THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF SHEIN
On the Euphoric Sensation of Hyper-Fast-Fashion.
Binging through HBO’s season one of Euphoria (2019), it’s easy to feel a sense of pride and empathy for being able to account yourself as Gen Z: so post-, so meta-, nothing and everything at the same time. These feelings of wholesome self-acceptance tremble in the face of SHEIN, a trendy brand whose core existence is by-now tightly knotted with Gen Z-ness and, also, the apocalypse. Like TikTok, the social media platform that made it famous, Shein is an export of the blossoming, authoritarian version of hyper-capitalism currently positioning China as a global superpower. Founded in 2008 by Chris Xu, the brand signals a new chapter for the e-tailer industry: hyper-fast-fashion. Soon, this chapter will not be accredited to Shein alone. Recently launched e-commerce site allyLikes, a reactionary offspring of rival company Alibaba Holdings, already poses ample competition. But before this business model takes over as the new capitalist wunderkind, let us make one thing clear: Shein is the first of its kind, a priori material, the OG of a consumer culture elevated to extremes. People wonder why the youth are so anxious nowadays; Shein provides answers to this question. Its analysis offers insightful opportunities to reflect on the future that is to come.
What was the Ice Bucket Challenge about again? Like with so many other trends on the internet, context is hardly memorable. Vague aesthetic footprints remain lurking around, making us feel jaded, and increasingly bored. Sharing footage with the sole intent of showcasing personal consumption isn’t new. It already pervaded the World Wide Web as mimetically as any other virulent trend of the early 2000s. Just pause, think of those who have managed to post twenty-minute-long unboxing videos of their Louis Vuitton keychains, and ponder. No apparel company, luxury or otherwise, has so-far managed to incorporate and embrace this phenomenon in its branded identity as much as Shein has. Platforms like TikTok and YouTube have contributed to making shopping sprees trendier than the clothes themselves. Readily available, questionably affordable and easily disposable clothing is zipped-up in gloomy plastic bags, stuffed into overloaded cardboards and shipped off on transatlantic routes, much to the delight of a primarily teenage demographic. Upon arrival, customers splurge in sheer quantity: it has to be mega, for it to be cool. One plays around in piles of packaging, uses the front camera as a mirror to try on outfits, and simulates grimaces to appear more human, relatable - kind of like those of us who put ‘just for fun’ in their Instagram bio. The act of performing becomes the act of consuming, and in this process, we also get to finally become. Motivated by the competition within, younger generations outperform the old. These recorded #SHEINhaul rituals surpass commodity fetishism well into displays of cult-worthy-fanaticism. It takes a fair amount of gloomy plastic bags to be able to call your haul mega and associate it with the Shein brand, which renders both intent and outcome paradoxical. If you shop there and you think that your financial restraints leave you no other choice but to settle for the surreal prices of garments cheaper than the chocolate bar you just ate, then why contradict that by buying so much it ends up being expensive? Why contribute to excess?
It’s the glance of the other: recognition, jealousy or both. Normally, you’d get to sense this at a pedestrian’s pace. In the case of Shein, if you want to be recognized as a star and seek validation in pairing spending power with the sensorial gaze of the other, you can only do so by filming yourself. Video, or it didn’t happen.
Individually, we should all strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be and to shop the highest possible amount the best version of ourselves would be able to shop. Considering the company’s evil approach to labor rights and the environment, it seems like Shein is not exactly the best version of itself that it can be. Well, it depends on how you weigh this up. Either way, while the e-tailer is making bank, Shein’s reputation continues to be dragged. Damage control is required. Luckily, the culture industry has become exactly the right outlet for cheap PR fixes. The SHEIN X 100K Challenge, a reality-tv styled competition shot in and embodying LA, reminds us of the values dear to the brand: Be Bold! Be You! Aspiring emerging designers from diverse backgrounds are invited to compete for money and attention, thereby framing the company as still belonging to the real fashion industry. It did violate the Modern Slavery Act in 2021, but let’s not be a Debbie Downer here. Look at the glam, the little aspiring designer babies, the capsule collections, the multiplicity of identities and individualities, even Khloe Kardashian is around to offer her blessing! Late capitalism is not “fake it till you make it” anymore. Once you’ve faked it, it’s made: congratulations, you made it!
A significantly less expensive way to create a buzz is the collaborative basis by which Shein employs thousands of micro-influencers for the redistribution of their personal social media content. ‘Collaborative’ is perhaps a misleading term, and so are ‘personal’, and ‘buzz’. The hashtag #sheingals recruits an army of girls, willing and able, to competitively create their own versions of the same photo in the hopes of being re-shared on the brand’s official Instagram account feed. A monstrous, self-generating-content machine, operating more like a perpetual hiss, a repetitive atmospheric presence, colonizes your explore page at hourly intervals. You too could one day transgress the role of a mere soldier to that of an army general, taking home the title of (micro) Brand Ambassador, and probably some additional Instagram followers or a limited discount code of 30% on products already priced under €10 to go along with it. Highlighter on fleek, serve, pose, edit, face-tune and caption – then add “shop product #358294, #680478, #987693, #sheingals, #sheingalsinternational”. Shein, like the Chinese Communist Party which is imperative to its booming financial success, understands that quantity is more efficient than quality. The comment section seems to be the appropriate outlet for internal uproar from its growing consumer community. Red, yellow, and pink heart-on-fire-emoji comments are interrupted by the frustrated statements of individual SHEIN-gals: disrupters of the system, protest and revolt; they have HAD it. @okayyyy.love says “When is my order getting here??? It was suppose (sic) to be here last week. I’m tired of this I messaged you guys and y’all keep telling me to click this link and track my order. I just need a date I know where my order is, I just want to know when it’s getting here. This is going to be my last time ordering from you guys and I’ll make sure to write this underneath your site”. This form of protest is publicly replied to in a corporate yet amical tone. Generic responses are tweaked to compensate for said defamations’ lack of heart emojis by inserting their own.
SHEIN TO INFINITY AND BEYOND
All social media roads lead to the citadel, the Mecca of SHEIN-ism, the final destination: the online store. Arrival at this place of guilt and pleasure overstimulates visitors like the supermarket coupon leaflet aggressively sticking out from an already-packed mailbox. Percentages, pop-up boxes, symbols and images reinvent the interface before any human can visually comprehend it, stirring up a sense of confusion and, more importantly, urgency. Founder Chris Xu’s CV is marked by his past SEO (Search Engine Optimization) expertise, which is more than vital for a website that offers 600,000 products at all times, adding roughly 5000 new products to its assortment every-single-day. An ingenious method for restraining consumers from having a panic attack is the Camera Search option accessible from the smartphone app or webpage. When at a loss for words, you can upload or take a photograph of something you want, stirring the Shein genie to come to your rescue, providing you with dozens of buyable options that are fundamentally all the same. Some of them actually exist, others could come into fruition if enough people order them, but the difference between rendered and photographed is virtually a thing of the past. Ontological concepts such as past, future, and present shatter when confronted with Shein’s trend-data harvesting algorithm, which simultaneously assesses the past in order to prognose the future that, once prognosed, promptly becomes the present. Every plagiarism or representational scandal helps program the algorithm in knowing what not to do, calculating a supposed ethic; an ethic as trend, increasingly more responsive to and subservient of the zeitgeist. Once a product is given approval, suppliers are tasked with working against the clock to ramp up its design, conceptualization and production in just under ten days. And the rest is magic – right?
It’s really one of those things you wish you could rewind and then avoid ever finding out about. Ignorance is bliss, yet you are stuck being hyper-aware of this hyper-thing. Some accelerationists might think to themselves “finally, the end of the world”, but according to Timothy Morton, that already happened in 1784 when the steam engine got invented. His study describes hyperobjects  as exactly everything that Shein is: sticky, lacks locality, involves a temporality unknown to the human scale. In addition, its impact makes us seem hypocritical, weak and lame, whether we shop there or just complain about it. (Not in a moralistic sense, though; existence is still innocent!) Lack of transparency and meaningless press statements are trademarks of the brand. If the company were to publicly reveal all that enables it to carry out this perverse production cycle, it would still be veiled in secrecy, because – really – who has the cognitive imaginative abilities to ever truly grasp what 600,000 products means, or what that looks like? Not us, not the employees, probably not even the founders and CEOs, since they too are human (despite all odds). Instead, we feel it here, there, everywhere, SHEIN-ing like a glimmer of phosphorescent light to which there is no dimmer. An apparel company so enormous in its operations raises existential questions previously only stirred up by other said hyperobjects, like the stratosphere or the solar system, or the particles of radiation that surround us everywhere we go. Add up Zara, H&M and Primark and you’re still nowhere near the size of Shein. Crop tops and bathroom rugs have become a force of nature, one to which we are helplessly subservient.
HYPOCRISY/SHE – IN – TROUBLE
Heidegger calls the nihilism inherent in this phenomenon the gigantic, meaning, the rise of sheer quantity. We are painfully, numerically aware of the duplicities of our own being in time, and to some this is a crushing sentiment. Morton summarizes one method of a nihilistic coping mechanism as “pure becoming floating in the void”. As quality becomes unaffordable, resources increasingly scarce, quantity is the only commodity left up for fetishization, and performativity (previously contextualized as the METAHAUL) offers the escapism of constant becoming.
It’s a bad look for “Western” Gen Z… discrepant, fickle. It – the image of this generation – victimizes itself as the youthful opponent of a corrupt system which it seeks to oppose. I have to clean up the mess YOU made, Gen Z seems to say, while planting a tree and skipping school for the day. It plants this tree wearing mascara, highlighter, a crop top consisting of fabric too thin to face the winds, and it protects its sensitive hands wearing thick rubber gloves ordered from Amazon, on sale.
Let’s go back to where we started, Euphoria, and look at Maddy. Based on the outfits she never wears twice, it’s safe to assume her #SHEINgal status. This is the part of her being which succumbs to the shadows cast by the stylistic protagonism of the show. Except for once, where, in episode two of season two, she is almost busted while playing dress-up with the expensive gowns of her wealthy babysitting employee. Maddy knows about all of the above, and she resents it. She’ll still order the velvet bedazzled tracksuit, and the kitten heels, and the bathroom rug. Chewing gum and throwing a look filled with indignation, Maddy understands dialectics better than most of us. And in her own words, “That’s fucking retarded.”