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Nicola Mira
Jun 9, 2023
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Shein shows in Paris to legitimise its fashion credentials, causing tension too

Translated by
Nicola Mira
Jun 9, 2023

It was (almost) a classic runway show, featuring 25 designers, starting 40 minutes late, with 76 looks showcased on the runway to an electro-pop soundtrack, and over 300 guests, including all the top fashion influencers. On Thursday June 8,​ Chinese ultra-fast-fashion giant Shein took over the uber-chic Cambon Capucines Pavilion in Paris to present ‘Endless Summer’, the second show by the emerging designers from its Shein X incubator.

Shein has staged a Parisian event imitating a haute couture runway show - ER/FNW

By showing at number 46 on rue Cambon - a renowned central Parisian thoroughfare, home among others to the Chanel flagship - Shein edged closer to haute couture and rue Saint-Honoré’s super-chic boutiques, parroting the codes of French luxury. With an estimated €21 billion revenue in 2022 (in comparison, a century-old house like Chanel generated €16 billion), it must be said that the new budget fashion giant has the means to frequent Paris’s most beautiful neighbourhoods, and to fund a top-notch promotional drive.

Shein’s Parisian marketing effort was aimed at polishing up the brand’s image, hoping to blank out the controversy over its unbridled 8,000-items-per-day output. According to the Wall Street Journal, the e-tailer founded in 2008 by Chris Wu raised $2 billion in early May, reportedly taking its valuation to nearly $66 billion, and is aiming for a NYSE listing in the second half of 2023. 

Shein has made a habit of staging events in some of Paris’s iconic locations, for example at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, or on a barge sailing down the Seine during last autumn’s Paris Fashion Week. But the Chinese brand, which targets mass-market consumers looking for the lowest prices, is now keen to legitimise its fashion credentials. 

As demonstrated by the looks featured in the show, which mirrored the latest seasonal trends: from ecru-coloured crocheted summer essentials to sensual sheer dresses in Day-Glo orange and lilac, high heels and hats with straw details, holographic wedge sandals - for a disco look - and an array of tops with thin straps. 

Shein’s emerging designer incubator

Shein’s Parisian fashion show featured 25 emerging international designers, all part of the Shein X programme, each of them presenting three looks. It was coordinated by Luca Raveillon, Shein’s head stylist for the French market. Of the 76 looks, 73 were for women (one of the requirements asked of the designers).

Freelance Italian designer Bissoli Ruben (aka 8igb) designed the show’s three men’s looks, three sailor-style sets in a palette of blue, white and beige, “inspired by the sea, sky and sand.” It was one of the moodboard palettes predefined by Shein, alongside a brief that listed the materials to be used, two further constraints with which the Shein X designers had to deal. 

In some instances, as in the case of 20-year-old Léa Berthaud, a student at Bordeaux's Condé fashion academy, the designers’ creations needed to be altered (switching colours, whitening an orange sweater, removing fabric strips) to ensure commercial success.

Sticking to Shein’s diversity mantra, the show featured models of different ages, ethnicity and body morphology - ER/FNW

Following the show, only 100 to 200 units per item will be produced and sold on the Shein e-shop. The Shein X designers, who aren’t allowed to talk about where and how their collections are manufactured, do retain copyright on their designs and will receive a percentage on sales.

Painstakingly curated marketing effort

By collaborating with young designers and putting them centre-stage in high-profile events, Shein is replicating the strategy adopted by Scandinavian label H&M, with its penchant for capsule collections co-designed with top names like Olivier Rousteing and Karl Lagerfeld, having first popularised such curated collaborations in the early 2000s.

Over the past two years, Shein claims to have invested $55 million to support 3,000 emerging artists and designers from some 20 countries, reportedly accounting for more than 25,000 products marketed on Shein’s e-shop. 

The runway show featured models of different ages, body morphology and ethnicity, picked at a giant casting held on June 3. The watchword was sticking to Shein’s diversity mantra, in order to represent its consumers as faithfully as possible. 

The massive Parisian show was part of a communication strategy called ‘Sheintheknow’, aimed at making the brand known to the widest possible audience, beyond its habitual Gen Z customer base. A painstakingly curated marketing, communication and influencer effort, spearheaded by Shein’s Creative House, which has been in operation since 2019. A sort of stylistic counter-offensive to mitigate the daily criticism Shein is subjected to.

1.6 million daily site visitors in France

Shein aims to “make fashion accessible to all” through highly attractive prices, like t-shirts at €2 and dresses at €9. In France, for example, Shein is one of the most popular e-tail sites, with over 1.6 million unique visitors per day (the seventh most visited site daily in the country). 

Guest designers at Shein’s ‘Endless Summer’ show had to comply with a specific brief for materials and colours - ER/FNW

The Chinese giant is under fire for its business model. On a daily basis, NGOs and whistle-blowers are denouncing Shein’s steamroller approach based on overproduction, which causes widespread environmental damage and stimulates overconsumption. Yann Rivoallan, the president of France’s Women's Ready-to-wear Federation, co-wrote an article on French daily Le Monde on the eve of the show with activist Camille Etienne, French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann and journalist Victoire Satto.

They also turned up on the day of the show in front of the Cambon Capucines Pavilion, denouncing Shein’s nefarious business practices and its greenwashing attempts, and calling on the French government to introduce a “legislative shield” to regulate the fashion industry and combat Shein’s devastating “cultural obsolescence.”

In France, Shein is pulling out all the stops in terms of physical events in order to draw closer to its community, and divert attention away from the petition to “ban the Shein brand in France,” launched on April 28 on Change.org. As of June 9, the petition has collected 146,573 signatures. In early May, Shein opened a new Parisian pop-up store for four days (as it did in other countries like the UK) at 18-20 rue des Archives, in the chic, trendy Marais district. 

As is the case with the dupes it is often accused of manufacturing - low-cost products that copy other labels’ designs - ultra-fast-fashion giant Shein decided to parrot a fashion label’s classic runway show.

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