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'I'm still a total nerd': Meet Australia's newest fashion icon Margaret Zhang

23 May 2016



"Consultant photographer stylist writer" Margaret Zhang divides her time between clients in New York, Los Angeles, China, Hong Kong, London, Milan and Sydney. She has worked with luxury brands such as Gucci, Swarovski and Louis Vuitton, and directed a short film for Dior. She has appeared in Vogue, Harper's and Elle magazines. She scored 99.85 in her HSC and graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in commerce/law. She is a classically trained musician and ballet dancer. She has a house in Matraville but she's looking for a place in New York. Last week, she turned 23.

She arrives for lunch at John Smith Cafe, just around the corner from her office in Waterloo, wearing a burgundy blouse, with bell sleeves that open like wings. She helps our photographer style her picture by moving a glass of water into the frame. When he aims his camera, she stops speaking and her face softens into a picture of her face.

"When you're talking," she says, "you're concentrating, you're frowning, and that doesn't look good in a photo. It's always really obvious when you have a whole lot of tension in your face. When I shoot other people, I'm always, like, 'I'm just testing the light,' and that's when I get the best photos."

Zhang is back in Sydney to shoot fashion week for Chinese Vogue, and to give a talk at the Vivid Ideas festival. Many people know her work from Instagram, where she has 751,000 followers, and often posts painterly images of herself dressed beautifully in city streets around the world. She's a global citizen but she appears to be out of place everywhere – part tourist, part found object – turning her back on her surrounds with almost rapturous ennui.

"I get frustrated when people say I'm an Instagram celebrity," says Zhang. "Boiling someone's entire career down to the fact that they have some numbers on an app is maybe the most stupid thing ever. Plus it's not like you can't say it's anyone's career if they don't make any money from it. I have an Instagram, but it's secondary to my work and it's a vehicle for communicating."

The words she says sit flat on the page – and she uses "like" as if it were a limitlessly versatile verb – but in person she radiates a tremendous, independent intelligence. As she speaks, the wind blows her hair into the corner of her mouth, and she looks like a model on the cover of a magazine.

Zhang was born in Sydney and grew up in West Ryde. Her father is a doctor of mechanical engineering and her mother is a medical doctor. Her parents came to Australia from China in 1992, via her father's lecturing posts in the UK, Canada and Japan. Zhang started her education at Denistone East Public School then won a scholarship to Kambala, an independent school in Rose Bay.

I make some throwaway comment about private-school bullies. "Everybody in private school is a bully," she says. "Especially to the kid from West Ryde. Especially to the scholarship student." She laughs. "It wasn't that bad. In any all-girls' school, there's that much estrogen in one place it's not a good thing.

"In the fashion industry," she says, "there's that much estrogen in one space."

But she loved both her schools, and she also practised ballet from the age of three and learned piano and violin from an early age. She played a lot of sport, joined the swim squad and trained in gymnastics. There was no TV at home and her parents only turned on the radio to listen to the news. Her mother, "a great cook", used no packaged or processed foods, little refined sugar, and did not serve dessert except on special occasions.

Zhang is a vegetarian, and for lunch she has the cafe's colourful breakfast bowl of quinoa, greens, beetroot, humus, roasted Roma tomatoes and poached egg. I accidentally order a salad in the mistaken belief that it's a burger.

Zhang says she survives on about five hours' sleep a night, and this is her second breakfast of the day. Her first was taken in the morning, wolfed down at red lights, "a small Asian girl in a soccer-mum car eating vegetables out of Tupperware".

At Kambala, she says, "Obviously it's a very different social dynamic from a co-ed public primary school in Ryde. I think I learned more social and political skills than I did my education, although I was a very academic student. I was a total nerd. I'm still a total nerd."

She was interested in philosophy and chaos theory. She took 15 HSC study units instead of the standard 10, completed four-unit maths one year early, did extension music and won an Encore nomination for performance and composition. She started to teach herself photography at home at the age of about 12 and launched her website at 16, posting "art photography and couture inspiration". She had her first paid photographer's job at 18.

Is there anything she isn't good at?

"Well, I can't kick a ball that's not round," she says.

Even this seems due to some kind of intellectual disagreement.

"I don't understand rugby," she says. "The aerodynamics of the ball don't make sense to me." She feels there is insufficient "probability of your foot hitting the ball at the right angle".

By her third year at university, she was working "pretty much full time". At one point, she had classes scheduled from Tuesday morning to Thursday afternoon. She would fly out of Sydney on Thursday night to wherever in the world she was needed, then fly in again at 6am on Tuesday and go straight to her class. "That was one semester of hell," she says, "but it was worth it. I'm happy that I built a career while I was at uni."

Eventually, she says, people wanted to know about her own "personal style".

"And I have a relatively interesting personal style," she says, "going from shopping at Vinnies – which is what I did while growing up, which my mum thought was probably the grossest thing in the world – and altering stuff myself, to the explosion of brands at Kambala."

She now wears a mix of vintage clothes, up-and-coming labels and more established brands.

Today, big corporations and magazines want a piece of that style, and they hope to learn from Zhang how they can build a better public perception of their brands. Zhang travels relentlessly throughout the year, and plays the piano for relaxation.

"I'm working my way through everything Chopin ever wrote," she says, "because I think that's the most relaxing and beautiful emotional music. Music – the same as fashion and art – has this huge emotional power. I'm always tired and working a lot, and one day I woke up and I was, like, 'I haven't cried in seven months.' Then I played the piano and it happened. Which is important."

Zhang is not in a relationship. She lives with her younger brother in the Matraville house which, she says, backs on to a horse paddock and has a Hills' Hoist in the yard, but she will probably move to New York to relieve the stress of continually flying back to Sydney from Europe.

She says she's jetlagged but she's sharp and articulate while I feel sketchy and slow, still recovering from a party the night before. I can't play an instrument and, as I cut into my salad, I can't help but reflect that I can't even order my lunch correctly. I've only just heard of Instagram and I've got no personal style. In photographs, I look like my granddad. I am 52.

Margaret Zhang will be speaking at a Vivid Ideas 'Game Changers' event on May 28 at Sydney Town Hall at 3pm.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/im-still-a-total-nerd-meet-australias-newest-fashion-icon-margaret-zhang-20160519-goywdh.html#ixzz49SktgLO2
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