and your brain is exhausted, but you’re happy because you’ve achieved so much? It’s like my brain just had a session at the gym! To be able to get in a position where you’re in control of what you’re doing and you are able to work with the people who continue to inspire you, that reads as success to me.” 

Westpac has all the support you need to jump start your own life. Margaret Zhang will appear as part of the Vivid Ideas Game-Changers Talk Series: conversations with global creative industries leaders this Saturday, May 28 in Sydney. 

Header image: Margaret’s friends Mike and Gabriel of Cup of Couple.


Lana Guineay is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Adelaide. She used to be a fashion editor, now she’s just a beach bum working on her first novel. Most days you can find her on Twitter.