Walk Into Shein

The Chinese hyper-fastfashion 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.

…fitting rooms are each decorated differently so that the trying-on of clothes could also be a selfie moment to be shared on social media

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.

Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

Two Of A Kind: Cheap Cheery Clones

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.

Are they creating content that is deliberately not like the “haul” videos of other TikTokers?

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.

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

The Shein Top

…at the heart of the latest influencer controversy

By Pearl Goh

It is an itsy-bitsy top, but it has an oversized effect on social media. And the response to the proud wearer/influencer’s subsequent riposte was massive enough for her to enjoy a couple of long digital headlines. Making, I presume, the online retailer she touts very pleased. Chrysan Lee is a YouTuber, an Instagrammer, a TikToker, and an “actress” on the YouTube channel Wah!Banana. She appeared in this top by Shein on IG (sharing that what she wore was “top to toe outfit from SHEIN!” and offering a code which offers the user a “15% off! [yes, also with exclamation])” and TikTok and, as a (predictable) consequence, invited viewer comments, flattering and not. Unfortunately for her, few said anything about the garb itself, but how she looked in the skimpy top. Enraged by the many negative criticisms, she hit back by naming and shaming those who made harsh and uncomplimentary remarks about her appearance. And, as it usually is nowadays, effectively dividing the followers of her social media.

You’d think that the admittedly exiguous top, requiring fabric tantamount to how much it takes to make a bandana (or two handkerchiefs), would be a discreet entity, but on some bodies, it might cry, ‘look at—and comment about—me’. Ms Lee, to be sure, does not look dreadful or deserving of the sometimes hostile impulses that ensued. The piece, which seems to me to be designed to sufficiently cup ample boobs, has a rather one-dimensional effect on her. It looks flat, not what most of the viewers she attracts (102K on IG), guys especially, hope to see: cup(s) runneth over. On TikTok, she adjusted the top (I have no idea why) by pulling it upwards, and it slid smoothly without the tug that a more-endowed wearer would experience. As we know, it takes very little these days to induce the online community to disparage. Or, draw attention to comparatively restricted physical dimensions. Even girls-friendly websites, to my surprise, unambiguously point out her “small tatas”.

…she adjusted the top by pulling it upwards, and it slid smoothly without the tug that a more-endowed wearer would experience

This swimwear-like chest-wrap—S$11, on the Shein SG website—is described by the number one Chinese fast-fashion brand as a “halter neck ring chain rhinestone backless crop top (sic)”. A mouthful, no doubt, even if you could figure out the order. As much as I tried, I could not discern the halter part of what is essentially a bandeau (known in Chinese as a 抹胸上衣 moxiong shangyi or go-around-the-chest top. On the brand’s Taiwan site, a search yielded 3,254 items!), drawn together in the middle by way of a ring to create a circular key-hole right between the breasts. The halter effect is in the chain-and-rhinestone necklace that is looped through the front opening. When placed around the neck, I assume it helps hold up the top when worn on those for whom such additional securing is required. The necklace doubles as a decorative component too, and augmented by more of the same—with additional charms(!)—that hang from that middle ring to a tape-loop stitched to the centre-back of the straight rear (Shein describes the piece as “backless”, but it is not). If it recalls a belly-dancer’s costume, then I am not alone.

The sparkly, poly-metallic shangyi Ms Lee featured is one among more than 560—frankly I lost count!—variations of scantiness, categorised under “top/sleeveless/sexy/glamorous” in the Shein website, nearly all no more than S$20. Among these, more than a dozen—lost, again—sport the ring in the middle that affords a circular peek at the cleavage, as if creating a focal point. At the time of this posting, only sizes L and XL are left. I can’t be certain if its seeming popularity is the result of Ms Lee’s still and video posts, but the sell-out of popular sizes and the fact that Ms Lee singled this upper garment out to feature could attest to the acceptance and adoration of racy looks now pervading social media and the runway. Chrysan Lee herself is partial to swaddling her upper body in what would normally be considered the upper half a bikini set—very ready for online followers, even when she claims to not know where her sartorial inspo comes from. She said on one of her hitherto just five YouTube posts, Answering your Stupid Questions—Part 1, “I’ll be very happy to find clothes outside that fits me”. As with ‘to clothe’, ‘fit’ is being actively redefined for fashion of the pandemic era. Less, I suppose, is definitely more—whether on a voluptuous body or not.

Illustration by Just So

Shein The Shoo-in

Despite their not-quite-stirling reputation, China’s largest fast fashion brand is a stirring global hit. We visited the site to 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