Can the little red dot stand shoulder to shoulder with the little black dress? A native islander and friends look at fashion (and such) in Singapore, and, occasionally, among her neighbours, and a little further afield
H&M turns the heat up with their latest collaboration
Sex sells and H&M wants to peddle it too. High Street fashion has not showed this much skin since denim hot pants were slashed to mimic underpants, exposing pocket bags. H&M’s latest pairing with Mugler seems to be targeted at the next batch of attendees of the Grammy Awards and their followers. Expect enthusiastic editorial support to call it hip-hop-stars-approved. Or a collab Emily Ratajkowski will rush out to buy. And every member of the Kardashian family needing to be visible now that neither of them are apparently invited to the up-coming Met Gala. That H&M has chosen the less-is-more aesthetic of present-day Mugler is a reflection of fashion’s obsession with near-nudity, as seen at the recent Academy Awards (and the after-parties) and the quickly-gaining-traction no-bra trend (just look at TikTok). Need to bare, however, seems more like an American infatuation and movement. H&M X Mugler’s success, if so, may show how nude women really desire to be.
Founder of the house Thierry Mugler died a year ago, but this is no homage to his aesthetical legacy. To be sure, Mr Mugler made sexy clothes—even his skirt suits were sexy—but they were never this ostensibly close to sleaze. As a designer told SOTD, “Mugler was never trashy, so I’m not sure how or why it looks like that now. So off-brand.” The Mugler of today is the imagination of American designer Casey Cadwallader (some French maisons, of late, prefer hiring from across the pond), who joined the brand in 2017. While H&M has said in a press release that the collaboration “encapsulates the very essence of Mugler”, it is the crux of what Mr Cadwallader does for the brand today. He has built much of his output around a bodysuit, but these are not those similar to Donna Karan’s in the ’80s. These love the body so much they cling to it or, thanks to sheer panels or daring cutouts, show it off. Certainly the stuff Cardi B and her rapping sisters adore.
For some reason, the harder we look, the more we saw Balmain, too. It could be the shoulders, the unforgiving silhouette, the constricted leanness. Or, perhaps, LaQuan Smith? It is admirable that H&M is able to produce such clothes at the level they do, given that these are not garments designed in the conventional way—they’re mostly almost like shape wear. How these pieces would appear as a collection on the rack is also not immediately imaginable. These days, clothes do not have to entice from a hanger. The shoppers already know how the desired pieces will fall on or, in this case, cleave to the body. And what is worn must not only crave media attention, they cry out for pedestrian attention too. But will the Swedish brand hit the big time with this collab before one quick-to-reponse Chinese brand, growing larger by the day, beat them to it? Let’s see.
…the ION Orchard store. Another one bites the dust
Main entrance of H&M ION Orchard store
Was the writing on the wall when H&M closed their store in Tampines Mall in August 2020 and then at Waterway Point in Punggol in January 2021. The Swedish retailer announced via a photo message on Facebook that the ION Orchard outlet will be shut next month, on 12 March. Despite the impending closure, H&M happily stated that “new beginning awaits!”. It also added: “Don’t worry. We’ll meet in other places”, without saying what would cause the worry or if “other places” meant outside our island, or within. With the ION Orchard store shuttered, the chain is left with eight others spread across our city. It is not known how many of these will remain. On Orchard Road, only one H&M store stands: the once-open-till-11pm, three-storey flagship at Orchard Building on Grange Road will continue to operate.
The H&M ION Orchard store opened in 2012, the year the ‘Lemons Laws’ were passed to protect consumers from good found to be defective after purchase. With two stories (the lower floor houses the men’s and kids’ departments), it is the chain’s second largest here. It is also in this MRT station-level location that the label’s designer collaborations were launched (other than at the flagship, some 700 metres away). Those who chose to get in line outside this store felt it was a more comfortable space to camp overnight as it was “not affected by the elements”, one regular queue folk told us. H&M apparently would be stepping up its digital presence in the wake of reduced numbers of brick-and-mortar stores and attendant traffic. ION Orchard has not announced what or which brand will takeover the two units that H&M will soon vacate.
The B3 entrance to the men’s department
The last of the window displays before the store closes
Way before the pandemic arrived, we had already noticed that H&M was looking slack. Visual merchandising was beginning to be non-existent, even the clothes on the racks were not pressed. One “former” H&M fan told us that the offerings were beginning to “look nasty”. At some time in early 2019, even the Orchard Building flagship, where the press office is sited, appeared like a preface to closure: just racks of clothes with no displays on shelves above them. Reportedly, this store will be “revamped”, a H&M spokesperson told the press. But it would not surprise us that even their biggest outlet, where the brand’s home decor line is available during the Christmas season, would shutter. In Tokyo last August, H&M closed their Harajuku flagship (it sat in a dedicated building next to ABC Mart) on Meiji-dori, following the similar fate of their first Tokyo store in Ginza in 2018. It would be surprising that this was not the result of the heat felt from other fast fashion brands, such as Shein, now with physical stores in Osaka and Tokyo.
At the ION Orchard store this morning, the number of shoppers was dismal. Most of them appeared to be tourists or domestic workers on their day off. At the main entrance on B2, merchandise for the Lunar New Year greeted us with little cheer. We walked around and noted that, aesthetically, H&M has not changed: a jumble of clothes and little else. Everything on the racks had scant hanger appeal. We spotted a staffer folding clothes in front of an island display. We walked to the chap and casually asked him when the store will close. He told us that it will likely be on 12 March or “some time in the middle of next month.” We asked him what could be the reason for the impending closure, and he quickly replied, “that one I don’t know because the staff is not supposed to know.” Still curious, we pressed on: Will there be a clearance sale? Pointing to a rack behind us, he replied helpfully, “all the sale items are there.”
H&M withdraws their collaboration with Justin Bieber after the singer called the clothes “trash”
It is funny that Justin Bieber has called the output of his collaboration with H&M ”trash”. Even if he is considered by many, including his fans, as a style icon, it is not certain that he is, in fact, such an arbiter of style that even the powerful H&M has to bow down to him, withdrawing the collaboration as soon as the singer deemed them to be garbage. Sure, he has his own fashion line, Drew (and the collective Drew House), but it is hard to determine if he is a man of innate taste, just like Kanye West. Sure, like Mr West, he wore Balenciaga and modeled for the house, but we were not aware that he is this knowledgeable in what clothes deserves to be binned. Now we know. Just one word—“trash” (the full sentence: “the H&M merch they made of me is trash”, expressed through Instagram Story two days ago)—and the Swedish brand yanks all the related merchandise online and off. We see the power of celebrity in action, again.
Collaboration tight spots these days are of course very much par the course, especially those involving singers. Mr West famously accused The Gap of not producing exactly what he wanted and not pricing the merchandise as he thought reasonable. It is probable that Mr Bieber’s very public disapproval is a page off Mr West’s partnership play book. People don’t go to the top these day; they take to social media. Who bothers with one CEO when you can galvanise millions of your followers. And that was exactly what Mr Bieber did. He told his audience of 270 million directly: “I wouldn’t buy it if I were you.” And then he became instructional: “Don’t buy it.” H&M likely did not expect that recommendation. In a statement quoted by Rolling Stone, H&M explained that they withdrew the products “out of respect for the collaboration and Justin Bieber.” We don’t remember reading of such deference in relation to Mr West’s plight!
Frankly, we weren’t aware of an H&M X Justin Bieber collaboration. We are, after all, no Beliebers. As we gathered, H&M launched the new collection of Bieber merchandise early this month. They have been sold for weeks now. Most of the pieces, like concert merchandise, sport teenaged faces of the singer. Oddly, H&M allegedly did not have Mr Bieber sign off on the collection before putting it out on the selling floor. The singer was adamant: “I didn’t approve it.” WWD quoted a statement they received from H&M: ”as with other licensed products and partnerships, H&M followed proper approval and procedures.” The company is a serial collaborator. It is unlikely that they did not have standard ways to get a collaborative collection out. At first, H&M said they would continue to sell the merchandise despite their collaborator’s stern disapproval. Just a day after, they changed their mind, and withdrew the whole collection. The abrupt halt of the sale of products already on the selling floor is rather odd. This was not the first time that Justin Bieber worked with H&M. In 2017, they partnered to produce the merchandise for his Stadium Tour. That first time must have been successful for either side to desire to come together again. Clearly, he didn’t see any trash then. This time round, surely they knew what to expect from each other. The pieces from the latest collab is no different from the one earlier. You get the usual hoodies, T-shirt—now, in the length of a dress—and there is presently a tote bag. Not terribly complicated to the point that approval from the guy whose face is used on the products is somehow muddled in processes and procedures. Disruption may be a buzzword in fashion and business, but where it would lead these two strong brands to or who will emerge victorious is hard to say with certainty. You can’t untrash trash, can you?
The Chinese hyper-fast–fashion online label is now into physical stores: a pop-up in Osaka, and now its first permanent physical store in Tokyo
Shein pop-up in Osaka
Shein is not only going big, they’re getting physical. Two stores in Japan, the country with some of the best stores and shopping experiences in the world, are now Shein standalones. First a pop-up in Osaka (till the 26th of January or six days after the Lunar New Year) and then a proper bricks-and-mortar in Tokyo, touted “the world’s first”. It opened three Sundays ago in the streetwear/sneaker (but not quite hipster) stretch of Cat Street, Ura-Harajuku, a ten-minute, or so, walk from the famed Takeshita-Dori. These are not modest little stores. The glass-front Tokyo space spreads over two stories (or 201 sqm), and is stocked with merchandise for men (although somewhat limited) and women, including cosmetics, and even products for pets. Clothes (the largest category) can be tried on by Japanese customers for the first time, prior to purchase, on-line.
In Osaka, the pop-up, also a double-floor affair, opened a month earlier. Part of the Shein Popup: The Japan Tour (which will includes five cities in all), it sits on Osaka’s main shopping street of Shinsaibashi, in a space formerly occupied by Uniqlo, and is in the company of competitor-neighbours Gap and H&M (how thrilled is the Swedish brand now that Shein is directly opposite?), turning this area of the street into a multi-nation fast-fashion hub. Japanese media enthusiastically reported of “more than 800 items” on display in the Shein pop-up, but with the crowd, it’s hard to see the vastness of the offerings. There are, to the thrill of the Japanese, nine fitting rooms, each decorated differently (and with considerable camp!) so that the trying-on of clothes could also be a selfie moment to be shared on social media. These do not include seven additional photo-op spots throughout the store. Shein’s target audience is unambiguous: smartphone-dependent, must-be-visible-online Gen-Zers.
Despite the staggering array of merchandise, nothing in the two stores are for outright purchase. Shoppers can browse and try, but there are no cashiers for you to take your desired products to, to seal the deal. Shein is essentially a showroom, although, in Tokyo, the company calls it an “event space”. To purchase (which is surely the intention of opening a physical store), customers scan a QR code on a hang tag attached to every product. They would then be directed to the online page (or on the app) of the selected merchandise. An order of their picks can be placed. This is not Japan’s first browse-only fashion space. We remember that in 2019 there was a GU (Uniqlo’s sister brand) concept store in nearby Omotesando (close to the Harajuku station) called GU Style Studio, where shoppers were able to enjoy everything the store had to offer, except make a purchase. To buy, one scans a QR code too, and would be directed to GU online. There was also an avatar you can create to dress yourself digitally in GU clothes. Even earlier, in the ’90s, Shiseido opened a store—also on Omotesando, in a former apartment block where Omotesando Hills now stands—for women (and men!) to try merchandise (even do a makeover) the brand offered, for however long they wish, but nothing was for sale.
A Shein spokesperson told Forbes that the brand’s “focus remains digital-first.” He also said, “Shein customers can experience our fashion and lifestyle products at our pop-ups around the world. We will continue to expand our pop-up roadmap and keep making the beauty of fashion accessible to all.” Despite the impressive turnouts for both stores on opening day (in Osaka, 3,000 people reportedly turned up, and it took two and half hours to enter the store; in Tokyo, more than 150 were in line even before the store opened at 11am that day), it is not certain if Shein will be a stunning success in Japan when the country has their own low-priced but better-made fashion brands, such as the cheap and cheerful Wego, the fashion-reliable Niko And …, and, to a large extent, Uniqlo’s engaging GU, whose past collaborator included Undercover—it’s hard to get cooler than that.
Shein, launched in 2008, could be trying to rewrite their brand narrative in both visual and tactile ways, given the (still) bad rep they receive in so many parts of the world (they do not sell in China, where the brand was founded and where the clothes are manufactured), compounded by a Greenpeace Germany report published last week, claiming that some Shein products “contained hazardous chemicals that break EU regulatory limits”. Shein is probably aware that their customers do not care. The response to the two Japanese stores may be indicative. In both, one snappy slogan greets shoppers: “Wear your Wonderful”. In telling their Japanese customers to do so, perhaps Shein is trying to convince the skeptics that they do, too. Let other brands worry about the environment.
Your favourite winter wear brand will be more expensive.Uniqlo has announced in Tokyo that prices for their popular fleece jackets will be raised this year
If any brand has the muscle to brave higher material and production costs, it would be Uniqlo. But, the Japanese label has announced in Tokyo last week that prices of some of their products will without doubt go up during the autumn/winter season (after August, as the speculation goes. Uniqlo has not announced specific dates). According to Yomiuri Shimbun, the Japanese brand has pointed to “rising raw material prices such as clothing materials and distribution cost” that led to Uniqlo’s decision to raise prices. Clothing, like food, cannot escape inflationary pressures, and so brands succumb. Uniqlo is reported to be generally increasing prices by ¥1,000 (about S$10.30). Their popular ‘Ultra Light Down Jacket’ will be adjusted to ¥6,900 from ¥5,900 and the ‘Cashmere Crew Neck Sweater’ will go from ¥8,990 to ¥9,990. Their best-selling Heattech line, similarly, would not be spared the price hike, with the long-sleeved, extra-warm version soon retailing at ¥1,990, or ¥490 more than last year’s price of ¥1,500.
For Singaporeans, the increase is likely to be considered small, even negligible. The present urge (some even call it desperation) to travel is unlikely to abate, come the cooler and colder months of Q3 and Q4. We do not have concrete figures (Uniqlo does not reveal sale figures of individual items), but it is not immoderate to say that Uniqlo has single-handedly conquered the market for winter wear in much of Southeast Asia. When a puffer is needed, for example, the first stop is likely the home of the ‘Ultra Light Down Jacket’. We have seen in Hokkaido entire families, whether from Bangkok or Bandung, completely bundled in Uniqlo warm-weather wear, including scarves and gloves. Price increase in protective clothing, just as in air fare, will unlikely deter those bent on experiencing significant temperature drop. The travel bug, as we know, is often more prevalent than any other.
And TikTok users are delighted to compare them side by side. Fashion has a new form of entertainment. Its future looks bleak
On TikTok, they love comparing their favourite brands. Left: Beatriz (Bstyle). Right: iam.awilda. Screen grabs from respective TikTokers
By Pearl Goh
Is it still flattery when a piece of clothing is a likeness of an unoriginal? Okay, we’re living in confusing times and fashion is totally stupefying. Who is able to tell brands apart these days when, for example, Gucci is hacking Balenciaga (and vice versa)? Or, Prada is looking like Adidas? But, however blurred the lines have become, surely there is no kick in buying a knock-off of a knock-off? Or has the consumption of fashion become this perverse? Something is going on that is baffling. TikTok has been sending me notifications of “versus” videos. These are of women wearing identical pieces from Zara and Shein. No, I have not been searching any of these brands and I am not on TikTok. Yet, strangely, I have been receiving notification of the existence of these lurid, goofy comparisons.
The women in these videos seem to get some kick out of juxtaposing the identical clothes, and posing as if they have found the greatest joy of life. Did they actually buy two identical garments to make these enlightening TikTok videos? I do not know. But I was burning with curiosity. Are there that many Zara lookalike clothes by Shein? When I Googled ‘Zara versus Shein’ one afternoon, the first result read: “Discover zara vs shein ’s (sic) popular videos | TikTok”. Splendid SEO at work! There was a list of ten TikTokers’ posts to look at that has already attracted a whopping “25.9B” views! I was clearly late for the show. These women know what they’re doing. Instagram has caught up too, with one Dupes Nation offering a predominance of Zara-versus-Shein photos-only posts.
It is hard to make out why these girls are doing this, or what they’re hoping to achieve. Are they creating content that is deliberately not like the “haul” videos of other TikTokers? Are they doing their followers a favour by showing the latter the cheaper option to buy (prices are often put up)? Are they exposing something that could be detrimental to one brand? I can’t tell. I wonder if this comparison is a real exposé when we already know that Shein has been accused of plagiarism (the TikTok hashtag #sheinstolemydesign has received 6.4M views!) and the Chinese brand has been facing copyright disputes with Dr Martens and Levi’s, according to news reports. Even smaller, indie brands are not let off the hook. Dead-ringers of Marine Serre and Cult Gaia were also shared online.
While it’s rife among some fast (and ultra-fast) fashion brands to be ‘inspired’ by others, the problem at Shein, as widely reported, is particularly more acute. Never mind that these are litigious times. The brand’s big-data approach to design means they need to also consider what sells well for others, or what styles are trending on social media. This is no longer some high-low, looking-at-the-stars product development to better position a brand—that’s so yesteryear; this is looking at one’s peers to exceed. And better still, with a lower price for the end product. These days, as fans of Shein and company will say, there is no shame in buying cheap and dressing cheap. Not at all.
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.
The Swedish fast fashion giant allows other brands to trade on its e-commerce site in Sweden and Germany
According to a recent Reuters report, H&M won’t be just selling the group’s own labels on their e-store. The news outlet quoted an H&M spokesperson saying that online shoppers can now also purchase from a “curated selection of other fashion brands” in Sweden and Germany. The brands cited are namely jeans and streetwear names: Lee, Wrangler, and Kangol. This expanded mix was made available in Germany this month. A quick look at the Swedish page saw at least 20 non-H&M brands, including the footwear of GH Bass (and even Crocs!), bags of Hershel, and eyewear of Le Specs. There is no mention of introducing this enhanced e-commerce concept outside Europe, only that they “will gradually add more markets online”.
H&M has been comparatively slow in turning to the potential of online selling (although their Swedish site has been around since 1998), compared to others, such as Zara or Uniqlo. As their physical stores are looking a shadow of their earlier selves, the company needs online presence to boost their waning appeal, even with the reported 23% hike in first quarter sales. Some observers say that H&M needs to strengthen their online offerings in the wake of the onslaught by China’s Shein, coupled by increasing difficulty in the Chinese market, where it is (still) suffering backlash against its decision to stop using cotton from Xinjiang. H&M needs to shore up its brand positioning by doing more, and online seems the natural place to press on. Their online sales achieved last year was in the neighbourhood of one-third of total sales.
The inclusion of third-party brands reminds us of e-stores such as Zalora, ASOS, and Urban Outfitters, all with their house labels too. Despite the variety of brands, hm.com, is still primarily and aesthetically H&M, comprising at the fore, their own products. To seek non-H&M names, you need to click on ‘H&M with friends’ which allows you to “shop by brand”. While the site layout is similar to its competitors’, hm.com is not exactly fizzing with excitement. It could do with the elusive quality known as fun or what e-tailers like to call experiential. It is perhaps telling that despite including the group’s kindred labels, such as Monki, & Other Stories, Arket, and Weekday (all not available here), H&M’s e-commerce offering requires the presence of other brands to augment its merchandise breadth as the world’s second-biggest clothing retailer.
Uniqlo has no intention of halting their operation in the land with a leader that would not cease the war he started against Ukraine
Uniqlo in Harajuku. File photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD
Unlike many fashion brands, including H&M, Zara, and Levi’s, Uniqlo won’t budge. The company will keep their stores open in Russia, as the country’s president continues to order military attacks and airstrikes on Ukraine (including civilian targets). Nikkei reported that the Japanese retailer won’t be quitting Russia, even temporarily. There, they operate 49 stores (the first opened in 2010), believed to be the most among countries of the European continent (but small, compared to the 800 in China). With unrelenting international pressure to isolate Russia and the attendant restrictions to trade and finance, many fashion companies have opted to halt their operations, at least for the time being. The Japanese government’s reaction is largely in tandem with the US and Europe: sanctions have been imposed, including the freezing of assets of oligarchs and officials, and the halting of dealings with financial institutions, including Russia’s central bank.
Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing, rather put his massive business on a different track, and sticking to his outlier reputation. Known to prefer staying politically neutral (even avoiding commenting on the company’s acquiring of cotton from China’s Xinjiang), he said, “clothing is a necessity of life. The people of Russia have the same right to live as we do.” And the people of Ukraine, many are now asking? Do they not have the right to live peacefully as we do? He did not say. Or, is Uniqlo succumbing to fashion’s preference for the default stance on not having a take-a-side view, even if politics is inherently divisive?
Mr Yanai, dubbed the “man who clothes Asia”, added that he is against the war in Ukraine and exhorted countries to oppose it (Fast Retailing announced that a donation of USD10 million and 200,000 items of clothing would be given to the UN refugee agency). Yet, his urging and staying put in Russia are disparate. Last year, Nikkei announced that Uniqlo “outstrips Zara as most valuable clothier at USD103 billion”. It is possible that Fast Retailing needs to remain in Russia to keep that position, even if it means embracing reputational risks. The man could clothe Europe next! It is not, however, clear if there would be repercussions to Mr Yanai’s questionable decision, even when #boycottuniqlo is beginning to trend on social media. But Russia must be told to get out of Ukraine, and one of the best ways is to hit it where it could be severe: the supply of clothing deemed a necessity.
Despite their not-quite-stirling reputation, China’s largest fast fashion brand is a stirring global hit. We visited the siteto see what’s the appeal
Shein’s TikTok-style photos on their website
If you don’t identify as Gen Z, you might want to give this post a miss. If you do not, but like wearing cheap clothes that appeal to the very younger, our uncovering of an online retail sensation might appeal to you. Just in case you aren’t aware yet (or too shy to ask your daughter), Shein from Nanjing (南京), China is a global phenomenon. According to a Forbes report in February this year, the brand is a “(USD)15 billion fast fashion retailer”. While you are too busy watching which of your fave brands will be conducting a closing-down sale, Shein launched, two months ago, a “hub” on our island, with our own stand-alone website, which means prices quoted are in SGD. In Southeast Asia, Shein is also operating e-shops in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam (Malaysia’s, it is reported, is in the works). Although its expansion into our part of the world looks massive, Shein really made their mark and their sales in the United States, quickly beating American fast fashion brands, such as Forever 21, at their own game, tempting young shoppers with USD5 cropped tops and USD15 dresses (before discounts). Shein truly champions cheap.
But, first, let’s look at the name. It is often heard pronounced as “shine” (it’s not a Yiddish moniker!) or “shayne”, even “sheen”, as spoken by two teenaged girls seated next to us in an MRT train one weekday morning. However, according to fans using TikTok to communicate their #OOTD, it is “she in” (yes, two syllables), presumed by some to be a conflation of the two words, which may have come from “she is in”, but as mainland Chinese speakers of English do drop helping verbs, Shein pronounced as “she in” is unsurprising. However, if we go back to an earlier period, when the company traded as SheInside, perhaps the shortened name, as we know today, is understandable. Unlike many Chinese brands, such as Huawei, Shein the name does not have a Chinese root. Despite grabbing the headlines of major news outlets around the world with its un-Oriental-sounding brand, Shein is relatively unknown in the land where it was born as they only sell to overseas customers. When we spoke to a contact in Shanghai to ask her if she knows of the brand everyone is talking about and buying, she replied, “诗恩吗？没听说过 (shi en? Never heard of it)”. Some Chinese media use the name 希音 (xiyin), although it is unclear if the company is registered in China with that moniker.
You can’t imagine a Chinese brand not connected to technology or smartphones to be this big, but Shein is. Going back to America, hitherto their biggest market, it is reported that in a monthly ranking, the Shein app is downloaded more often than the Amazon app. As TechCrunch reported in May, citing App Annie and SensorTower, in the US, Amazon was beaten by the Chinese company on the Apple App Store on the 11th of that month, and then on Goggle’s Play Store just six days later. Now, it is reported that the Shein app enjoys 230 million downloads globally. In addition, a Similarweb research showed that Shein’s website is the most visited clothing retailer/brand in the world. According to Euromonitor International, the clothier is “the world’s largest online-only fashion company (based on sales of products under their own brand)”. That, by any standard, is a stunning achievement for a 13-year-old Chinese fast fashion label (H&M, at 74, is 61 years older) that first sold their products under the less marketable—and now defunct—website sheinside.com.
Shein bus-stop ad seen in June 2021
After typing the new shein.com in the Google Search bar on our PC, (unsurprisingly) the site’s ad first appeared, looking exactly like a search result. The title read “SHEIN Official Site – Free Shipping – Countless Choices”, telling us immediately what their customers consider important. Surprisingly, “cheap” wasn’t in that order. The snippet followed with “Browse a wide range of Hot Sale Clothes. Big Savings, Limited Time Only. Shop Now! New Trends in Clothes. High Quality, Up to 85% Off. Free Shipping Available! Bonus Point. Quick & Secure Checkout. 100% Quality Guaranteed. Size Guide. Customer Service Focused.” Sure, it isn’t a proper paragraph that David Ogilvy would recommend, but this isn’t written to appeal to an English major. The site links came after, offering quick access to “New Styles For Women”, “Classic Sweatshirts” (they are still in demand?), “Shein’s Hot Deals” (they are always hot) and “Extended Sizes” (inclusive!). The ad, in fact, sat above the top search result for Shein (both with “Sg” in their URL), which, to us, appeared a little too kiasu.
A click on the ad and we were very quickly brought to their homepage. But we didn’t see any of their irresistible clothing immediately. Before the flash animation of the promotional banner could fully load, a trio of coupons popped up, offering three different levels of discounts, based on the total purchase made. When the coupons went away (we don’t remember closing the window), we could see the major temptation—“9.9 pre-sale: up to 80% off”. Surrounding this traditionally-placed value proposition—front and centre—are tabs on all sides except the left, offering more discounts. We scrolled further down, and we still did not see clothes. After the clickable ‘Category’ buttons (24 in all), more sales and promotions were announced and conveniently linked to bring you straight to the cheap stuff. We clicked on “All under S$9.90”. Before long, there was a “Croc Embossed Saddle Bag”, but not that Saddle Bag, for the unbelievable price of S$3.75 (seriously!). We scrolled 20 rows down (still no clothes): nothing came close to S$9.90.
We returned to the homepage and scrolled further down. Finally, some semblance of fashion. But first, they’d tempt you with more markdowns, from 17% off for a palette of eyeshadows to 61% off for a “Lettuce Trim Rib-knit Lounge Top”. Does any shopper buy at full price? We wanted to look at regular-priced merchandise, so we clicked on the links under “#SHEINstyles”. There were two of them: “Dazy” and “Honeyspot”. Since the former sounded like lazy, we skipped that. As it turned out, “Honeyspot” is for the honeypot, or she who thinks herself as one. The first item was a pair of black, sexed-up, wide-legged pants, with the waistband cut in a V-shape to bare the hips. The model picked to wear the trousers was impossibly thin, with a girth of the waist that looked unreal. Was she Photoshoped to look like a reed? We couldn’t tell. There were seven shots of her, looking like screen grabs of TikTok post, with varying degrees of come-hither engagingness. In fact, all the girls (and they are mere girls) looked like they were posing for their boyfriend’s secret photo stash. No picture was alike; each seemingly shot to connect with those who are weaned on Instagram and TikTok—but not Taobao (淘宝).
Shein homepage this week opens with a sale
Despite repeated visits, it is hard to discern the aesthetic strength of the Shein website. First impression is that it looks like an e-store by the people behind Shopee—but a tad more orderly. The impression stays. Shein’s makes Love, Bonito appear like a high-end site (but more conservative), and the Bangkok-based Pomelo’s a luxury platform. There seems to be an endless supply of merchandise; the scrolling almost never comes to an end. Gondolas in physical stores have a bottom, but Shein seems to offer none. On their “New Arrivals” banner, you’re told to “meet your new 1,000+ favourites”. They have such confidence in their offerings and the breadth, even when it is hard to imagine any visitor to have four-figure favourites, all in one stop. But 1,000 is an oft-cited figure. According to numerous news reports, Shein puts out “1,000 new products a day” (sometimes, as it is also often said, staggeringly close to 6,000)! Their releases in a week are believed to match already prolific Zara’s for an entire year. The minute the items go online, A.I. keeps a close watch on shopper behaviour via clicks and the picks in the shopping cart. Demands are quickly forecasted and inventory updated, all in real time. No human hands are required in the processes. In addition, their impressive algorithm is able to make recommendations to those who share similar profiles and purchases as those of earlier visitors. Like on social media, Shein is a community experience.
The massive merchandise output they are able to produce is the result of an advanced and sophisticated supply chain that is thought to rival even its closest competitors’. “Nothing can’t be done in China,” sourcing agents and product development managers are wont to say, even if garment production has shifted to an extent to Southeast Asia. Just for fabrics alone, Shein taps the astounding supplies and varieties from wholesale markets, such as those in Guangzhou (广州) and increasingly in Yiwu (义乌), a city in Zhejiang province (480km away from Shein’s home in Nanjing or five hours by car, and a lot less from their production base in Panyu District [番禺区], Guangzhou). Known as the “wholesale centre of the world”, what Yiwu offers, as one fabric sourcing agent based in Hong Kong told us recently, is “a whole level of crazy. They can customised based on order size. Mind you, the fabrics are of the moment, not from many years ago, not stock lot. They have ideas pumped up to them from everywhere. And they can do effects such as print embroidery as well.”
The core of Shein’s supply chain, in fact, is in fabric production, as well as the sibling businesses of printing and dyeing. According to the brand’s 2018 business plan quoted in the media, this allows Shein to attain “75% direct procurement rates” (values that track all relevant aspects of obtaining or buying goods and services to arrive at an end product), meaning they are able to maintain high standards in aspects such as quality consistency, cost optimisation, and trend correctness. Another Hong Kong production professional told us, “they could be on trend just by buying, for example, fleece or French terry to run throughout the year; they don’t need to think and rethink.” And, famously, shorter garment production cycles too. As industry watchers are always marveling at, Shein’s speed—from production to market—is the crux of their success. While most fast fashion brands take two to three weeks to go from design to finished garment (already considered speedy considering, traditionally, it takes about three months), Shein achieves the same in an impressive five to seven days, hence you, the shopper, during the pandemic or not, are able to constantly “meet your new 1,000+ favourites”. One procurement manager, based in Guangzhou, told us, “for cross-border commerce, in terms of supply chain and online ordering, for examples, China is way ahead of Singapore.”
If you need to see how the clothes look as social media posts, there is a “Style Gallery” for your enjoyment
But Shein did not begin as such a well-oiled clothing powerhouse. Founded in 2008 by a media-wary (“low-key” is often used by the press, and the company he helms “mysterious”) Shandong (山东) native Chris Xu Yangtian (许仰天), Shein’s early merchandise was reportedly sourced from Guangzhou’s famed Shisanhang Wholesale Market (十三行服装批发市场), a popular area in Liwan District (荔湾区), comprising primarily five markets that are known for their “mid- and low-grade products”, as one regular buyer told us. When sales grew dramatically (especially in the US, still their largest market to date), the initial procurement model of just buying to sell was no longer tenable. By 2014, they overhauled their supply chain, even forming their own design team (which is a curious asset when they are known to knock off the output of others), and the rest is laughing to the bank. Shein’s rapid rise and success are all the more fascinating for business watchers as Xu Yangtian was an unknown and did not come from a fashion background and was not thought to be interested in fashion. His company is so unheard in China that a newscaster on China Business Journal (中国经营报) described Shein as “中国最神秘的百亿公司，一家没有百度百科的百亿公司 (China’s most mysterious multi-billion company, a multi-billion company without a Baidu Baike [China’s Wiki] entry)”. Once an SEO specialist, Mr Xu started in clothing retail by selling wedding dresses (also overseas) through another defunct brand. It was reported, that despite his lack of fashion—and, indeed, supply chain—experience, Mr Xu went to Guangzhou in 2014 to set up Shein’s new procurement management and creative team in person.
From the start, price was key to Shein’s success. Ultra-fast fashion went hand-in-hand with ultra-cheap. As our Hong Kong source told us, “you can get fabrics in China for as low as 30 to 50 US cents a metre!” It is, therefore, unsurprising that Shein is able to sell tops for the unbelievable but inviting price of S$6, and dresses for S$10. The pants we mentioned earlier can be had for S$22, but if that’s too much for you, there’s a S$4 off voucher for you to redeem after you “register” with them. (And if that’s still too dear, you may opt to split the bill into three separate payments via the “buy now, pay later” service Atome, interest-free!) At every page, temptations in the form of further discounts seem to lurk, turning maybe-later to why-not-now. It is totally possible to purchase a complete look or even two, including accessories and makeup, for less than S$50. Shein hits the sweet spot that resides between Zara’s higher prices (for Shein’s customers) and H&M’s lower, but not those that necessarily come with product durability. Moreover, unlike the European rivals, the Chinese brand is increasingly operating like a department store. There’s a men’s line, a plus-size collection, lingerie, baby clothes, maternity wear, electronics, home décor, office and home wares, bedding (watch out, Robinsons) and, for good measure, pet supplies.
Although Shein engaged Mercury Marketing and Communications to launch their business here, the fast fashion brand also worked their magic by reaching out to influencers and KOLs. According to online reports, those with a sizeable following could receive free clothes or earn commissions of “between 10% and 20% when maintaining a steady stream of photo and video posts on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok”. Followers of their fave social media stars are also able to enjoy more discounts, with many SG influencers offering “codes” that come with “15% off”. On IG, there are more than 40 hashtags linked to Shein. Our own #sheinsg that started in July has quickly reached 183 posts. If after all these views, you are still not convinced of the clothes’ social media potential, you can visit the website’s IG-esque “Style Gallery”, organised by looks, such as “Summer Time”, “Beach Vibes”, and “Boho Gal”, and seven more. Back to the two lasses we encountered on the MRT train, who were, in fact, looking at the Shein website on one phone and the brand’s IG page on another. We noticed that they kept going back to a S$7 (not discounted) sleeveless, body-con “Draped Neck Butterfly Print Dress”. Unable to contain our curiosity, we asked them if they were in a dilemma. At that price, it seemed odd that they were hesitating. A MacDonald’s Big Mac Extra Value Meal is S$8.65. One of them, giggling, said, “We can’t decide who will buy; we both love it”.
Photo illustration (top): Just So. Product photo and screen grabs: Shein. Others: Chin Boh Kay
Their last store—in 313@Orchard—closed two weeksago
File photo of Forever 21after last year’s Circuit Breaker
It isn’t easy to be known as “forever”. Eternal is extremely distant and never ending is wishful thinking. Forever 21 is proof that it is hard to live up to such a name. Their storefront at 313@Orchard was completely hoarded up this week. No sign was posted to announce their closure or who the next tenant might be. “They have closed down since two weeks ago,” staff of a nearby store told us. A search for Forever 21 on 313@Orchard’s website, yielded this message: “Whoops! We can’t find that store”. The name is also no longer listed in the shopping centre’s directory, online and in-mall. On Google Map, the store is marked “permanently closed” (the nearest store it offered was in Kuala Lumpur!). Two girls approaching the former 313@Orchard store on a Wednesday evening were heard saying, “Huh, really died?” For some, Forever 21’s obituary was already written in 2019, when the company was reported to have filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in September that year. One leasing manager told us, “It wasn’t if the SG store will close, it was when.” Next to the store’s entrance inside the mall, a very tall poster was erected, telling shoppers to “forget the rules: wear what you want.” Perhaps Forever 21 is hard to think no more of?
Founded in 1984 by South Korean immigrants in Los Angeles, Forever 21 was popular among teens who love the accessible trendiness and pocket-friendly prices. In addition, new products were stocked frequently—quick-turnaround designs were their key strategy. You could visit a store every other week, and there would seem to be new things. Success encouraged rapid expansion in the US and in no time, the retailer became known as “king of the malls”. According to Business Insider, global sales peaked at $4.4 billion by 2015. They operated 480 stores that occupied enormous prime spaces in malls across America. When the privately held company filed for bankruptcy protection four years later, news headline typically preceded with or followed by “fashion fail”. Business analysts quickly attributed Forever 21’s downfall to a glut of stores and an anemic response to e-commerce.
Storefront of the Forever 21 unit early this week
Forever 21 opened in 313@Orchard in 2009. At the height of its popularity, there were four stores across our island. The two-storey 313@Orchard store remained their most popular (they had menswear here too), even when their keenest competitor, H&M, operates a flagship less than 500m away on Grange Road. Shortly after the news of the filing for bankruptcy protection emerged, we visited the 313@Orchard outlet, which had by then looked a sad dump of its former self. Many shoppers had visited, thinking the store was to close. Reports in the press stated that the down-to-one SG store was “not affected”. When we spoke to the staff then, they told us they didn’t know what would happen. Sharaf Group, a conglomerate based in the United Arab Emirates that is involved in numerous industries, was licensed to run the Forever 21 store here. The company later issued a statement to the media: “Forever 21’s partners in Singapore, United Arab Emirates, India and the Philippines are not impacted by the US filing and it continues to be business as usual in those markets.” They didn’t say for how long.
Forever 21 was bought out of bankruptcy by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) last year. The New York City-based company also owns mass-market labels such as Aéropostale and Izod and fashion brands such as Geoffery Beene and Herve Leger, and the luxury department store Barney’s New York. Nick Woodhouse, president and chief marketing officer of ABG told Forbes in April, “there’s permission to make Forever 21 a lifestyle brand again” and that “there’s a lot of room to grow in Eastern and Western Europe and Southeast Asia…” Meanwhile, in this tiny part of SEA, despite increased competition, Forever 21 did not significantly set themselves apart. Or, made significant moves to establish themselves as what marketers like to call “top-of-the-mind brand”. They may have had an impressive level of inventory, but regulars were beginning to see “variations of the same things” and “just racks and racks of clothes”. Read: they had not changed. Another constant—their paper bags, under which were printed clearly “John 3:16”, referring to the biblical verse that ends with “…shall not perish but have eternal life”. It’s hard not to see the irony in that.
Is the Pandemic weeding out brands that are too weak to exist?
Ongoing storewide sale at Temt
It is another impending closure. Today, the mass-market label Temt (Tempt spelled without the ‘p’) has announced on its website and on social media that they shall “be going out of the business in mid-June”, a month after Abercrombie & Fitch met with the same fate. When the news broke, some people said that Temt’s shutting down for good, after eight years here, is “tragic”. Is it really? That they will exit our market is unsurprising. For eight years, Temt has been tempting young women (the brand’s official target audience is between “mid 20’s—Mid 30’s”, but teens seem to be their biggest fans) with clothes of dubious quality that, in aware-of-what-we-wear times such as the present, would not be considered sustainable, relevant, or desirable. Temt did not issue any statement on its closure, not even citing difficult business conditions, given the on-going pandemic. But it would not be hard to hazard a guess: their clothes are no longer appealing.
While there is a market for every type of clothing store here, it is becoming more untenable for those that persist on the cheap-is-best, churn-out-what-others-are-making route. Temt, headquartered in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, was launched here in 2013, six years after compatriot budget fashion label Cotton On opened and established a foothold in the market for Aussie brands that won‘t stress the pocket. At its peak, they had a reported six stores throughout our island. At present, only two are left: in Jurong Point and in Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ). For all its time here, Temt’s offering has not wavered from the drab, the vapid, and the cruddy. We are not even crossing into ethical (and sustainability) territory that brands such as Temt and its American counterpart Forever 21 stay outside of. What has been Temt’s single lure is their low price. But inexpensive, as many are increasingly aware, need not look correspondingly cheap.
Temt is part of a trio of brands under the retail company, Fast Future Brands (FFB). Founded in 1996 in NSW as Valley Girl Fashions, their first label was—no surprises here—Valleygirl, presumably named after the fashionable and wealthy teenaged lasses from the San Fernando valley of southern California. For those old enough to know, the Hong Kong-born American songstress Coco Lee (李玟, now mostly a singing competition judge in China) is classic Valley Girl. Some of us might identify these girls as angmo Lians. As the name suggests, FFB’s Valleygirl targeted shoppers between “early 10’s—late 20’s”, according to the brand’s corporate profile. Valleygirl never came here, although they expanded to Korea in 2006 and, to the south, New Zealand in the same year. From the start, FFB’s low-price positioning for its brands were clear. When they launched Temt in 2002 in NSW (not exactly known for their smart urban style), nothing was very much changed, not even the price point and image. Only the targeted age group moved a little upwards. FFB would, in 2013, introduced the budget label for older women Mirrou in New Zealand.
Shoppers milling outside Temt at PLQ. The ‘closed’ sign on the glass door is a misnomer; the store is limiting the number of customers inside
Fast Future Brands (the name was changed from Valley Girl Fashion in 2007) was started by Korean immigrants to Australia, Jim Marr and his nephew Michael Ma (it is unclear why there is this discrepancy in the spelling of the family name). Although the two men largely stayed clear of the media, both were in the news in 2013 when they were in court cases involving the uncle claiming that his nephew infringed on the Valleygirl and Temt trademarks in New Zealand (the younger was apparently encouraged by the older to expand the business southwards). The case was, according to Australian media, “dismissed”. Some observers noted that the business for FFB brands was never the same since. Following the announcement of the closure of the Singaporean operations, we visited the Valleygirl and Temt Australian websites only to be greeted with the non-functional: one showed an error message (ditto for Mirrou) and the other indicated that the site was unavailable, respectively (Temt’s SG site ran a single notice: the closure announcement). In 2016, both Valleygirl and Temt in New Zealand entered into receivership. The fate of their Australian stores isn’t yet known. When we asked a salesgirl at the PLQ store if their e-shop would continue to trade, she said, “don’t know”.
When the Temt website was still accessible, it stated that the “Temt philosophy is about chic style, sophistication and this seasons (sic) ‘must have’ item (sic). Our passion is about capturing key on-trend pieces that are essential and affordable for creating signature looks for every occasion”. How “on-trend” they have been is, of course, debatable, but as one brand manager said to us, when asked what she thought of the label, “they are nowhere near H&M. How many mui (raggy) rayon dresses and shorts can you buy?” In Australia, as it is here, Temt is not known for any semblance of quality either. Charges of “rubbish material” and “poor sewing”, as well as “not sized for the petite” abound in Australian social media. Despite what is visibly lacking, Temt continued to crank up its quickly-becoming-unappealing disposable pitch.
The appeal of Aussie brands here, even when not constant, is understandable. Those who retail them—going back to Country Road in 1994 (they closed in 2007) and indie multi-label store Trixilini’s early years (entirely stocked with Aussie brands)—see similarity between what Australians like to wear and what Singaporeans are inclined to buy. Weather is often a consideration: the international autumn/winter season is Australia’s spring/summer, and just right for us. That we like our clothes “light and breezy” (read: casual) allow Aussie labels with just-as-relaxed image to find the ideal habitat here. Two women at the Temt PLQ store this afternoon were heard saying they “want to buy more shorts”. Australian fashion, contrary to what their fans (mostly those who studied in the country, and the first Western fashion retail culture there were exposed to) think, does not score big in the fashion factor. Sure, Australia has produced some big names, such as Akira Isogawa, Dion Lee, and Toni Matičevski, but their high-street labels are, at best, not catching up. Temt’s exit should be a cautionary tale. There are enough lacklustre brands here, whether from Down Under or elsewhere. We deserve better.