Shein is the future of fast fashion. Is that a good thing?

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If you’ve spent some time scrolling and shopping on TikTok, you’re probably familiar with the fashion retailer Shein. From personal experience, however, “familiar” doesn’t properly contextualize how pervasive the brand is, at least online. Perhaps a more accurate description is: I am haunted by Shein. As a consumer who falls squarely within the brand’s target demographic — a woman in her 20s, who buys most of her clothes online — I encounter Shein-related content almost daily, algorithmically fed to me through Instagram advertisements, YouTube hauls, and viral TikTok recommendations.

Shein’s ubiquity, most notably on TikTok, has catapulted the retailer to cult status among young women across the globe. And while Shein is based out of China, it ships to 220 countries, with the US serving as its largest consumer market. In June, Shein overtook Amazon for the first time on the iOS App Store to become the leading US shopping app, a title it holds in over 50 countries. This comes after a pandemic year of record-breaking sales: Shein raked in close to $10 billion in 2020, which was reportedly its eighth consecutive year of revenue growth over 100 percent. The retailer is also one of the most talked-about brands on TikTok and YouTube, and the most visited fashion and apparel site in the world, according to the web analytics platform Similarweb. Shein had enough in its coffers to place a bid to buy Topshop in January, which it ultimately lost to Asos.

Shein has collaborated with well-known musicians (Katy Perry, Nick Jonas, Lil Nas X, Tinashe) for concerts and events and, like its trendy competitors, has sponsored influencers (Addison Rae) and created capsule collections with D-list reality TV stars (The Bachelor’s Hannah Godwin, The Only Way Is Essex’s Amber Turner). But Shein isn’t a brand made for and peddled by the rich and famous. In fact, it has cemented its reputation among regular people, particularly Gen Z shoppers, who promote the brand through unsponsored clothing hauls and outfit posts on social media. Friends and coworkers have recommended Shein swimwear and dresses to me in casual conversation, over text and even on Slack. On TikTok, a recent crowd favorite is Shein’s cross-wrap crop top — a $13 garment that resembles a halter top, but with a strategically placed cutout that reveals extra cleavage.

There are tens of thousands of styles on the retailer’s site, and each day, about 1,000 more are added. For context, this production pace is even speedier than the “ultra-fast” sites that dominate fast fashion’s Instagram era; Missguided and Fashion Nova, for example, reportedly release about 1,000 new styles a week. Shein’s business model, like that of its fast forebears, abides by the tenet that more is better, that excess can be made accessible through mysteriously low prices, with little care for environmental costs or transparency about its labor force.

A skilled Shein shopper can theoretically buy an entire outfit, accessories and shoes included, for $30 or less. In fact, there are entire sections on the site that help customers clinch the cheapest deals: A shopper can browse for tops under $5.99, dresses under $9.99, and clearance items under $5. The wardrobe possibilities, it seems, are endless. One Twitter user recently observed that $280 spent on Shein can create a year’s worth of outfits.

Yet Shein’s emergence as a fast fashion juggernaut can’t solely be attributed to the price of its clothing or its ubiquitous internet presence. The retailer is also nowhere to be found in the physical world — at least not in brick-and-mortar stores, although it has previously hosted in-person pop-up events. Shein appeared to have sprung out of thin air into the mainstream, unlike fast fashion’s old guards, whose spacious, brightly lit stores were proof of their dominance. Yet, Shein is so far ahead of competitors like H&M, Zara, and Asos, according to an analysis by Apptopia, that it’s difficult to compare them.

So what makes Shein so special? The answer might seem simple (two words: supply chains), if not for its influence over ever-changing trends and its impact on fashion consumption. There’s no doubt that it’s Shein’s world, and we’re just shopping in it.

A brief, incomplete history of Shein

Shein was first launched in 2008 under the domain SheInside, as a site that sold wedding dresses and women’s fashion geared toward US and English-language shoppers. The retailer was started in Nanjing, a province in China, by entrepreneur Chris Xu, who specialized in search engine optimization marketing. Xu has yet to publicly express any interest in women’s fashion or clothing design (granted, it doesn’t seem like he has done many interviews in English); his expertise lies in SEO and brand marketing, key factors that have contributed to Shein’s online popularity.

During Shein’s early years, there was very little that distinguished the brand from other Chinese e-commerce retailers, except that it sold wedding gowns. According to reporting from PandaYoo, an English-language site published by Chinese bloggers, Shein sourced its products from China’s wholesale clothing market in Guangzhou, a region where many Chinese garment factories and markets are centralized. Shein wasn’t involved in any aspect of garment design or manufacturing. It operated much like a dropshipping business that sells products from third-party wholesalers directly to overseas shoppers.

It wasn’t until 2014 that Shein began to acquire its own supply chain system, transforming itself into a fully integrated retailer. That year, it purchased Romwe, another Chinese e-commerce retailer. By 2015, the company had shortened its domain name to Shein, a move that reportedly made the brand more memorable and searchable for shoppers. Yet, prior to these major changes in 2014, the company had a decent online presence and enough customers to expand its operations. It was an early adopter of social media marketing, partnering with fashion bloggers for giveaways and promoting products on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest as far back as 2012.

Throughout the early 2010s, Shein launched overseas sites in Spain, France, Russia, Italy, and Germany, and began selling cosmetics, shoes, bags, and jewelry, in addition to womenswear. According to a translated article from the Chinese tech site LatePost, by 2016, Xu had assembled a team of 800 designers and prototypers, dedicated to rapidly producing Shein-branded clothes. Shein also began honing its supply chain, cutting out suppliers that produced “mediocre-quality products or images,” according to a 2016 press release.

By 2017, the present-day iteration of Shein had begun to take shape. The brand advertised on daytime television shows in the US, and fashion influencers showcased Shein products and hauls alongside other retailers, like Fashion Nova and Zaful. It was, however, the retailer’s early use of TikTok and ability to market viral products that skyrocketed Shein’s popularity.

Is Shein simply “fast fashion,” or is it the future?

While venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs tout Shein as the future of fashion, the company’s rise didn’t occur in a vacuum. Its success is predicated on a confluence of factors, from geopolitical trade policies to a decades-old, disaggregated global fashion ecosystem.

The fast fashion business model was pioneered in the 1990s by the founder of Inditex, the parent company of Spanish retailer Zara. Zara notoriously abandoned the concept of fashion seasons for a year-long cycle of production, which introduced customers to novel items every few weeks. Its success prompted other Western designers and retailers — H&M and Forever 21, to name two — to follow its lead into the next decade. Retailers migrated most of their manufacturing process overseas to countries with lax labor laws, where wages can be low and working overtime (without additional pay) is common. This, of course, made fashion companies more profitable, as shoppers became hooked on a cycle of novelty. But soon, things were about to get even faster.

Toward the tail end of the 2010s, “ultra-fast” fashion brands — Asos, Boohoo, Fashion Nova, and now Shein — emerged as viable competitors to the dominant fashion empires of the previous decade. Last October,…

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