Margaret Zhang talks bags, style secrets and her personal connection to Coco Chanel at the icon's Rue Cambon apartment

Hearing voices

Text: Jolene Khor

In a room as historic as this one, only the most intimate of fashion confessionals will do

Hers is a name not unfamiliar to the fashion circle. When the Australian-Chinese Margaret Zhang is not behind a camera — as a photographer or a stylist or a creative consultant — she is often subject of one; her own (have you seen her Instagram?) and those street style lenses that trail her every shadow.

The identity of Amanda Harlech however, is far less household. Just as Raf Simons has Pieter Mulier and Anna Wintour has Grace Coddington, Karl Lagerfeld has Amanda Harlech. Considered his right hand woman, she rejects the idea of being his muse although she has inspired him for decades, preferring instead to be described as "his outside pair of eyes".

Appropriate then is Harlech's role as the journalist and moderator in Chanel's series of podcasts, an audio homage to the 2.55 bag. Her microphone is directed at 10 influential women in the industry, of whom, writer Anne Berest; founder of The Webster, Laure Hériard-Dubreuilstylist and co-founder of Hey woman!, Veronika Heilbrunner; founder of Style Bubble blog, Susie Laufounder of All the pretty birds blogTamu Mcphersonmodel and DJ Soo Joo Park; stylist, writer and co-founder of the Social Zoo agency, Pernille Teisbaekstylist Fil Xiaobai; and model Stella Tennant; join Zhang in the project titled 3.55 Handbag Stories. In their individual sessions, the women, perched on one of the most storied chaises in the world, delve deep into their kinship with Chanel — the designer, her legacy, her apartment, and most pointedly, her bags.

Below, hit the 'play' button for Zhang's episode or read her interview highlights sans earphones. The link to the others', after the jump.

Hello Margaret. It's wonderful to meet you in Gabrielle Chanel's apartment. You said you've never been here before and this is your first time.   
Yes, it's very special. I've read extensively about it, down to the furnishings and special key items. I'm very nerdy in that way — I fully research everything I'm going to. This is indeed my first time here. It's very overwhelming, but at the same time, very homey.  

What things strike you in this room as particularly revealing?
My heritage is Chinese and my parents are Chinese. I've always been a giant Chinese history nerd. I read extensively about all the dynasties, all of the different costumes... Chinese costumes kind of play a lot into what I like about fashion. So these Chinese screens [in the room] are very fascinating to me, and I just think of that era of Chinese art and screens and the way they looked at watercolour and how it played into everything and how the language is based on pictures and things like that. It's really kind of strangely familiar and very comforting to see so many of them.

I wonder what is it about the coromandel screens and the chinoiserie. Maybe what I'm feeling in here is this woman who's superstitious. But in a really good way. She's placed her emulates, her crystal balls, her wheat and they are always in pairs so it's very balanced. And you can feel that she'd come here down from the atelier or the salon downstairs when she had her shows, that this is the inner sanctum. This was the place where she would lie on that suede sofa with its matelassé cushions.
I think that kind of feeds into Chinese art a lot. There's that idea of balance, colour balance, calm, happiness... there are always pairs in Chinese art and it is always kind of based around one central principle whether that's intellect or interaction or peace. 

Margaret Zhang talks bags, style secrets and her personal connection to Coco Chanel at the icon's Rue Cambon apartment (фото 1)

[Referring to Margaret's Chanel bag] I see today you've brought what looks like a mini kind of quilted suitcase. Do you choose the bag because of what you are wearing?
Yes, it's kind of like a lunch box. I do choose my accessories first, always. 

I choose my bag and my shoes first, then I do outerwear, and I work in[wards] from there. I mean honestly, I'm known to just wear the same inside outfit and have different outerwear and different accessories day to day. Fashion week to me is very straightforward.  

It really is the inside you and the outside you and the outside is the bit that changes.
I would say that's a very good metaphor actually.

The bag on the chair there is Chanel's original 2.55. And she had obviously edited her essentials to this beautiful cigarette box. Her compact and her lipstick. And she always carried a handwritten note inside to remind her that even though our lives are short, our dreams would go on forever. I wonder what you've got inside your bag.
My contents are much less edited than hers [would be], but maybe I will get there with age. I have this Chanel coin purse with a little gold chain, which does not come with the bag. It's something that I acquired many years ago with many coins in it... maybe five different currencies which is extremely useless. But something in there will be useful at some point in time. I carry this essential oil mix from my friend who is very amazing, holistic, Japanese — she is like my second mother. She does holistic facials in Sydney and she is always very concerned about my health and well-being because I'm always on the road, so she gives me these custom oils.  

Margaret Zhang talks bags, style secrets and her personal connection to Coco Chanel at the icon's Rue Cambon apartment (фото 2)

Does this stop the adrenaline crash?
It helps you just focus during the day because I have so many things going on at once. 

When do you get to focus?
I walk around. I prefer taking metro in Paris and walking. It's quicker. And a lot less stressful. I get the worst road rage so I can't sit in the back of a car. It's like good for me to just walk and listen to podcasts, and just think about what I have coming up, what I really want to work on this year and that really helps me focus. What else do I have? Actually, I have this like strange little bag of crystals.

A very real parallel to Gabrielle!
It really is. Mine is slightly smaller scale to fit into my suitcase. I also a mix of very practical things: my wallet which is also Chanel as it happens; powder, when I remember to use it; a phone charger and earrings if I need to go from a day to night situation in a hurry. That's it. 

That was pretty edited to me. 
If you met me three years ago, I will be all about the massive turd full of receipts.

How do you keep all your bags?
I'm really nerdy; I have them in individual dust bags lined up in my closet.

How can you remember which one is where?
I take up my brain space with really useless information that I don't need to be remembering day to day, but then forget really important things like my credit card codes and things like that. I have [the bags] in the order that I put them in and I just remember where they are. I also remember the outfit the first time I met XYZ person, whom I've never seen again since, but then, I also won't remember what time my flight is tomorrow. 

Listen to all episodes of Chanel 3.55 Handbag Stories podcast with Amanda Harlech on Apple Podcasts.