Berlin's luxury shopping mile, the Kurfürstendamm, begins at Breitscheidplatz and becomes increasingly exclusive the further one walks towards the west. However, going west past Gucci, Chanel, and Hermès this August, you'll find the very opposite end of the price and quality scale: Shein. The Chinese ultra-fast fashion company has opened a pop-up store there, together with payment service provider Klarna. Luxury surroundings and low prices, how does that go together?
A visit to the store clearly shows what makes Shein (pronounced 'She-in') so interesting for many people, especially the younger target group. The store is attractively designed, and visitors are greeted by a store whose fun pink and orange interieur encourages a shopping spree. Pink terrazzo-patterned shelves, summery designs, orange trees, and potted greenery emphasize the cheerful vibe. For all those who enter, there is either a complimentary voucher for some ice cream or a coffee. Both can be picked up in an area on the second floor that resembles a beach bar - umbrellas and beach chairs included. The clothes are on trend, size-inclusive, and make for a fashion moment. Why teens leave their pocket money here is obvious: there are lots of great designs for a small price.
Criticism and reaction
Indeed, Shein's image seems to be changing. The company has faced plenty of criticism: accusations of plagiarism, violations of occupational health and safety of its workers, and questions of sustainability were raised – and the company is responding.
When asked about these issues, Shein writes in an email, "Through our small-batch sourcing model, we produce a very small amount of each style on our site, just 100-200 pieces, gauge the market's response in real-time, and then respond with larger production to meet demand when it is warranted. We sell 98 percent of what we produce. If the rest of the industry followed this model, it would almost immediately result in 20 percent less wasted product."
The company also plans to shift "to more sustainable materials, like recycled polyester," and is using them "more" in its products. As part of its sustainability efforts, Shein announces that it has joined the CanopyStyle initiative and launched the EPR Fund to address the fashion industry's waste problem. It also supports the Or Foundation in Ghana, and has established the Shein Cares Fund with a funding of 10 million dollars, to support organizations that foster communities and help protect the environment. In April, it launched a new, and more sustainable, line called EvoluShein.
This new fashion line includes items made from 50 to 100 percent recycled polyester. "EvoluShein is a (...) collection with inclusive sizes and responsibly sourced materials. With EvoluShein, we support women's empowerment projects around the world. The first collection of Evolu Shein clothing will be made from recycled polyester. Compared to virgin polyester production, the recycled polyester process requires fewer starting materials and significantly reduces the amount of water and energy needed," the company writes.
Of course, with recycled plastic, the problem of plastic waste at the end of the product's life is by no means eliminated, nor is it always clear where the plastic came from - and whether it was really recycled. Criticism of Shein's announcement has therefore been raised by activists, calling it "greenwashing" and calling the company's sustainability ambitions a "teeny tiny band-aid on a very large, seeping wound."
Fake to the core
Back at the pop-up store, a second look reveals another ingredient in Shein's successful model: cutting corners where it can. The terrazzo shelves turn out to be plastic, as are the plants. The store's real wooden floor has been covered with linoleum. The ice cream is water ice in a plastic wrapper, and the coffee comes from a capsule machine. If this were any other establishment on Kurfürstendamm, customers would storm out with indignation.
Here, it's mainly young women who storm into the changing rooms to try on the clothes, most of which cost less than ten euros and which they can't take home directly afterward. Everything in the store needs to be scanned with a smartphone, then ordered online and delivered to the customer's home - not necessarily "ultrafast". Delivery time is one to four weeks.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.DE, translated and edited to English.