Earlier this month, Oscar de la Renta designer Laura Kim, stylist Maeve Reilly, and designer and founder of his namesake fashion label LaQuan Smith gathered in Los Angeles to speak on a fashion panel. The discussion on luxury fashion appeared like many other industry panels — except for the fact that it was hosted by Shein, the mainland Chinese fast fashion company headquartered in Singapore that has become a paragon for unethical labor practices and unsustainable production.
Shein’s agility and growth have given it financial success and appeal to Gen Z consumers that luxury brands can only hope to replicate. But Shein is now taking a page from luxury’s playbook not only by partnering with fashion-forward figures like Reilly and Smith, but by launching a resale platform and incubating young design talent with its Shein X program.
Shein stands to benefit from the credentials of established names in fashion. But partnering with Shein is a risky proposition for luxury and designer fashion given its association with low-quality clothing and poor labor practices.
“The reason why I think that luxury companies don’t partner more with Shein and other fast fashion companies is because they don’t want customers to ask these questions about the commonalities between the two business models,” says Elizabeth L. Cline, professor of fashion policy and consumerism at Columbia and author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
“They want to protect their mystique and this idea that luxury is made ethically and always made with the highest standards and with a lot of integrity and quality. The risk is that you open yourself up to shoppers asking questions about how luxury products are made,” she adds.
Humble beginnings, explosive growth
Founded in 2008 by entrepreneur Chris Xu, Shein evolved from a wedding dress retailer to a global fast fashion powerhouse over the course of a decade. But the explosive growth that Shein experienced in recent years has begun to slow down.
According to The Business of Fashion, US sales for the Chinese company fell in 2022 for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. The company is up against not just slowed online shopping habits and upstart competitors like Temu, but mounting bad press regarding its labor practices, as well as the e-tailer’s alleged glamorization of overconsumption.
Such knocks against Shein are especially out of step with a fashion market that in recent years has made sustainability and transparency top values — even if fashion brands across the sector have been accused of greenwashing their efforts.
Shein’s recent Los Angeles summit is just one instance of using luxury fashion to realign with the brand with more progressive values. Last December, Shein’s premium line MOTF released a collaboration with Christian Siriano, who has been lauded for promoting size inclusivity and sustainability efforts.
But Shein is not only partnering with elevated names in fashion like Smith or Siriano. The company is also aligning itself with more socially-progressive initiatives in recent months with the same sort of speed at which it churns out on-trend designs, such as by launching a collection for Autism Awareness Month and partnering with streetwear platform Hypebae on a women’s history month advertorial.
“All Western companies are expected to have philanthropic efforts to give back to the community,” notes Cline. “It’s kind of head spinning to see [Shein] take on this whole playbook of corporate social responsibility that took decades to develop and they just did it overnight.”
According to Cline, it is possible for fast fashion brands like Shein to improve their labor and environmental practices the way that Western fast fashion brands H&M and The Gap have in recent years. H&M has become an increasingly attractive destination for luxury brands to expand their reach with partnerships, as Mugler demonstrated earlier this month.
But what separates a luxury fashion brand from a fast fashion retailer is not simply price or quality — it must also be aspirational. Luxury and designer fashion names’ prestige can help Shein polish its image, but for now they still risk their own status in the process.