Excitement and hype greet online fashion giant Shein’s LA expansion

Located next to LensCrafters, across from the smoothie bar, it was the mall’s most popular destination — if only for the weekend.

Chinese fast fashion giant Shein sells its clothing exclusively online, but last month it opened one of its weekend pop-ups at The Shops at Montebello. On Sunday afternoon, an eager crowd waited behind rope barriers as security guards let shoppers through the doors, dozens at a time.

SZA and Latto blared from the store’s speakers, while school clerk Asya Dizadare stood in line dressed almost entirely in Shein.

“This whole outfit is from there, minus my shoes,” said Dizadare, who playfully paired a colored turtleneck sweater with houndstooth plaid shorts and accessorized with sheer black leggings and a beige bag. The sweater, which cost $18, was the most expensive item.

Another customer, Eva Perez, stood at the head of the line with her husband and teenage daughter. She said the quality and style of Shein products are generally good, which left her confused.

“I honestly question it all the time,” Perez said. “Like, how is it so cheap?”

Marching towards global dominance

Industry experts say Shein’s reliance on low-wage labor and his extensive use of synthetic materials allows the company to produce cheap clothing as quickly as microtrends ebb and flow. That strategy has won legions of shoppers who post their purchases on TikTok with the hashtag #SheinHaul.

But Shein’s meteoric rise to a $100 billion valuation has also drawn criticism stemming from reports of worker exploitation in Chinese factories, elevated lead levels in some products and a spate of stolen designs. It has also come under fire for contributing to waste and overconsumption through its model of making disposable clothing and using e-commerce tactics designed to get people to buy more.

Despite the backlash, Shein continues his march toward global dominance. Nowhere is this more evident than in Los Angeles, the American capital of the fashion industry that the company has made the center of its US operations.

A spokesperson for Shein told LAist that it plans to open the second of three U.S. distribution centers in the LA area this year and grow its local workforce to about 500. More than 200 people already work at Shein’s Row DTLA offices.

Historically private like its elusive founder, the company is becoming more visible in local communities. At a September block party, Shein unveiled murals in El Monte that he commissioned from five Hispanic artists to coincide with National Hispanic Heritage Month.

The block party, which included a Shein sample sale, was attended by El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona, who said in a Shein statement that she was “honored” that the company chose her city as the first location for its public art program. Meanwhile, artists praised the company for supporting their careers.

75-hour work week

Shein tops the list of fast fashion powerhouses such as Zara, H&M and Fashion Nova.

But Shein’s rise to industry leadership has been particularly boosted by its deft use of social media and influencers, and a production model that allows the company to quickly ramp up orders for trending items on its website.

It’s also not the only company with controversial manufacturing practices. But its rapid rise has brought global scrutiny.

Swedish watchdog group Public Eye found Shein suppliers forcing employees to work 75 hours a week with almost no days off. Some had barred windows and no emergency exits. Another investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 revealed two Chinese factories where workers spent as many as 18 hours a day making Shein clothing.

Shein responded to the Channel 4 documentary by ordering an internal investigation that found two of his suppliers had overworked his employees. He announced that he would dedicate 15 million dollars to improving conditions at the factory.

But it’s not just overseas workers who stand to lose as Shein expands, say advocates in US manufacturing hubs like LA, where an estimated 45,000 people work in the garment industry.

Marissa Nuncio, director of the LA-based Garment Workers Center, said a big player like Shein is forcing other brands to lower prices.

“What happens is that it creates downward pressure in the supply chain, in terms of contractors or factories, negotiating and bidding and trying to make the lowest bid,” she said.

She feared it could mean lower wages for textile workers in the US at a time when progress was being made to raise their wages.

A year-old California law requires suppliers to pay workers by the hour, not by the garment. Some local manufacturers have complained that this increases their costs, making it difficult for them to compete in a market dominated by the Sheins of the world.

If fashion brands can go elsewhere and pay the lowest price, it will absolutely have a ripple effect here,” the nuncio said.

Advocates for textile workers are campaigning to mirror California’s law at the federal level. Meanwhile, Shein appears to be positioning himself to contribute to US legislative and regulatory issues. It recently hired its first DC lobbyists.

‘It will not degrade in the landfill’

Tracie Tung understands the temptation to buy clothes from Shein. She once saw a Shein fake reformer dress that she estimates retailed for 10 times more.

But in her role as a professor at Cal State Northridge who teaches about fashion sustainability, she fears that Shein’s massive use of synthetic fabrics will harm the environment.

“Polyester, nylon and spandex — those materials are like plastic,” Tung said. “When you put them in a landfill, they won’t break down. It’s not like cotton.”

Classically styled, high-quality items are more sustainable, but tend to cost more and seem out of reach for some younger shoppers who might buy 10 Shein items for $100.

“But then when you still paid $100,” Tung retorted. “You don’t really need 10 pieces and then throw them away.”

But from other posts on Tiktok, it’s clear that some of Shein’s fans are chasing trends rather than clothes that will stand the test of time. And the company is trying to make it as easy as possible for its customers to try on the latest styles they browse on the Shein app, the most downloaded shopping app in the world last year.

The best thing about this is that they give you free returns because I wouldn’t have bought so many things,” said Aysa Dizadare as she waited outside the Shein pop-up in Montebello.

Dizadare said she had a hunch that Shein’s cut-price clothes had something to do with “overseas” production, and she sobered up thinking about the low-wage workers who make Shein’s clothes.

But before he can figure it out, the queue for the pop-up starts to move. Cream-colored shoulder bags and cropped neon green sweaters—$10 each—and Shein workers handing out giant bags to be filled were waiting outside the door.

Do you have questions about Southern California’s Asian American communities?

Josie Huang reports on the intersection of Asian and American being and the impact of these growing communities in Southern California.

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