Excitement And Alarm Greet Online Fast Fashion Giant Shein's LA Expansion
Plopped next to a LensCrafters, across from a smoothie bar, was the mall’s hottest destination — if only for a weekend.
Chinese fast fashion giant Shein sells its clothes exclusively online but last month it opened one of its pop-ups for a weekend at The Shops at Montebello. On a Sunday afternoon, an eager crowd waited behind rope barriers as security guards let shoppers through the doors, a few dozen at a time.
SZA and Latto blared from the store speakers, as school office worker Asya Dizadare stood in line dressed almost entirely in Shein.
“This whole outfit is from there, minus my shoes,” said Dizadare, who had playfully paired a colorblock turtleneck sweater with dogtooth checked shorts and accessorized with sheer black tights and a beige purse. The sweater, which cost $18, was the most expensive item.
Another customer, Eva Perez, stood at the front of the line with her husband and teenage daughter. She said the quality and style of Shein products are generally good, leaving her perplexed.
“I honestly question it all the time,” Perez said. “Like, how is it so cheap?”
Marching Toward Global Domination
Industry experts say Shein's reliance on low-wage labor and its wide use of synthetic materials let the company churn out inexpensive clothes as swiftly as microtrends bubble up and vanish. The brand also saves money by not operating physical shops and marketing heavily through influencers who are less expensive than celebrity endorsements.
That social media strategy has helped to win over legions of customers, some of whom post about their shopping sprees on TikTok with the hashtag #SheinHaul.
@milenalife.style Which look is your fav 😍 Use my code S3milena15 for extra 15% off until 3.31 @shein_official #sheinhaul #springhaul #grwm #commentyourfav #fyp #you ♬ Pop Smoke candy shop - EZD
But Shein's meteoric rise to a $100 billion valuation last year is also generating criticism stemming from reports of worker exploitation in Chinese factories, elevated levels of lead in some products and a raft of stolen designs. It’s also come under fire for contributing to landfill waste and overconsumption through its model of making disposable clothing and its use of e-commerce tactics designed to get people to buy more.
Despite the backlash, Shein continues its march toward global domination. Nowhere is that more evident than in Los Angeles, the American fashion manufacturing capital that the company has made the hub of its U.S. operations.
A Shein spokesperson told LAist that it plans to open the second of three U.S. distribution centers in the L.A. area this year and will grow its local workforce to about 500. Already, more than 200 people work in Shein's offices at the Row DTLA. This is up from 15 employees in 2019, the spokesperson said.
Historically as private as its elusive founder, the company is making itself more visible in local communities. At a September block party, Shein unveiled murals in El Monte it had commissioned from five Latino artists to coincide with National Hispanic Heritage month.
The block party, which included a Shein sample sale, was attended by El Monte mayor Jessica Ancona, who said in a statement from Shein that she was “honored” that the company had picked her city to be the first location for its public art program. Meanwhile, artists have praised the brand for supporting their careers.
75-Hour Work Weeks
Shein sits atop the list of fast fashion powerhouses such as Zara, H&M and Fashion Nova.
But Shein's ascent to industry leader has been particularly supercharged through its deft use of social media and a manufacturing model that allows the company to quickly boost orders for items trending on its website.
It's also not the only company to have controversial manufacturing practices. But its fast rise has brought on global scrutiny.
The Swedish watchdog group Public Eye found Shein suppliers that make employees work 75-hour weeks with almost no days off. Some had barred windows and no emergency exits. Another investigation by the U.K.’s Channel 4 uncovered two Chinese factories where workers were spending as much as 18 hours a day making Shein clothes.
Shein responded to the Channel 4 documentary by ordering an internal investigation that showed two of its suppliers overworked its employees. It announced that it would dedicate $15 million to improving factory conditions.
Garment Industry Impact
But it’s not only overseas workers who stand to lose out as Shein expands, say advocates in U.S. manufacturing hubs like L.A., where an estimated 45,000 people work in the garment industry.
Marissa Nuncio, director of the L.A.-based Garment Workers Center, said a massive player like Shein forces other brands to lower prices.
‘What happens is that creates a downward pressure in the supply chain, in terms of contractors or factories, negotiating and bidding and trying to be the lowest bid,” she said.
She feared this could mean less pay for U.S. garment workers at a time when headway has been made in raising their wages.
A year-old California law requires suppliers to pay workers by the hour, rather than per garment. Some local manufacturers have complained this is driving up their costs, making it harder to compete in a market dominated by the Sheins of the world.
“If fashion brands can go elsewhere and pay the lowest cost, that's absolutely going to have a ripple effect here,” Nuncio said.
Advocates for garment workers are campaigning to replicate the California law federally. Meanwhile, Shein appears to be positioning itself to weigh in on U.S. legislative and regulatory issues. It recently hired its first D.C. lobbyists.
‘In The Landfill, They Won’t Degrade’
Tracie Tung understands the temptation to buy clothes from Shein. She once saw a Shein dupe of a Reformation dress that she estimates retailed for 10 times more.
But in her role as a Cal State Northridge professor teaching about fashion sustainability, she fears Shein's mass use of synthetic fabrics will harm the environment.
“Polyester, nylon and spandex — those materials, they are just like plastic,” Tung said. “When you put it in the landfill, they won’t degrade. It's not like cotton.”
Classically-styled, high-quality items are more sustainable but tend to cost more and feel out-of-reach to some younger shoppers who could buy 10 Shein items for $100.
“But then you still paid $100,” Tung countered. “You don’t really need 10 pieces and then you throw them away.”
But it's clear from other Tiktok posts that some Shein fans are chasing trends, not clothes to endure the test of time. And the company tries to make it as easy as possible for its shoppers to try on the latest styles they peruse on the Shein app, the world's most downloaded shopping app last year.
“The best thing about this is that they give you free returns because I wouldn’t buy so much stuff,” said Aysa Dizadare, as she waited outside the Shein pop-up in Montebello.
Dizadare said she had a notion that Shein's cut-price clothes have something to do with "overseas" manufacturing and she grows sober thinking of the low-wage workers sewing Shein garments.
But before she knows it, the line for the pop-up starts to move. Beyond the doors awaited cream-colored shoulder bags and neon green sweater crop tops — $10 apiece — and Shein workers handing out giant shopping bags to be filled.