LONDON — In recent years, the fashion world has seen a more diverse cast on the runway, with age, race and body type no longer fitting a singular narrative. Take Lina Zhang, who was born in a little village in Heilongjiang, the northernmost province of China, and who has found international success after eight years in the business.
Zhang was all over the Paris runways this season, opening the Balenciaga and Stella McCartney shows and walking in Givenchy, Hermès, Maison Margiela, Courrèges, Haider Ackermann and Altuzarra. She is currently the face of Balenciaga.
Her distinctive appeal — with big, almond-shaped eyes, plump lips and a sculptural jawline — has made her a hit ever since she debuted in 2011. She walked 37 shows during that fall/winter 2012 season, and 56 in spring/summer 2013, including Louis Vuitton, Celine and Hermès. Then she disappeared from the international scene.
“I took a break from 2012 to 2014 because of my excessive weight loss [from stress]. Then I chose to build a family with my loved one and had two boys,” Zhang says. She may have been quiet in the West during this period, but her presence remained strong in China. She appeared constantly in the Chinese editions of T Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Marie Claire, Madame Figaro, i-D and Wallpaper.
“I don’t think I would call it a comeback, as I don’t see myself as a top model. In the past, I was a temporary model who only worked for three seasons. I didn’t even shoot for top magazines or campaigns. Sometimes, I think no one would ever know that I was a model six years ago,” Zhang says.
It was Balenciaga that changed her trajectory. “I was taking care of my family until last year when the casting team at Balenciaga was auditioning models. Fortunately, I got selected for the spring/summer 2019 show. It was at that time I made my decision to be back on the stage that I love,” she says.
Soon after that, Zhang was featured in the Balenciaga spring/summer 2019 campaign and selected as the opening model for the brand’s fall/winter 2019 show. “I didn’t know I was the first look until the fitting. Also, opening for Stella McCartney was an unbelievable experience. There were so many supermodels in that show. I am truly grateful for Demna [Gvasalia] and Stella for the amazing opportunities.”
The model said that her family has had no adverse impact on her career. “On the contrary, I’ve become a different and a better ‘me’ as I returned. I’m grateful for my husband and my two kids for enabling me to find the better ‘me’ and to be myself. They certainly support me for doing what I love. As a result, my life and work don’t contradict,” she adds.
Most of her posts on Instagram are about her family, or documenting her joy as a mother and a wife. Some show her two boys playing on the beach, walking in the park, or celebrating birthdays in restaurants.
To those who have known her for a while, Zhang’s aura changed after becoming a mother. Jumbo Tsui, a fashion photographer and designer who has worked with her on several occasions, says: “I find softness and peace in her eyes nowadays. When I look into them, I feel deeply touched.”
Fashion consultant and influencer Leaf Greener, who takes credit for discovering Zhang, says: “I find Lina more polished and mature after being a mother. She used to have really long hair, but her short hair suits her more. Another major factor that contributes to Lina’s success this season is that Western fashion designers’ perception of Asian models is shifting. They have begun to embrace more womanly and eccentric-looking faces.”
In an interview with WWD in 2012, Zhang said she has always “felt really comfortable with who I am, but that comfort was never really based on my looks.” Eight years on, she has a similar attitude. “Coming back this season, I feel the industry is getting more and more diverse as the time changes. No one ever called me an ‘old model.’ Whoever I am, I did a great job. That’s the point.”