Margaret Zhang has been mastering the ballet trend well before we saw its influence across sneakers or swimsuits. But you might have never guessed it from looking at the street style star. The Australia-born photographer and creative director made a splash when her blog Shine by Three launched in 2009, and subsequently, every Fashion Week after, as her unique layering and use of colour and pattern made her fodder for every photographer standing outside the runway. But a major dance influence came into play much earlier for Zhang, informing pretty much every outfit we’ve ever seen on the 24-year-old and preceding the 2017 It trend by decades.
Zhang studied ballet from a very young ago but stepped away from her rigorous training at 16 right before she started her website. However, the rehearsal mentality and discipline stuck, not to mention an appreciation for layered pieces, easy silhouettes, and fabrics that move. “Most traditional ballet training really trains you to be very feminine,” she explains, adding that her POV has shifted to be “more boyish and a little more tailored,” but it’s just as connected to her training.
Below, Zhang told us a bit more about what makes ballet such a powerful point of reference for fashion, all while demonstrating four inspiring head-to-toe ensembles anyone—even those with two left feet—can re-create.
Take a look at Zhang’s impeccable outfits below.
WHO WHAT WEAR: What are your very first memories of fashion?
MARGARET ZHANG: All of my fashion—I hate the word inspiration, but—inspiration comes from when I grew up training to be a ballet dancer. More so the movement than the physical garments, although the tights and the leotard situation is very on-trend right now.
WWW: Totally. The ballet trend is huge right now, but that’s not something we really associate with you. Why does a different type of silhouette appeal to you more?
MZ: I’m a practical person—I’m on set, photographing and directing, which requires me to be comfortable, so I’m not a huge advocate for dresses. Anything fluffy, I kind of steer clear of. Having said that, being comfortable doesn’t mean it has to be a shirt and pants. You can still be comfortable and layer with a coat or a blazer and a shirt and a corset—something that makes it a little more interesting. I think it’s less about ballet rehearsal, but its influence.
WWW: After all these years, why does this ballerina style POV still make sense for you?
MZ: You need to be agile. It has to be simple but interesting enough that I can go to the next thing and add a layer when I’m going somewhere else and don’t have to carry a whole new outfit with me.
WWW: Over the last seven years since you launched your site, how has your style changed?
MZ: For anybody going from age 16 to turning 24, that period of your life is such a rapidly shifting period. I was a little more feminine when I was 16. I’ve become more boyish and a little more tailored. I guess what I’m known for would be layering. I went through a period of trying to fit as many garments on my body as possible without it looking ridiculous. I’ve kind of taken a step back from that, but it’s still very much about creating intricate dimensions.
WWW: So is more always more?
MZ: I don’t really believe in shopping a whole lot, I’m not a huge fan of shopping for a new outfit every week or spending a lot on clothing if there are more important ways to spend money. Rather than buying a dress or a jumpsuit, it’s about mixing and matching and making the most of the separates that you have.
WWW: Do you have any signature layering tricks?
MZ: It’s easy layering a camisole over a men’s shirt. As my layering goes, there’s the physical layering element of contrasting masculine and feminine silhouettes: What about a large menswear coat and cinch it at the waist? What can go over a blazer that will make it more feminine without being girly? It’s more a balancing thing.
WWW: Do you often come away from a photo shoot with insights or tips that resonated with your sense of style?
MZ: I feel like I do that more with beauty than I do with clothes. I have a quite definitive approach to clothes that I really like and what works on my body, and I’m not much for shopping for things all the time. Whereas I’m very much jazzed about beauty in general. I’d ask “Oh what brushes should I use?” or "What’s your favorite mascara?”
WWW: Are there elements of your style that you specifically credit to your upbringing in Australia?
MZ: It’s more of an approach to color, texture, and shape, which I personally think is very much because of moving light [in Sydney]. The light in every city—like L.A. has amazing gold, NY has a very particular light because of the way the buildings pass shadows, Paris at night is very blue and yellow—impacts the way you see color. Certain people dress a little more experimental and experiment with color a bit more. And at the same time, Australians are very practical and easygoing with their dressing. It’s a balance, and that 100% influences me.
WWW: And finally, as someone who is quite experimental with fashion, is there anything you’d never wear?
MZ: It’s not that I want them to go away forever, I’m just not a girly-girl. Whenever the Zimmermann sisters have a show or some kind of event, I always go and support them because they’ve been supportive of me for a long time and they’re inherently Australia in the way that they approach design. We have this great working relationship … and running joke of “What’s Margaret going to do with Zimmerman this time?” Because it’s this very frilly, girly style. I want to go there, but I just can’t. Aesthetically, the way that I look and my frame and structure, the way that my body is shaped, my coloring, I just don’t feel comfortable. Zimmerman does a lot of separates that I like, but I’m running out of ways to layer all the frills.
WWW: There’s always a man’s shirt you can put underneath it.
MZ: Exactly. I think that’s so demonstrative of how you can have trends, but our styles shape them.