The 100-Billion-Dollar Question

Could Shein be the future of fashion? It’s a scary thought

Shein has been in the news again. Not for the S$10 (or less) dresses that they sell, but for the staggering US$100 billion evaluation that they have received while the “clothing giant”, as they are now called, reportedly seeks a bold US$1 billion in funding, according to a Reuters report last week. This is so major, Bloomberg described it as a “big moment“, so big that every fashion business is taking notice. For context, that makes the brand worth more than H&M and Zara… combined! Shein, as news reports are wont to remind us, is thus worth as much as Elon Musk’s Space X. That, in merchandise quantity, is mind-boggling. Shein is believed to produce between 2,000 to 10,000 SKUs (roughly meaning individual styles) for it’s e-store, according to one report by the non-profit journalism organisation Rest of World (who was researching and examining the impact of Shein in the market). One University of Delaware study revealed that between January and October of last year, Shein produced “more than 20 times as many new items as H&M and Zara”. It is reasonable that, in order to enjoy a reported US$15.7 billion of sales in 2021 based on extremely low-priced products, they need to generate more merchandise than the world’s leading fast-fashion brands.

Do people buy that much clothes? Is this the reflection of what is happening in the market? That consumers need this amount of garments to view, choose, and buy? Or, to be “entertained” by, as one 20-year-old fashion student told us when we spied her engrossed by the Shein website? That this China brand is able to continue to increase its production again and again is veritable that whatever they put out to sell are snapped up as rapidly as they are produced. Shein offers, as fans know by now and love the brand for it, fast fashion that has gained even more speed. They put out on their website (their only point of sale other than the occasional pop-ups) with such incredible speed, the merchandise is now considered “ultra-fast” fashion, or as one store buyer calls it, “bullet-train-fast”. Typically, fast fashion brands, such as Zara, request a turn around time of approximately 2,000 fresh products in 30 days. Shein is able to get manufacturers to churn “6,000 new items daily”, according to Bloomberg.

Those new merchandise do not replace the existing (perhaps some styles that are sold out or discontinued are replenished). The total amount of items available for a shopper to choose from is, therefore, mind-blowing. Department stores, once known for their breadth of merchandise, would never tie themselves down to this amount of stock. But, Shein does not technically hold what are to be sold. They use big data to get manufacturers to produce “virtually on demand”. While traditional e-commerce platforms—such as Amazon—bring retailers and brands together, Shein’s gathers manufacturers (thereby cutting out middlemen). These producers come from every corner of China. And the massive products available on the Shein website or app have an added benefit: They keep shoppers glued to their smartphone (or tablet) for far much longer than they would be on even social media. And the longer they spend their time on Shein, the more likely they will spend. And spending on Shein, just as viewing videos on TikTok, can be frightfully addictive.

Much has been said about the link between Shein and TikTok (where, two months ago, influencer Chrysan Lee drew embarrassing attention to herself and concurrently created [further] brand awareness for Shein). The clothing retailer gleans from TikTok for trends and use the site’s members/users to promote (even hawk) their wares (such as the famous “haul” videos, with the hashtag #Shein enjoying more than 29 billion views). In researching for this post, we observed the young women who would not give the use of their smartphones a break, whether on the MRT train or on a busy street as they cross it. Oftentimes, they would have on their screens the ‘content’ from these two sites. TikTok is Gen Z’s Netflix (who has time for a feature-length film when in the same amount of time, you can binge on more than 40 inane TikTok posts) and Shein is the Taobao of trendy (which does not necessarily mean nice) clothing for the fashion bargain hunter. When, on the Downtown Line one morning, we spotted a teen visibly enjoying a video touting Shein dresses, we asked her what she got out of it. She said, “Nice, mah.” What is “nice”—the clothes, the wearer, or the post? “Aiya, all nice, lah! And she very clever to dance (sic).”

If Shein on TikTok is this appealing and is enticing many viewers to then cross to the Shein site and spend, then the brand could be dancing very closely to that US$1 billion funding. And if these Gen-Zers are behind this success, are they the passionate, save-the-environment adherents that we are led to believe? Are they really aware of fast fashion’s massive and damaging impact on the planet? Do they even care? Or are there fewer Greta Thunbergs in the fashion-consuming world than we have imagined or like to believe? Fashion before environment, it would appear, is more appealing to these shoppers who have placed cheap and plentiful at the top of their priority list. According to one Bloomberg report early this year, clothes are being discarded, as we type this, at a rate of 2,150 pieces per second! Is Shein not encouraging this disposal by making their wares so irresistible to buying, and then chucking? And do their selling approach not run counter to the belief that in order for our consumption to make a difference, we need to reduce our purchasing of new apparel by 75%? Besides, what are truly Shein’s green credentials when so much of what they sell are made of environment-polluting polyester and kindred fibres?

There is talk that what Shein does is the democratisation of fashion. Talk is cheap, just like the Shein clothes. But how does this broad appeal and wide reach help Shein tackle the issues of environmental impact when sustainability is trending across the industry? And just as pertinent: how will fashion advance when an entire generation is weaned on not-made-to-last clothes that are purchased to be (largely) showed off on social media? It is disheartening to see the oftentimes grim offerings on the Shein site and to know that there are many who are proud to be associated with the brand. Whenever we see fans on social media put on pieces from their “hauls” to show how proud they are with their purchases (even clothes that are not ironed!), we can’t help but wonder if fashion is doomed. But then we remember: We used to knock blog-shops when they were the rage, but look at how far they’ve come. If Shein’s astonishing evaluation is any indication, they and their retail model are here to stay. That possibility is frightening.

Photo (top): Zhao Xiangji. Screen grabs (bottom): shein.com

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