How Fast-Fashion Giant Shein Used Big Tech to Change the Way We Shop

The Chinese startup's business model moves social media trends into physical products at record speeds.
GettyImages-1313345487
Stock photo of a young woman opening box with an purchase online. GettyImages

Depending on where you’ve been scrolling online this past year, you might have seen ads for a company called Shein, bearing taglines like “Make every day your Shein day!” and offers to win 250 outfits with a single click. Perhaps you’ve seen a Bachelor celeb promoting the brand, or social media influencers showing off their “Shein hauls,” opening up giant boxes of cheap crop tops, bikinis, jeans, and leggings. On TikTok, Instagram, YouTube—Shein seems to be everywhere.

Advertisement

Founded in China in 2012, Shein has recently come to dominate the exploding industry of ultra-fast fashion—a business model that moves social media trends into physical products at record speeds. From 2019 to 2020, the company’s revenue rose to $10 billion—a 250% increase. In May 2021, Shein became the most popular shopping app in the U.S., beating out reigning champ Amazon. And then in June, Shein accounted for almost as many sales in the U.S. as H&M and Zara combined. But how? 

On this week’s episode of VICE News Reports, host Arielle Duhaime-Ross spoke with reporters Louise Matsakis and Meaghan Tobin, who investigated Shein for the online magazine Rest of World. Matsakis and Tobin explored how Shein is reinventing fast fashion—and transforming a generation’s consumption habits in the process.

“Shein is this big marketplace that connects thousands of Chinese clothing factories together, who all sell to consumers abroad. So it's kind of like a giant Amazon, mostly for clothes,” Matsakis explains. “Ultra-fast fashion isn't paying attention to what's on the runway. They're paying attention to what's going on on social media—and they can rip things off much more quickly. Instead of maybe a hundred items a week, we're talking about thousands of new items a day.”

Advertisement

And the secret sauce? Big data. 

“Think of it as like an app that can tell the suppliers, ‘Your butt-lifting camo print leggings are selling really well, but your purple crop tops are not,’” says Matsakis. “It can tell the suppliers in real time how their items are selling.” 

Shein operates less like a traditional clothing company and more like a tech startup, with powerful internal management software, and a nimble advertising and social media apparatus layered on top. In June 2021, a report estimated that Shein was worth more than $47 billion—making it one of the most valuable private startups out of China. Other companies are watching and trying to replicate this model, including some of China’s biggest tech companies. 

VICE News Reports takes you to Shein and its ultra-fast fashion machine to understand how it works, and what its impacts may be—for consumers, workers, and the planet. 

 Listen wherever you get your podcasts: Google Podcasts, Spotify, Apple

CREDITS:

This episode was reported by Louise Matsakis, Meaghan Tobin, and Wency Chen, and produced by Sophie Kazis.

VICE News Reports is hosted by Arielle Duhaime-Ross, and produced by Sophie Kazis, Jen Kinney, and Sayre Quevedo. Our senior producers are Ashley Cleek, Adizah Eghan, and Sam Greenspan. Our associate producers are Steph Brown, Sam Eagan, and Adreanna Rodriguez. Sound design and music composition by Steve Bone, Pran Bandi, Natasha Jacobs, and Kyle Murdock. 

Advertisement

Our executive producer and VP of Vice Audio is Kate Osborn. Janet Lee is Senior Production Manager for VICE Audio. 

MORE:  

An Insider’s Guide to the Fast Fashion Industry

Extinction Rebellion Protesters Stripped Naked to Protest Fast Fashion

Should You Shop for Clothes Online During a Pandemic?

Ambulances Have Been Called Hundreds of Times to Fast Fashion Warehouses