Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: Inside Shein’s Sudden Rise

I had come to watch Kelly film some booty. She went into the living room for a dance – a warm up – then led me upstairs to the carpeted landing on the second floor where she does her shots. There was a Christmas tree, a cat tower and, in the middle of the landing, an iPad mounted on a tripod and surrounded by a ring of light. On the floor lay a pile of Romwe shirts, skirts and dresses.

Kelly’s mother, Nichole Lacy, picked up the clothes and headed to the bathroom to spray them. “Hello, Alexa, play some Christmas music,” Kelly said. She joined her mother in the bathroom, then, over the next half hour, emerged wearing one new outfit after another – heart-patterned cardigan, star-print skirt – and s is modeled silently in front of the iPad camera, pulling faces, kicking a raised leg, touching a hemline here or a tie there. At one point, the family’s sphynx, Gwen, came into the frame and they cuddled; later, the other cat, Agatha, made an appearance.

For years, Shein’s public face has taken the form of people like Kelly, who form a federation of influencers filming for the company. According to Nick Baklanov, a marketing and research specialist at a company called HypeAuditor, Shein is unusual in the industry for the huge number of influencers he sends free clothes to. They, in turn, share discount codes with their followers and earn commission on sales. According to HypeAuditor, this strategy has made it the most talked about brand on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.

Along with the free clothes, Romwe also pays Kelly a flat rate for her posts. She didn’t name her fees, though she said she makes more in a few hours of video work than some of her friends with normal after-school jobs make in a week. In return, the brand benefits from relatively inexpensive marketing where its target audience, teens and 20-somethings, prefers to hang out. While Shein has collaborated with major celebrities and influencers (Katy Perry, Lil Nas X, Addison Rae), her sweet spot seems to be one with mid-size followings.

In the 1990s, before Kelly was born, Zara popularized a borrowing pattern of design ideas from anything that grabbed attention on the catwalks. By manufacturing clothes near its headquarters in Spain and streamlining the supply chain, it brought these already tried and true styles to market within weeks at shockingly low prices. Connie Chan, an investor at Andreessen Horowitz who invested in a Shein competitor called Cider, told me that Shein represents a new phase in fast fashion: now what appears on the catwalks and in fashion magazines matters less , and people look to wear it. “They do not care vogue don’t think that’s a cool piece,” she said. Boohoo, a UK-based company, and US-based Fashion Nova are part of the same trend.

After Kelly finished filming, Lacy asked me how much I thought all the pieces – 21 of them, plus a decorative snow globe – cost on Romwe’s website. They looked better than what I had bought by intentionally clicking on the cheapest items, so I guessed at least $500. Lacy, who is about my age, smiled. “It was $170,” she said, her eyes widening as if she couldn’t believe it herself.

In the mid-2000s, fast fashion was the dominant paradigm in retail. China had joined the World Trade Organization and had quickly become a major center of garment production, and Western companies were moving much of their manufacturing there. It was around this time, in 2008, that the name of Shein’s CEO first appeared in Chinese business documents, as Xu Yangtian. He was listed as a co-owner of a newly registered company, Nanjing Dianwei Information Technology, along with two others, Wang Xiaohu and Li Peng. The filing shows that Xu and Wang each own 45% of the company and Li the remaining 10%.

Wang and Li shared their memories of that time. Wang said he met Xu as a co-worker, and in 2008 they decided to start a cross-border marketing and e-commerce business together. Wang took charge of business development and some aspects of finance, he said, while Xu was in charge of a range of more technical matters, including SEO marketing.