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A strange, short journey through Shein’s world

A strange, short journey through Shein’s world


The fast fashion brand has been trying to drop the secrecy around its business model and supply chain. After a recent pop-up event in New York City, I was left with more questions than answers.

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A shimmery silver fringe curtain separates the entry of the Shein pop up event from the products.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The Shein pop-up store in New York this month resembled the e-commerce giant’s website, except picture-perfect. Neutral-toned clothing hung on neat racks, next to party dresses that cost less than the cocktail you might drink while wearing them. Bargain-priced wall art and other home decor created a fantasy of living somewhere chic and stylish, without spending thousands. Like the Shein haul videos that go viral online, the pop-up store sold not just physical items, but also a vision: shoppers could have everything they wanted, and Shein could deliver it for cheap.

Shein, a retail behemoth that has reportedly been eyeing a $90 billion valuation in a US IPO, has big plans beyond living on our phone screens — the company wants shoppers to experience its products in real life. At the same time, lawmakers, human rights groups, and consumers have criticized everything from the company’s supply chain and working conditions to its copycat designs originating from independent artists. Shein’s future in the US depends on its ability to pull back the curtain on a business that has been highly secretive in the past. A splashy pop-up is one way to reach shoppers directly, give them free stuff, and have them come to their own conclusion about a company that has been plagued with bad PR, including a messy influencer trip aimed at dispelling these critiques.

But if the pop-up was supposed to help demonstrate Shein’s newfound transparency and openness, it may have only reinforced the brand’s existing image: quick, cheap, and not quite as it seems.

A pink walled room sits in the basement level of Forever 21. Right above where the wall ends, a woman is descending the escalator, looking into the pop-up space.
The Shein pop-up focused primarily on home goods — everything is for sale on Shein.

The ultra fast fashion brand is everywhere online but has had limited in-person presence, with no network of standalone shops or stockists. All that could change under a new deal struck this August between Forever 21 and Shein, bringing together the poster child of the first wave of fast fashion with its newer, faster, and even cheaper replacement.

In August, Shein announced it had acquired a third of the fashion conglomerate SPARC Group, which owns, among other brands, Forever 21. In return, SPARC Group would take a minority stake in Shein. 

It was something of an unholy matrimony — Shein’s online-first, data-driven supply chain model is part of what has eroded the cheap and quick format popularized by Forever 21 two decades ago. In 2019, Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy and closed hundreds of stores. Now, Forever 21 is hosting Shein pop-ups, and the two brands recently announced a collaborative line of apparel.

At the colossal multilevel Times Square Forever 21 store, Shein had overtaken the entire basement level to create a curated “experience,” offering fans freebies and food, plus an opportunity to shop the brand’s products in a traditional retail environment.

The New York City event was the first time Shein has focused on its expanding home goods category. Before customers see a single bodycon gown or puffer jacket, they must walk through a maze of staged rooms spanning the enormous basement-floor store. There’s a dining room with bubblegum pink walls, parquet flooring lined with a fuzzy gray rug, and architectural white chairs. In another room, a long dining room table is set to welcome imaginary guests to a holiday meal, complete with plates, bowls, and candles. Just about everything is for sale on Shein.

The Shein Times Square event was in a large, staged home constructed inside Forever 21. The walls are pink, with a mirror hanging that reads, “GLAM VIBES ONLY.”
A constructed dining room featuring Shein products like dishes, decorations, and furniture. One shopper is walking through the space, looking at her phone.

Like Shein’s dirt-cheap clothing and accessories, much of the home goods for sale online feel similarly uncanny, like someone generated 10,000 product ideas and slapped a price on them. The bizarre, seemingly random pricing coupled with the truly perplexing product offering give it a Temu-like energy — where tube caps designed to look like a dog is shitting toothpaste ($2.60) are sold next to chicken drumstick-shaped smoking pipes ($4.30).  The pricing is one of the company’s main draws for consumers.

“I like the price, definitely,” Christine Lo said of Shein. Lo, a New York City resident, was among the first in line for the event on Friday morning after hearing about it on Instagram.

There’s a refrain when it comes to shopping on Shein, Temu, and other ultra-fast retailers that I’ve seen, where shoppers are surprised when something arrives and it’s the right item, at least somewhat resembles pictures, and they maybe even like it enough to use it. It suggests that the default for something that cheap is that it’s too good a deal to be true. Having an in-person store where shoppers can touch and try on items is a chance to deflect that image.

A Shein clothing display featuring shimmery dresses, a canvas purse with a dollar sign, and other items.
After walking through the fake house, shoppers could peruse the clothing section.

In many cases, that instinct is correct. Someone is being taken advantage of, and in the age of opaque online retailers sourcing tens of thousands of products from a web of merchants, it is getting harder and harder to trace the provenance of what we buy, who’s making it, and under what conditions. 

After a UK documentary reported that workers making Shein products were subject to illegally long hours and withheld wages, the company said in 2022 it would spend $15 million on “improving standards” at hundreds of factories. The US has banned imports from the Xinjiang region in China that is connected to Uyghur forced labor and detention camps, but a 2022 Bloomberg report found that Shein products were made using cotton from Xinjiang. Shein later touted separate test results saying about 2.1 percent of cotton comes from “unapproved” places.

A photo booth is set up for attendees to take Shein-themed pictures.
Fans of the brand shared photos and videos online following the event.

For a company that says it has nothing to hide, I found the pop-up experience strangely guarded — like Shein hadn’t learned much from its botched attempt at transparency. When I arrived 20 minutes before the event opened to the public, I was given a tour of the space as part of a press preview. After that, I was informed that The Verge photographer Amelia Holowaty Krales and I were only allowed to be there for 15 minutes after the store opened, meaning we had just a short sliver of time to observe the event, conduct interviews, and photograph actual people interacting with the space.

While I walked around the pop-up, what I noticed most were the literal edges of the facade. The fake rooms with home decor were open overhead, and shoppers waiting upstairs could peer into the space from the top, like a dollhouse. Each room was perfect for a photo op — indeed on Instagram, dozens of influencers posted photos and videos from the event over the weekend. But the illusion ends just past the photo’s boundary. 

The illusion ends just past the photo’s boundary

On a decorative shelf in the home goods section, I was surprised to see a book from COS, a higher-end fast fashion company owned by H&M — but when I picked it up I discovered it was actually a printed piece of stiff paper, folded up to resemble a book. Another title, London, was attributed to famed high fashion photographer Steven Meisel, but it doesn’t appear to be real. The closest actual book I could find is a special collaboration Meisel did with Loewe, which the fake book seemed to be ripping off. But hey, it looks good in pictures.

The benefit of a pop-up, according to Peter Pernot-Day, Shein’s US head of strategic communications, is to have customers touch and feel products and experience the company’s new offerings — so why kick press out while shoppers are doing that very thing? Fifteen minutes after the first customers of the day were admitted inside, and before many of them even made it to the clothing section at the end, I was escorted out of the store by a Shein representative. I waited outside Forever 21 for shoppers carrying Shein-branded coffee cups and tote bags to conduct more interviews. 

Marci Palefsky, one of the shoppers I found leaving the event, said she planned to come back to the pop-up each of the remaining two days. She’s in the market for a new bed — maybe it will be from Shein.

“I like the prices, they’re very reasonable. They won’t price-gouge you,” Palefsky said. Palefsky heard about the pop-up on an online page for free events in the city and planned to tell other people to come to town and drop by. For now, the pop-up appeared to be doing what Shein intended it to: getting its products in front of shoppers and setting the stage for a future where the brand could become even more ubiquitous.