fbpx

Super Cute Please Like

On SHEIN

Illustration by Hart Hallos.

SHEIN.com, 2011

For another five hours and forty-seven minutes, I can buy a royal blue Twist Front Cloak Sleeve Slit Back Dress for $5.90, a Striped Pattern High Neck Drop Shoulder Split Hem Sweater for $8.50, or a Solid Sweetheart Neck Crop Tube Top for $1.90. When today’s 90 percent-off sale ends at 8 PM, the crop top will revert to its original price: $4.00. There are 895 items on flash sale. On today’s “New In” page, there are 8,640 items. (Yesterday there were 8,760.) The most expensive dress of the nearly nine thousand new arrivalsa floor-length, long-sleeved, fully sequined plus-size gown, available in five sparkly colorsis $67.00. The cheapesta short, tight piece of polyester with spaghetti straps, a cowl neckline, and an all-over print of Renaissance-style flowers and cherubsis $7.00.

I can buy casual dresses, going-out tops, workout leggings, winter parkas, pink terry-cloth hooded rompers, purple double-breasted suit jackets with matching trousers, red pleather straight-leg pants, cropped cardigans with mushroom embroidery, black sheer lace thongs, and rhinestone-trimmed hijabs. I can buy a wedding dress for $37.00. I can buy clothes for school, work, basketball games, proms, funerals, nightclubs, sex clubs. I see patchwork-printed overalls and black bikinis with rhinestones in the shape of a skull over each nipple designated as “punk.” I click through knockoff Paloma Wool sweaters and Levi’s-style denim jackets. I can buy Christian-girl modesty clothing and borderline fetish wear.

In the grid of product listings, a yellow rectangle indicates if a product is trending: “Trending–Plazacore,” “Trending–Western,” “Trending–Mermaidcore,” and “Trending–Y2K” tags all appear in the new arrivals. “Plazacore” is blazers and faux-tweed in pastels and beige. “Mermaidcore” means a pileup of sequins and glitter. “Western” brings up fringe jackets and bustier tops, fake leather cowboy boots and leopard-print silk blouses. The collection is unimpressive in small doses but starts feeling remarkable as you click through the pages: more than 3,900 items, astoundingly, are “Western.” If I search the word trending, there are 4,800 items to scroll through, labeled with trends I’ve never heard of even after a decade-plus of closely following fashion blogs and Instagram accounts: Bikercore, Dopamine Dressing, RomComCore, Bloke Core. Each phrase alone generates hundreds or thousands of search results of garments ready to purchase and ship.

She is tan and hairless, and she is headless.

Tweet

SHEIN is the world’s most googled clothing brand, the largest fast-fashion retailer by sales in the United States, and one of the most popular shopping apps in the world. Its website is organized into dozens of categories: WOMEN, CURVE, HOME, KIDS, MEN, and BEAUTY, among others, though the women’s clothing section anchors the site. There are hundreds of thousands of products available, and many of them are sorted into SHEIN’s collections. There’s SHEIN EZwear, which is solid-color knitwear and sweatpants with cutouts, and SHEIN FRENCHY, which means delicate floral prints, lace, and bows. SHEIN Modesty shows conservative, long-sleeve dresses worn by Middle Eastern–looking models, and SHEIN SXY, which is indistinguishable from SHEIN VCAY and SHEIN ICON, features garments so skimpy they’re closer to napkins than clothes. SHEIN Belle, the copy at the top of the page tells me, “offers the best dress for your best memory.” It’s incoherent to me at first, but the collection begins to make sense as I scroll: it’s clothing for wedding guests and promgoers, who can buy a velvet dress in the collection for $5.49.

In the SHEIN EZWear collection, I find a crewneck sweater, slightly oversize, with a swirling cotton-candyish pattern of light blues, pinks, and whites laid over a lavender base. It’s $22.00, or $21.85 if I’m in the SHEIN Club. The fabric looks waffle-knit, thin, slightly fuzzy; it’s 100 percent polyester, or plastic. In reviewers’ pictures, I notice the fabric’s wrinkles hold their shape where the top has been folded. At the shoulder seams the swirls clash in different directions. The neck, waist, and armbands are wide, made from several inches of striped knit binding, and the shoulders are dropped, giving the garment a childlike, too-big quality.

A few clicks away is a super-short plunging V-neck dress split vertically from the waist to the hem with ruching. Long straps crisscross in a double X on the open back and cinch the waist in the front. The fabric looks like cotton jersey; it’s 91 percent polyester and 9 percent elastane (100 percent plastic). There are five colors available: black and brown, which are both, apparently, “HOT”; bright pink; royal blue; and emerald green. The photos for each variant are identical, except that the dress’s color changes. The model is photoshopped into Jessica Rabbit proportions, with a tiny waist, wide hips, and enormous breasts, her collarbones jutting out several inches. She is tan and hairless, and she is headless. She poses in front of a bedroom set, crumpled white sheets, ivory macramé pillowcases, and drawings of flowers framed in gold. We see her as she sees herself in the mirror, angled to get a look at her whole outfit. She wears white sneakers, a miniature pink handbag, and a gold necklace with a tiny red cherry charm. Below, under Customers Also Viewed, a sea of identical headless models in black dresses reads like a CAPTCHA image.


I began to fall in love with clothes in 2005, when I was 8. I wanted to wear bright colors and bold patterns that could make people smile or be drawn to my otherwise shy self. I was learning, rapidly, that clothing could do the work of personality. I went shopping with my mom at stores like the Gap and Banana Republic, but their offerings were stoic and muted. Zara, which opened its first LA store that year, was different: its enormous glass windows were full of trendy, fun pieces and teenage looks I dreamed of wearing.

When the Swedish brand H&M opened its first LA store the next year, I was primed for it. Here were the brilliant Zara clothes at child-allowance prices. I could take a $20 bill and come back from the mall beaming with a new outfit. I never thought about why the clothes were so cheap. I just loved that they could be mine.

And then I started to read more about clothes. I was enthralled by Style Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s fashion blog. Tavi was my age and clothing-obsessed: her careful outfits were brilliant, multilayered collages of hand-me-downs, vintage finds, and even nonapparel objects like guitar straps and children’s toys. I checked her blog daily, hoping for a new after-school dispatch of her Outfit of the Day, an ensemble I often took inspiration from when getting dressed the following morning. Style Rookie linked me to other blogs, and those blogs linked me to even more blogs: an ecosystem of fashion-loving young women, all posting elaborate, outlandish outfits. The fashion bloggers taught me about designers and runway collections, both contemporary and historical. I learned about styling, and the many, many ways a single piece can be reworn and recombined. I learned about thrifting and the endless bounty of Goodwill bins. There was a history and context to the clothes I likedmovies, books, and even political movements were references for different shapes and textiles. My favorite bloggers didn’t wear things you could buy off the rack. Their looks were wholly one of a kind, and I wanted to wear one-of-a-kind things, too.

It was time-consuming, I learned, to make something, and much more time-consuming to make something well.

Tweet

In an attempt to wear clothes like those I’d seen on niche blogs, and with the help of even more niche blogs, I learned to sew. I coveted things I couldn’t afforddesigner pieces I’d learned about on the blogs and rare 1960s vintage dresses with frilly hemsso I constructed analogues. I bought bolts of fabric for a few dollars a yard and started paying attention to materials in new ways: natural fabrics like linens and cottons were soft and durable; polyesters felt itchy and made me sweat. Thick fibers made resilient garments and thin ones lost their shape after a few cycles in the wash. Small details like proper stitch tension and enclosed seams made pieces look cleaner and feel more comfortable to wear. It was time-consuming, I learned, to make something, and much more time-consuming to make something well.

By the early 2010s, the phrase fast fashion had been in circulation for a couple of decades but had yet to acquire a widespread pejorative connotation. Though the 1990s saw the rise of a robust anti-sweatshop movement, the public consensus a few decades later was that fast-fashion stores were a different kind of retail experience, but not necessarily an evil one. H&M and Target were producing highly coveted designer collaborations with Alexander McQueen, Rodarte, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Cheap clothing chains were exploding all over the country. News articles about the industry’s growth were positive, or at least neutral: accessible, stylish clothes were seen as a common good. The rare hesitationslike a 2008 New York Times article that considered “a feeling of unease at how the ultra-cheap clothes can be manufactured”were afforded significantly less space.

The sewing bloggers, however, were already voicing their concerns. They called out the chains who ripped off styles by independent designers to a comically exact degree (clothing isn’t copyrightable under current laws, so the chains got away with it) and cited Overdressed, a 2012 Fast Food Nation–style exposé about the fast-fashion industry that brought the horrors of speedy garment production to light. I learned that any new clothing I could ever afford would be far from a fair price for all the skill and labor involved in its creation. Garment workers were toiling in bleak conditions, working sixteen-hour days, seven days per week for pennies in crumbling factories full of toxic chemicals in China, India, and Vietnam; cheaper price tags pointed to worse conditions and, unimaginably, even worse pay. I also learned about the environmental coststhe oil to run the equipment, the factory pollution spewed into the air, the energy required to fly and ship garments around the globe, and the billions of pounds of fabric waste destined for landfills, never to decompose.

In 2013, the Rana Plaza Garment Factory collapsed, killing nearly twelve hundred low-wage garment workers. The eight-floor Bangladeshi factory complex had manufactured clothing for Walmart, JCPenney, Primark, and Mango, among others. The collapse was a tragedy, a Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster at eight times the scaleand a media tipping point. For a while it really felt like the realities of fast-fashion production were reaching the masses. How could anyone read about the deaths of those workers and stomach walking into a Primark again? Wasn’t it clear that the conditions and exploitations at Rana Plaza were endemic to the entire fast-fashion industry?


For years I remained a loyal reader of the blogs. Then the bloggers moved to Instagram. The internet was changing, consolidating; social media had become the dominant mode. I followed the bloggers across platforms, but their content was more muted: carousels of photos whose sparse captions offered only an occasional glimpse of the charm of the old blogs. Their outfits became harder to distinguish from one another as their focus moved toward trending looks and stores. The fashion girls I loved were becoming more like advertisers, tagging the brands in their outfits in every post and occasionally doing sponcon. Instagram itself became like a shopping mall, adding features that allowed you to buy clothes straight from the app. I missed the uniqueness and idiosyncrasy of the blogging era. The fashion subcultures I loved became harder and harder to see, subsumed by the logic of algorithms.

Then, around 2019, the fashion internet moved to TikTok. I found some of the old bloggers there, but most had already disappeared without fanfare, lost somewhere in the shuffle from platform to platform. There were new faces on TikTok: younger women more adept at producing videos than their older counterparts. They had ring lights and smooth, cherubic faces seemingly made for the camera. When I joined TikTok in late 2020, the algorithm quickly directed me to them. Every day I opened the app and watched “Get Ready With Me” (or GRWM) videos, the contemporary iteration of the bloggers’ Outfit of the Day (OOTD) posts. I watched “content creators” review jewelry brands and makeup looks, or pose cheekily on a New York sidewalk for a quick “fit check” (always kicking up a heel to show off their shoes). Other fashion girls showed off their closets or waxed poetic about their favorite skirt for a couple of minutes straight to the camera. All the media I watched about clothes came straight from the app.

TikTok was where I learned about SHEIN. For a while my For You page, which had accurately identified my interest in fashion’s more material impacts, served me videos of sustainable fashion influencers decrying SHEIN’s wretched labor and environmental practices. The textile industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, they said, and of all the fast-fashion producers, SHEIN is by far the worst offender. SHEIN uses toxic chemicals in their clothing production; SHEIN mass-produces fabrics like spandex that never decompose (at this point an image would flash across the screen: an overflowing clothing landfill, or a mountain of discarded clothes in the Chilean desert so large it is visible from space); SHEIN exploits and endangers its factory workers. Employees earn $556 a month to make five hundred pieces of clothing every day, work eighteen-hour days, and use their lunch breaks to wash their haira schedule they repeat seven days per week with only one day off per month. A more nuanced TikToker might point out, briefly, that conditions in SHEIN factories are not necessarily unique, or that focusing on suppliersrather than the larger systems of Western consumption and capitalism that create these conditionsis a fool’s errand, but the platform isn’t built for that kind of dialogue. I clicked on the comments and invariably read ones with several dozen likes saying, “I’m so willing to die in shein clothes.”

SHEIN was different. One day I’d never heard of the retailer and the next it was inescapable: in thousands of outfit videos, on millions of social media feeds.

Tweet

Before long I was watching SHEIN hauls. There are millions of themthe tag #sheinhaul has been viewed a collective 14.2 billion times on TikTok. In each haul, a woman rips open a plastic bag filled with smaller plastic bags filled with small plastic clothing. Sometimes the woman holds up each garment and narrates its merits, but often the clothes are disembodied, laid flat on a floor or a bed in an accidental stop-motion animation. A stretchy red skirt on a furry white carpet is replaced by a strapless watercolor bustier with a deep-V neckline. A zebra-print skirt is followed by a matching pink two-piece set, with a short-sleeve cardigan and miniskirt constructed from a fabric that looks like bubble wrap. Sometimes a haul is five pieces, and sometimes it is too many pieces to count. The garments appear and disappear in seconds, edited to the beat of a trending song. Rarely do we see the clothing on a body.

Usually brand familiarity accrues in a slow drip, building from obscurity to instant recognizability over the course of months or years as a designer’s work intersects with the zeitgeist and gains traction on social media. SHEIN was different. One day I’d never heard of the retailer and the next it was inescapable: in thousands of outfit videos, on millions of social media feeds. The clothes weren’t distinct or cohesive; what united them wasn’t style but price. All those SHEIN hauls entered my feeds with such ubiquity that they began to feel like they’d always been there. I’d opened a door to a new part of the fashion internet: a place where girls bragged about their ultra-fast-fashion purchases, delighting in the cheapness of the garments. Here, SHEIN was the obvious choice for new clothes. Why not, when you could buy on-trend pieces at lightning speed for less than the price of a cup of coffee?

It was uncanny to bounce between videos: here was a girl showing off her new halter, here was another girl giving a litany of reasons why it was unconscionable to buy clothes for so little money. Didn’t these TikTokers hear one another? But then again, how could they? “This is what we keep missing here in the whole conversation about sustainability in the industry,” Nick Anguelov, a professor of public policy from UMass Dartmouth, said to a Slate journalist writing about SHEIN in June. “We keep failing to understand that our customers are kids and they don’t give a fuck.”


In 1963, Amancio Ortega Gaona started a business making housecoats and robes in the small Spanish city of A Coruña, where he grew up. As a teenager he dropped out of school and went to work for a local luxury shirtmaker, where over the next fourteen years he learned to make clothes by hand, purchase fabrics and other supplies for apparel manufacturing, and interact with customers. When Ortega set out on his own, he predicted that rather than designing new clothing styles, a better way to make money was to ascertain precisely what high-end designs people wanted, copy those designs with inexpensive materials, and sell them at lower prices.

By then ready-to-wear brands were already outsourcing manufacturing to factories in Asia, where labor was cheap. At the top of each season, those factories would send large batches of completed orders to stores. It was a way to save costs, Ortega knew, but it meant inventory was at the mercy of manufacturers thousands of miles away. Ortega wanted to be nimbleso he decided to manufacture locally. Labor was more expensive in Spain, but keeping the process nearby meant shorter production lead times, much greater agility, and easier communication with factories. Everything was localized: he trucked in textiles from Barcelona and organized thousands of women into sewing cooperatives to manufacture his wares, keeping control of both supply and labor chains.

When in 1975 Ortega opened his first store, he called it Zara. From the start, it was an enormous success. Zara designed all its own clothing, placed small inventory orders at its local factories, and shipped products to stores within five weekssignificantly faster than the traditional design-to-retail timeline of six months. Smaller production runs meant that there was little leftover stock, but store managers could still place rapid requests for products that sold well. The managers reported sales data and more amorphous information like “buzz” around particular products or other in-store customer reactions. Limited stock also created powerful demand: customers learned to buy clothes when they first saw them because they might not be available in a couple of weeks. On the flip side, there’d be a whole new range of limited-edition clothes to buy in a few weeksencouraging shoppers to quickly return to Zara’s stores. Fashion, for the first time, became fast.

Zara was a colossal, world-altering success. The retailer’s first international store opened in Portugal in 1988, followed quickly by stores in France and New York. By 2011, Zara had stores on every populated continent. Today Zara produces 450 million garments a year, generating an annual revenue of $35 billion. The twenty thousand garment styles Zara produces every year can move from concept to product-for-purchase in one of the company’s three thousand retail stores in as few as fifteen days.

Zara arguably set the blueprint for every major fast-fashion brand, which place small, frequent orders of new products instead of ordering in bulk at the top of each season. But unlike Zara, brands such as H&M, Forever 21, Boohoo, and ASOS do most of their production in China, Bangladesh, and India, where labor is wildly cheap and the factories are far from their headquarters. Their production timelines are still speedyjust a couple of weeks from design to productionbut those brands are also notorious for sending payments to factories and workers late, a practice so common it’s become the industry standard.

The rise of SHEIN marks a new era in the fast-fashion industry. The company produces garments at a rate incomprehensible to its predecessors, all of which were already producing a world-historical quantity of products at an incredible clip. In a recent twelve-month period in which former fast-fashion giants Gap, H&M, and Zara listed twelve to thirty-five thousand new products on their websites, SHEIN listed 1.3 million. Last year, the company brought in $22 billion in revenue, a staggering statistic for a corporation that’s been around in its current form for less than a decade.

SHEIN launched as SheInside in 2011 in Nanjing, China. Its founder, Xu Yangtian, had no experience in fashion. He was a specialist in search engine optimization. SheInside started out selling wedding and evening dresses to US-based and English-speaking shoppers and soon expanded into general womenswear. This early iteration worked much like a drop-shipping business, in that it didn’t actually stock any of the products it sold but acted as an intermediary for local wholesalers. The company selected designs from Guangzhou’s Shisanhang Garment Wholesale Market, posted images on their website, and then purchased goods to meet each order that came in. Those goods were shipped directly from the wholesaler to the buyer. SheInside made money by charging customers an inflated price, and the wholesalers made money by reaching a larger audience through SheInside. In 2014, SheInside started to design and manufacture products, and shortly thereafter the company began establishing its own supply chain in Guangzhou and later Panyu. It transformed itself from an e-commerce website into a clothing brand and, within a year, changed its name to SHEIN.

SHEIN spent years cultivating relationships with producers. At first factories were reluctant to take orders from the companylike Zara, SHEIN wanted to place orders of just one hundred pieces and scale up or down depending on demand for each style, which was risky because it’s more profitable for factories to produce in bulk; typical orders from clothing companies number in the thousands per style. But SHEIN rapidly developed a reputation for paying factories on time, an industry rarity that generated powerful goodwill and a willingness on the part of factories to take the risk. SHEIN quickly developed the high-tech version of Zara’s small-order, quick-response production method, in which store managers collect data about sales and customer preferences and report it back to the factories to adjust production runs. The company’s custom-built production software identifies which products are selling well on the SHEIN website and reorders them from manufacturers automatically. Similarly, the software reportedly halts production automatically for any products selling poorly. It’s a flexible system built for the internet’s microscopic attention span: all products are tested on SHEIN’s website and app in real time. Garments go from concept to finished product in less than two weeks, allowing SHEIN to be the first retail company to market on every trend, even the most micro ones. The system has proven massively successful.

SHEIN works both with “original design manufacturers” that design and produce the clothes on the SHEIN website, and “original equipment manufacturers” that make SHEIN-designed clothing under the watchful eye of the brand. By some reports the company has close to six thousand factories making its clothes, many of which are centralized in a single geographic area. The company puts an unusual amount of money and trust into its suppliers, providing them access to the brand’s data and IT systems and requiring very little to start doing business: no deposits or entry fees, just an agreement that the factory will provide stable and reliable delivery. Meanwhile SHEIN has invested nearly $1 million making “standardized factory buildings” designed by SHEIN for the maximally efficient production of SHEIN clothing, with plans to invest nearly $14 million more.

SHEIN is a microcosm of the internet and a sibling of the internet’s other most powerful retailer: weird, clunky, and seemingly thrown together.

Tweet

SHEIN has made unorthodox choices on the marketing side, too. The company was early to the influencer game, sending promotional products to bloggers as far back as 2012. SHEIN advertised on social media and relied on digital word of mouth to move merchandiseobvious strategies a decade later, but novel ones at the time. Today, SHEIN contracts thousands of influencers around the globe, sending them enormous amounts of free product in exchange for social media posts. In turn, influencers earn commissions on the SHEIN products sold with their unique discount codes; some earn a flat-rate fee from the company, too. As a result SHEIN is the most talked-about brand on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, the centers of the Gen Z internet. More posts beget more attention beget more posts, from influencers and regular consumers alike. SHEIN even figured out how to maximally capitalize on that attention beyond social media by gamifying the shopping experience. The more you buy, the more SHEIN points you receive, and the more you save on future purchases. It’s purposefully addictive. You can get points by just opening the app, watching live streams, or playing mini games on the SHEIN website. In one game, the user moves a shopping basket from left to right, collecting an abundance of shoes, dresses, and sunglasses falling like magic from the top of the screen while avoiding increasingly fast sobbing emojis.

In some respects, SHEIN resembles Amazon more than a fast-fashion retailer: its catalog of merchandise is so expansive that it functions more like a search engine than a clothing store. It maintains no permanent physical storefronts, and as such is unconstrained by square footage, retail labor, or rent. Low overhead means low prices, and in the same way Amazon always offers the cheapest available option for any product, SHEIN is the place for the cheapest clothes in the industry. Shirts at Forever 21 are scandalously inexpensiveeasily less than $20, though generally more than $10but comparable shirts at SHEIN sell for loose change. Even the user experience is similar, in the way that both Amazon and SHEIN feel junkified: pages are unpolished, with varying product listings and completely unpredictable product qualities. For all the environmental and labor horrors of H&M, at least shopping at hm.com feels like shopping at a real clothing store. SHEIN, conversely, is a microcosm of the internet and a sibling of the internet’s other most powerful retailer: weird, clunky, and seemingly thrown together.


I learn, watching dozens of #sheinhauls, that some TikTokers include the SKU numbers for their purchases in their videos. It’s the only way to direct their followers to that exact garment: SHEIN’s clothes don’t have especially unique titles to search by. They’re also not accompanied by little paragraph descriptions, like they would be at most other clothing retailers, just a series of categories and tags, fill-in-the-blank forms easily standardized across factories, languages, and fashions. A skintight, long-sleeve, shiny green bodysuit with a mock-neck collar and coordinating ruched, side-slit skirt is designated as “Style: Sexy,” “Sleeve Type: Regular Sleeve,” “Fabric: Slight Stretch,” with “Details: Backless, Asymmetrical, Split, Twist.” (It’s $15.49.) I click from the bodysuit into the Denim category, where I find jorts for $7.68, and from there to CURVE activewear, where I encounter an $8.00 American flag muscle tank.

A friend texts me screenshots of a SHEIN sweater vest she ordered last year. It’s cropped, with bands of cream-colored ribbing around the neck, armholes, and waist, and patterned with brown argyle diamonds. On the website, the sweater is placed into a scene with black loafers and a paper with text in French, evoking an unimaginative fantasy of European life. It casts a fake shadow. “It was not a real garment,” my friend says. She discarded the vest as soon as it arrived. “The pattern was printed on. You could not wear it in public.”

I search for the vest on the SHEIN websiteit takes me a few tries to find the right listing among dozens of similar productsand look at the reviews. Thousands of customers leave five stars for the vest. “The item is exactly like in the photo and the material is a bit thin but I like it,” writes one girl. In her three attached photos, she covers her face with her phone. On screen, at a half-inch wide, the sweater looks cute and comfortable, a thing designed to be worn in photos, sold on the basis of a largely computer-generated image.

A reviewer docks a star on a hideous lilac off-the-shoulder bodysuit for the item’s shipping condition: “VERY WRINKLED ON ARRIVAL.”

Tweet

The reviews are typical for a SHEIN item. Customers add photos of themselves, holding phone cameras to mirrors to capture their outfits. Every image is a selfie. “OBSESSED!!!!” they write, adding, “(likes are appreciated <3).” Likes are a currency, convertible into SHEIN points. Posting a review earns five points, a review with pictures earns ten, and a review with size information earns an additional two. Every dollar spent on SHEIN earns a point, and every one hundred points turns back into a dollar. The economy flourishes: “Please like I need points to buy this in a different color.” “Please LIKE MY REVIEW and help your broke girl out. (Sorry I can’t post wearing the items- broke shoulder- thanks for understanding!)” “Absolutely in love with these pants wearing them right now super cute please like I’m broke LOL.” “(pls like I need points).”

Other customers focus on the quality of the garments. Pieces are “surprisingly good,” “really well made,” “not see through.” Texture points to quality: “Feels nice for the price.” “Doesn’t feel cheap.” “Im autistic and i hve sensory issues and if actually doesn’t itch at all.” They read like preemptive defenses, or maybe expressions of genuine surprise.

Only occasionally are customer reviews critical. A reviewer docks a star on a hideous lilac off-the-shoulder bodysuit for the item’s shipping condition: “VERY WRINKLED ON ARRIVAL.” A cardigan review reports, distressingly, “texture was surprising.” But nearly every one, regardless of tone, is five stars. Maybe the five-star ratings are a way to circumvent SHEIN’s censorship, as customers all over the internet claim the company deletes or never approves their negative reviews. A perfect rating for a “fairycore” black ruffled dress says, “The material kinda sucks.... And it kind of makes a lot of noise when you move. Almost immediately the top Lacey pattern snapped off.” I read a five-star review of black leggings: “The pants small are to big but I like them.” A pink dress is “cute but looks kind of cheap, and idk where I would wear it to.”

Taken en masse, there’s a feeling of camaraderie found in the reviews, of people sharing tips, suggestions, and advice. But sometimes, the advice is bot to person. A comment on a mint-green dress: “Nice one and beautiful size size and beautiful dress size size and beautiful beautiful size and beautiful dress size size and beautiful dress nice size and beautiful dress size size and beautiful dress dress and dress dress size size and beautiful dress.” Deep in the product reviews for a pair of $15 gray sweatpants, one commenter writes, bafflingly: “I love these grey sweatpants ever since i received them out of the shein package. They go with almost everything and nice and baggy on my body. The color is easy to wash and can go with coloreds and whites which is very helpful in laundry.” Below, three photos are attached. They show three different women in three different pairs of pants, none of which match the product listing.

Once a day, like clockwork, SHEIN emails me.

Tweet

Other reviewers seem somewhere between human and machine. A commenter copies the entire first verse of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” into a review for a multi-colored midi skirt with a thigh slit. (No information about the skirt; five stars.) One customer appears to paste a high school English paper (strained poetry analysis) into the comments of a raglan-sleeve letter jacket tagged as “gorpcore.” Another describes the smell of her new jeans as “normal.” I read three sets of five-star reviews posted by the same woman under a listing for long-sleeve crop tops in a variety of colors: “I absolutely love these Shein tops!! Very short though!!!!!” “I absolutely love these Shein tops! Very short though!!” “I absolutely love these Shein tops!!!!” In one of them, the shirt in the photograph is not the product being reviewed. Seven hundred and eighty-eight customers mark her reviews as helpful.

Away from the computer, I began to look more closely at strangers’ outfits, trying to imagine where they’d come from. That checkerboard-patterned pair of pleated trousers on the straphanger across from mewere they from SHEIN? What about those pink hair clips in the shape of flowers, or that national park–themed T-shirt? Was the company already manufacturing garments with Brooklyn-specific references and knockoff New Yorker tote bags? The neon-green bikini my friend from high school wore once on Instagram, never to be seen againSHEIN? (OK, almost definitely.) But that sweater, which looked suspiciously like a minor designer piece I saved up for months to purchase for myselfwas that SHEIN, too? Was the whole world shopping at SHEIN?


I started reading more about the accusations against the company. Investigative journalists with UK’s Channel 4 found employees at SHEIN factories working eighteen-hour days, making poverty wages at less than four cents per garment. But wasn’t that the case at fast-fashion factories all over the world? Last fall, Bloomberg News commissioned laboratory tests of SHEIN clothing and found that some of it had been made from cotton sourced from the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where Uighurs and other ethnic minorities pick cotton under conditions of forced labor. The US has banned imports of all goods produced in the region, which would in theory subject SHEIN shipments to detentionbut because of de minimis shipping loopholes, which exempt shipments of a nominal value from US fees, tariffs, and inspections, most SHEIN packages slip past customs regulators. Still, SHEIN has claimed it does not contract with manufacturers in Xinjiang, and their own analyses show most of their cotton is sourced from elsewhere, but perhaps it’s all a moot point: only 4 percent of SHEIN’s products sold in the US are made of cotton anyway.

When I started to feel sanctimonious about not shopping at SHEIN, I remembered that the “better” ready-to-wear stores, like Uniqlo and the Gap or even Madewell and Urban Outfitters, where I sometimes buy socks and T-shirts, aren’t offering products at a much higher qualityand their factories aren’t necessarily more ethical, either. Even luxury brands like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent rely on deeply exploited workers to produce their extraordinarily expensive clothes. Overconsumption exists across the price spectrum: Americans buy an average of sixty-eight garments per year and wear each an average of seven times before discarding. We have less money to spend on clothing and quality is more expensive than ever, but clothing prices have stayed the same, thanks to more exploitative labor practices and lower-quality materials masquerading as efficiency and innovation. I can’t justify the desire to consume and collect more dirt-cheap garments than one could ever sustainably wear, but I know the desire to wear just the perfect outfit and the rush of serotonin that comes from buying an exciting new piece of clothing. Many people think of fast fashion as their only option. I don’t know how to circumvent these desires when they are so strong and so ubiquitous and so seemingly beyond our control.

SHEIN’s predicted $60 billion annual revenue is the equivalent of selling seven black sweetheart neck long sleeve shirts to all 7.8 billion people on Earth.

Tweet

SHEIN didn’t invent the market or the cultural context for fast fashion, and some believe it is unfairly maligned as its worst offender. At least some of SHEIN’s reputation as exceptionally bad is rooted in anti-China sentiment, as the fashion scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham has argued. While we shouldn’t make the claim that SHEIN is ethical in any way, Pham says, it’s likely that the company would be celebrated as an innovator if it were based in the United States; that our prejudice against the brand is related to the fact that SHEIN is Asian-owned, like Forever 21 before it. Evidence of American jealousy and paranoia is not hard to find. The clearly Sinophobic group Shut Down SHEIN has been lobbying lawmakers in Washington since March 2023, describing SHEIN as a “CCP controlled fast-fashion company” and “THE BIGGEST NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF.” (It also claims that America’s “kids and young women [are] unwitting accomplices to all of it.” Another declaration on the site: “TIKTOK IS THE NEEDLE, SHEIN IS THE DRUG.”) Citing “national security,” the Biden Administration has restricted exports to Chinese semiconductor companies, and bipartisan congressional committees have initiated investigations into a wide variety of Asian companies’ supply chains, including SHEIN’s.

But both things can be true. SHEIN might be singled out as the worst fast-fashion retailer because the United States fears and envies China and has a particular interest in denigrating its successes, and it might be singled out because it is, in fact, the worst: the greatest polluter, the most flagrant IP thief, the largest violator of human rights, andarguably worst of allthe most profitable. SHEIN has shown the world that unsustainability pays. Together with the companies that will follow its example of ultra-fast fashion, SHEIN will accelerate the already-rapid acceleration toward global catastrophe.

SHEIN is now eyeing an IPO in the United States and has hired its own Washington lobbyists to push back against the forced labor claims. It has also gone on a media blitz: the past year has seen a New York Times story about SHEIN X, the company’s independent designer collaboration initiative, and dozens of articles about the company’s new Singapore-based headquarters that seek to distance SHEIN from its Chinese associations. SHEIN even sent a handful of TikTok influencers to what they claimed was “one of the main supply manufacturers for SHEIN,” only to have the campaign backfire massively when one self-described TikTok “confidence activist’s” video tour of a clearly fake manufacturing center went viral. On-screen was a spotless and sparse warehouse where fabric was being cut in single layers and workers stood beaming in rows behind ironing boards. It’s as if SHEIN is seeking a rebrand, though not one aimed at its customer base. Browsing going-out tops on shein.com, you’d never know. I search black sweetheart neck long sleeve shirt and get forty pages of results. My cheapest available option is $2.75. SHEIN’s predicted $60 billion annual revenue is the equivalent of selling seven black sweetheart neck long sleeve shirts to all 7.8 billion people on Earth.


I can’t wonder any longer what the clothes are like in the abstract. I need to experience SHEIN for myself. After what feels like an hour on the site, I settle on two garments I could envision myself actually wearing, if not buying, under normal circumstances: a long-sleeve black mesh shirt for $6.37 and a strappy light-green summer dress for $8.50. My shipping is free, and I spend a grand total of $14.87. My package will arrive in two weeks. Everything about SHEIN moves so quickly that I’m surprised by the relatively long shipping time until I remember that my package is being sent eight thousand miles from SHEIN’s distribution centers in Asia.

Once a day, like clockwork, SHEIN emails me. The first email comes forty-eight hours after I receive notice that my order has shipped. The preview line tells me SHEIN is “Honoring Black History Month” by showcasing three “SHEIN X artists.” I scroll and find a picture of two white influencers in wedding gear: “#SayidoinSHEIN.” The next day’s email highlights a sale on bodycon dresses in neon colors, because it’s “FRI-YAY.” Soon I’m sent a notice that “BOGO 99% OFF has Entered the Chat.” Seemingly every email has flashing text and dancing graphics.

Nine days after placing my order and four days ahead of schedule, my shipment arrives. I’d expected the package to be covered in SHEIN branding, but it’s surprisingly discreet: the return address is listed, simply, as S RETURN in Carteret, New Jersey; the white plastic shipping bag is punctured but otherwise plain. Under the USPS sticker, I spy the mysterious outlines of another barcode and shipping labelthe original international mailing information?but I can’t peel the top label off the bag.

Inside the shipping bag are two smaller frosted ziplock bags with black zippers and a large SHEIN logo printed across the bottom, familiar to me from TikTok haul videos. There’s an order receipt with my “commodity details” and a thorough flowchart outlining the SHEIN return process in English and Spanish. There’s also a wrinkled flyer for something called SHEIN Exchange adorned with pictures of smiling women and a closet stocked exclusively with beige sweaters. SHEIN Exchange is “Where pre-loved gets re-loved”: “a community where you can give your pre-loved clothing a new life while making others’ pre-loved pieces your own.” Below, an orange QR code links me to the SHEIN app. I’m so distracted by the bizarre idea of ordering somebody’s used and discarded SHEIN clothing that I nearly miss the back of the flyer advertising “evoluSHEIN”: SHEIN’s new collection made from “recycled polyester... and other responsibly sourced materials that reduce the impact on the planet.” This side of the flyer is green, for recycling.

I start with the SHEIN BAE Glitter Sheer Mesh Top Without Bra. The shirt looks like the pictures: long sleeved and made of stretchy black mesh, with tiny glittery flecks embedded in the fabric. I’ve bought a size large, and it’s too big: the armscyes form wide gaping triangles at my armpits and the shoulder seams droop sadly off my collarbones. The elastic seams are puckered. Staring at myself in the mirror, I wonder if the shoulders have been sewn unevenly. It’s less itchy than anticipated, and the fabric is slinky and cold against my skin. I feel like a different version of myself, like the kind of girl who captions her Instagram posts with the sparkle emoji. I imagine wearing my new SHEIN BAE Glitter Sheer Mesh Top with a bra and black jeans, drinking with friends. I imagine looking across the room and seeing a girl dressed nearly exactly like me, but she’s wearing the SHEIN BAE Lettuce Edge Glitter Mesh Top Without Bra, instead.

My other new SHEIN garment is both uglier and more distinctive. It’s the SHEIN Unity Tie Shoulder Split Thigh Cami in lime green, though the color in real life is more of a sage. The garment inside the ziplock bag is crumpled around a small square of tissue paper, which serves no discernable purpose. I’m surprised to see that neither the dress nor the shirt has any paper price tags attached: there’s nothing to cut off, and nothing to indicate that the clothes are brand new beyond their intense chemical smells. I ordered this dress in a medium, and it barely pulls over my hips. The fabric is a medium-thick stretch knit similar to a heavy T-shirt. Thin, wavy folds have been stitched into the material, creating a ruched effect. The texture is unusual, but almost a nice detail. (My friend takes one look at the dress and describes it as having both the look and feel of a ribbed condom.) I struggle to tie the long thin shoulder ties myself and eventually settle for lopsided bows. I have to tie them tight to hold the bodice of the dress over my chest, and they dig painfully into my skin. Fully on, the dress barely covers my chestI can’t lean, bend, or jump without flashing my reflection, and any large steps cause the super-high thigh slit to rise dangerously close to my ass. Standing still, though, I look good: sexy, trendy, youthful. But I quickly discover that the dress is too tight to pull over my head. How did I get in here? I shimmy and curse until I’m able to wrench the dress off me, where it springs back, tauntingly, to its original shape. Laid flat on the floor, the form is like a cartoon body: a perfect hourglass, smooth and dramatically curving.

My new SHEIN clothes lie in a crumpled pile on my living room floor for a week. I can’t figure out what to do with them. Neither garment is particularly wearable, but the hassle of returning the pieces (or donating them, or selling them to a thrift store) seems absurd when they cumulatively cost me less than $15 to begin with. The idea of folding them up and placing them in my dresser alongside my other clothing feels defeating. I think briefly about trying to sew them into something new, but again, the hassle. Mostly I don’t think about them at all. The garments cost so little that I don’t feel pressure to make them fit my wardrobe, or my life. I’ve already forgotten why I wanted these particular clothes in the first place.


If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.


More from Issue 47

More by this Author