Two years ago, when Condé Nast announced that Margaret Zhang would be the next editor in chief of Vogue China, many in the fashion media were taken aback.
For one thing, at just 27, Ms. Zhang was the youngest ever editor in chief of a Vogue title. For another, there was her unorthodox multi-hyphenate résumé as a photographer, consultant, filmmaker, model and social media influencer — with almost no magazine experience. Then there was the fact that Ms. Zhang, who was born to Chinese immigrant parents in Sydney, was an Australian who had never lived in mainland China.
Her appointment was a considerable gamble for Condé Nast, and specifically for its global chief content officer, Anna Wintour. China was, and is, a cornerstone of the luxury fashion market, responsible for billions of dollars of sales. It is an economic superpower with a complicated relationship with the West, and a place where censorship of the press is common.
It is also one of the most populous countries in the world (about 1.4 billion people), whose nationalism is helping reshape consumer culture and the retail landscape. Some Western fashion brands have faced strong reactions after angering the government over moves involving Xinjiang cotton or Taiwan.
Angelica Cheung, the founding editor of Vogue China, held the position for 15 years. Its next editor would need to have an ambitious vision, formidable connections and commercial and diplomatic savvy — a challenge for someone twice, or even three times, Ms. Zhang’s age and experience, let alone a foreigner.
How would it feel to step into a job like that, knowing how many people expect you to fail?
In Soho during London Fashion Week last month, Ms. Zhang, now 29, paused for a moment when asked that question. Petite, and currently with electric blue hair (she defines the periods of her life with its hues), she has been able to travel freely for shows since China lifted its strict lockdown earlier this year.
“I don’t mind people underestimating me,” Ms. Zhang said. “And I actually say that to people who look to me for guidance on how they can be taken seriously.”
She added with a grin: “It’s actually better when people underestimate you. Then you can prove them wrong. It’s all the more satisfying.”
Ms. Zhang’s first issue, in September 2021, was called “New Beginnings” and was produced during quarantine by a group of women, including a little-known photographer, Hailun Ma. It featured a 19-year-old dance student from Beijing Sport University on the cover. Since then, Ms. Zhang, who now lives in Beijing, has continued plotting her vision for Vogue and what it can represent in 21st-century China.
Her handle on Instagram, where she has 1.8 million followers, does not say “editor in chief”; instead, it says “Film Director.” (She is working on a screenplay.) Little surprise, then, that one of her most high-profile projects is Vogue Film, a platform to support Chinese women in film. To date, it has produced 11 short films.
Then there is Vogue Open Casting, an annual model scouting program that will go worldwide this year, and the Chinese Craftsmanship Initiative, which facilitates collaborations between international designers, local design talent and traditional Chinese craft communities. Ms. Zhang has also spearheaded a mentorship program pairing rising Chinese designers with international names, like Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino.
Ms. Zhang’s magazine covers and the content inside are striking, rooted in bold saturated color and the candid style that initially found her fame as an influencer. A September 2022 digital cover series explored fashion’s collision with the metaverse; the splashy cover of the December 2022 issue, photographed by Ms. Zhang, featured the supermodel Liu Wen.
In China, male movie stars and influencers — known locally as KOLs — are often more popular than their female counterparts. Last month’s cover of the movie star Jackson Yee, in a modern interpretation of traditional Beijing Opera character that incorporated current-season fashion, was Vogue China’s first solo male cover star.
“When Margaret was hired, we were all very surprised,” said Emma Zhang (no relation to Margaret), a fashion director of Gusto Collective, which helps Western luxury brands navigate expansions in Asia. “But it is clearer now, when Generation Z is such a priority consumer, why they wanted someone with a younger perspective and visual style. Her approach is different from what came before. Many see it as a breath of fresh air.”