Ask anyone in the fashion industry what they think of Shein, and the reaction won’t be a positive one.
Aside from the fact that nobody really knows how to pronounce it (Shee-in? Shayn?), the Chinese faster fashion site undercutting Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing et al has become as well known for its shameless copying of independent designers’ work as it is for its low prices – a strategy that has helped it take down British high street stalwarts such as Topshop and Miss Selfridge.
It represents, for many, the worst of the fashion industry: with around 4,000 new products landing on its site each day, it sells huge volumes of £5 tops and £9 dresses, designed to appeal to the kind of person who doesn’t want to be seen twice (on social media or in real life) in the same outfit.
Clothes this cheap have a limited life-span – even if they are donated to charity – and ultimately contribute to the UK’s £140 million worth of clothes sent to landfill every year.
Shein regularly comes under fire for its tone-deaf merchandise too. Last year it was forced to remove a swastika necklace from its website (the brand said it was a Buddhist swastika, not a Nazi swastika). It also apologised after receiving a similar backlash for selling Islamic prayer rugs featuring holy motifs as decorative mats.
That doesn’t seem to have hindered its growth. The company doesn’t disclose financial information but CB Insights valued Shein at $15.8 billion (£11 billion) in 2020. Its estimated annual revenue is in the region of $10 billion (£7.2 billion).
It triggered fresh criticism this week though, when it announced that it was to launch a televised Project Runway-style fashion design competition, the Shein X 100K Challenge, to be judged by a host of industry heavyweights including former J Crew creative director Jenna Lyons, Celine Dion’s stylist Law Roach, designer Christian Siriano, reality star-turned denim entrepreneur Khloe Kardashian and InStyle style director Laurel Pantin.
The series, to be broadcast on Shein’s app and social media channels, will follow 30 young designers all competing for the chance to win $100,000 and see their designs sold on the Shein website.
To many, the move is deeply hypocritical: Shein is a company whose practice of using the work of young brands and artists without credit is well-documented – this attempt to position itself as a platform to nurture emerging talent isn’t fooling anyone, and many of the comments on Khloe Kardashian’s Instagram announcement reflect that.
“Is this a joke?” one asked. “Shein supporting designers?! All they do is rip off small independent designers to make fast fashion tat,” wrote another.
The comments on Lyons’ post were so vitriolic, she turned them off and updated her post with a statement responding to followers’ anger: “I appreciate the feedback and everyone getting a chance to say how they feel,” she wrote. “The reason I participated… is because the ENTIRE PROCESS was designed to support young designers, and all of the contestants were incredibly talented, passionate, and deserving of a chance at winning 100k.
“I encourage you to take a look at [the show] and see what you think before jumping to conclusions; everyone deserves a second chance,” she continued. “In order to preserve the positivity for the designers involved, I probably will start taking comments down. I hope you can understand – their moment is more important to me than the negative comments.”
It is notable, of course, that all of the Shein X 100K Challenge judges added the hashtag #SheInPartner to their social media announcements, which, much like the tags #ad or #spon, indicates that they have been financially compensated in some way. That’s probably what has upset people the most; the notion that, for enough money, public figures who they respect and admire are prepared to let go of their values if the pay cheque is big enough.
Unfortunately for critics of Shein, this week’s backlash won’t do much to slow its growth. Fans of its ultra-cheap, trend-led goods don’t want to know that its environmental responsibility statement looks rather like carefully phrased greenwashing, or that it was called out by Reuters earlier this month for falsely stating its factories were certified by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and labour standards organisation SA8000.
Most Shein shoppers likely don’t consider where the clothes have come from, or whether an independent designer may have been robbed of their intellectual property in order for them to wear it. And it looks like there are more Shein fans than its critics would like to believe. This year it surpassed Amazon as the most downloaded shopping app in the US, and it’s on track to do the same in the UK
For its part, Shein’s website firmly denies any unethical labour practices, and has stated that it takes copying allegations very seriously. “Shein… respects the intellectual property rights of artists and designers. We have policies and procedures in place to monitor and swiftly rectify any issues,” it said in a statement to Page Six.
“Shein X is an incubator program that was developed to specifically support small independent talents and give them opportunity to grow their revenue streams, gain exposure, and tap a massive Gen Z audience across the globe.”
For an aspiring designer, $100,000 would go a long way – but at what cost? Fashion students today are well schooled in sustainable practices. How will they be able to convince us of their sustainability ambitions if they are inextricably linked with a super-fast fashion behemoth?
While much of the fashion industry is working to improve its carbon footprint and conditions for workers, there remains a vast market for the kind of fast fashion fix that Shein provides.
Until these shoppers are prepared to change too, Shein is going nowhere.