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The Shein X Challenge 2023: An inside look

By Florence Julienne



Courtesy of Shein. From left to right: Amy Sala, Adrien Roberts, Julien Fournié, Colin Horgan. Image courtesy of Shein.

The third edition of the Shein X Challenge, which took place in London on March 9 and 10, 2023, highlighted the winner Amy Sala and the nine other candidates who participated in the contest to try to reach a target clientele. FashionUnited attended the event to ask questions about the business model of a Chinese fashion brand that has been criticised by some.

Thursday, March 9, 2023. Ten candidates* (eight of them present in person, two selected in their country of origin and present via video call) participate in the creative contest launched by Chinese fast fashion brand Shein. The meeting spot is the Mondrian London Shoreditch hotel. On the big screen, each participant presents a moodboard for the spring/summer 2023 season to the jury, as well as three concrete SS23 designs.

This year’s jury was made up of Julien Fournié, founder of his eponymous haute couture brand, Adrien Roberts, international director of education at the Accademia Costume & Moda in Rome and administrator of the Graduate Fashion Foundation, independent Irish designer Colin Horgan, and Jill Wanless, editor in chief of Hello! magazine.

Next, the jury gives the designers advice on how to improve their project. In addition, they offer a master class on technology, the creation of a moodboard and the importance of creating your own universe, respectively.

The next morning, Friday March 10, after having reworked their presentation, which took some of them all night long, the candidates stepped back onto the stage to once again reveal their project which they improved based on what they retained (or wanted to retain) from the advice given.

The Shein X Challenge, an opportunity to enquire about Shein's business model

Image courtesy of Shein

Then it was time for the jury deliberation, during which FashionUnited improvised a press conference to find out a little more about the motivations that pushed the finalists to participate in the contest. It should be noted that 2,446 applicants participated in the 2023 edition.

Shein submitted about 60 of them to the jury, which selected ten. They all have different profiles - ages, backgrounds, etc. - For example, Stephan Bakos, a Venezuelan living in Berlin, did a six-month internship with designer Alexandre Vauthier, while young French designer Léa Berthaud, is still in high school. But when asked about their motivation, all of them show their admiration for an inclusive business model both personally (what chance would they have to participate in an elitist competition?) and economically.

"Shein creates clothes for everyone: sizes, styles, skin colours, nationalities..."Carla Castro, an Italian living in Greece, said, who is inspired by the concept of drama queens.

"There aren't many companies that are giving designers an opportunity," Maria Molina, a wedding dress designer, said. "Shein is creating the future," designer Daniela Ricciarrdelli, adds on her part, whose "Sex and Sea" moodboard has a nice appeal. The most important thing is that Shein will allow me to make my designs accessible to a wide audience."

When the candidates are asked what they don't like about Shein, the only answer Maria Molina can come up with is "Shein is so great that the only risk is that I'll want to buy everything and spend all my money on the brand.”

The session could have ended there, but, let's face it, it was quite a trip across the Channel to attend this event, which was also broadcast on social media, and one crucial question had to be asked: "Considering what is often said about Shein about its working conditions and the rate at which it operates, do you mind associating yourself with it as a designer?" Silence.

It was at this point that the European manager, Cui He, a Chinese woman living in London, intervened. She has been in her position for 6 years and is keen to be transparent about Shein's business model: "In reality, Shein distinguishes itself from other fast fashion brands by positioning itself on a production on demand. We only make what our customers want." We are able to do this because we are an online brand, which means we don't have a physical store [except for a few pop stores like the one that opened this Saturday, March 10 in Lyon, France, editor's note].

"Our online sales allow us to be present in 150 countries and thus to apply a test and learn business model," she continued. “We manufacture small quantities, 200 or 300 pieces per product. We test the models with our customers and, if they like them, we produce more. Our unsold stock does not exceed ten percent.”

"Criticism comes from the fact that people don't know how we work, so the Shein X Challenge is a good way for the public to find out. We organise it to support and empower unknown designers, especially those who don't have great opportunities," she said.

"A lot of people want to start their own brand and it's very difficult to do that. We don't make any money with this contest, but the contestants have nothing to lose, so they are willing to try. We pay for the manufacturing of the clothes and then they are tested directly online. Competitors can see if their designs appeal to customers. They receive a commission on sales."

Why do we wonder about this Chinese company that easily and successfully makes its target?

Image courtesy of Shein. In green, Shein’s European director Cui He. On the left, Charlotte Anthony

According to Cui He, there is a lack of understanding of how the supply chain works: "I can assure you that Shein is compliant with all international standards and I invite you to go to our website sheingroup.com to verify this. We don't own any factories, we work with partners and pay attention to how they treat their workers. People don't know China well. We want to open our doors and invite professionals to get to know us better."

FashionUnited then posed the same question to haute couture designer and jury member Julien Fournié, who had an unambiguous point of view: "Shein is a start-up that has progressed enormously in ten years and now needs to surround itself well to evolve in the right direction."

"This challenge consists of finding designers from all over the world through a low price brand," he continued, "but... who does that? Who gives young people a chance in the same way? Since when, in France, do we benefit from aid without going through the political game? These emerging designers will be able to test their work through final customers and a Parisian fashion show. Shein is a complete game changer."

So here we were at a contest that is not only inclusive but will allow the winners (and indeed almost all of them are since they all go through the process) to show in Paris, on June 8, 2023, with the three outfits, then have them made and finally test them directly on the Shein website. An overall process that won't cost them a single euro.

Shein takes care of all the support, which is in stark contrast to other fashion design competitions, such as the ones organised in France, where we have seen finalists incur up to 10,000 euros in debt to make their collection, travel to the competition venue, find lodging... Only to often leave feeling disappointed, with a few professional contacts that may not result in anything.

Amy Sala and her ‘Dopamine Collection’ win the Shein X Challenge 2023

Amy Sala, Shein X Challenge 2023. Photo : F Julienne

The award ceremony took place around 2pm GMT. The tension is palpable.

The third prize, worth 5,000 euros, went to Harry Paredes, who added sleeves to his tops following the advice of the mentors.

The second prize, worth 8,000 euros, goes to Angel Tram, who has distinguished himself with a collection with animal motifs.

Designer Amy Sala wins first prize, taking home 10,000 euros for her "Dopamine Collection". She comes from a fashion school in Manchester and is visibly surprised to have been named the winner.

When asking the jury what motivated them, it was clear that they appreciated that their mentoring paid off. "On the first day of the competition, we gave the candidates feedback on their work. If they weren't able to take it into account, in a way, they would eliminate themselves," jury member Adrien Roberts, explained. We didn't impose anything on them, just provided guidance so they could improve their work and find solutions on their own."

According to the jury members, it seems that Amy Sala knew, in her way of sketching, how to add a contemporary touch to the fashion silhouettes that are generally proposed by designers.

"I really liked the way she draws the female body," Julien Fournié said. "She freed herself from other designers, did not refer to fashion trends and her colour palette, a mix of pistachio and raspberry tones, is unprecedented. A few glasses of champagne later, everyone said "see you in Paris". And that's how, through the Shein X Challenge 2023, the Shein brand is, possibly, challenging certain assumptions about itself as a company.

Amy Sala, Shein X Challenge 2023. Photo : F Julienne

*Ten candidates: Amy Sala, Angel Tran, Blanca Martin Barcina, Carla Castro, Daniela Ricciardelli, Harry Paredes, Léa Berthaud, Maria Molina, Sonia Sara, Stephan Bakos.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.FR, and has been translated and edited from French into English by Veerle Versteeg.

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