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Shein Looks to Change Its Narrative With Design Challenge

This week everyone will be talking about Shein’s new design competition, Gap Inc.’s earnings and plans for fashion month.
Shein debuts on Piper Sandler's teen survey.
The Shein X 100K challenge show will follow 30 emerging designers as they compete to win $100,000 and will feature a star-studded panel of five judges, including Christian Siriano, Law Roach and Khloé Kardashian. Shutterstock. (Shutterstock)

Fast Fashion’s Image Problem

  • Chinese fast fashion giant Shein is launching a four-episode design competition on its social media channels and app
  • The brand has taken other steps to improve its image amid criticism of its environmental record and business practices
  • Some celebrity judges set to feature on the show have faced criticism on social media for associating themselves with Shein

In the fashion industry, the words Shein and design are rarely used in the same sentence, at least not in a flattering way. The Chinese fast fashion giant is known for algorithmically pumping out thousands of cheap outfits that iterate off of whatever is trending online. While a winning formula with consumers, this business model has not endeared Shein to the industry, particularly the growing number of designers who claim the brand replicated their styles a little too closely. Shein hasn’t shown too much public concern over this criticism, allowing its staggering growth to speak for itself.

How to explain the Shein X 100K Challenge, then? The four-episode web series will award cash to one of 30 emerging designers, and the judges’ panel is stacked with well-known fashion names, including the stylist Law Roach, the designer Christian Siriano and former J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons. Shein’s intentions are likely twofold: the show will run on the company’s social media channels and app, potentially drawing new audiences, who may then be tempted by the brand’s rock-bottom prices and clever rewards programme. The contest also provides an alternative narrative to distract from Shein’s mounting image problems, including the plagiarism allegations, concern about the brand’s environmental impact and a lack of transparency about working conditions in its factories. Shein has a steep hill to climb; Lyons, Roach and Siriano have all received a flood of negative comments on social media since their involvement with the contest was announced last week.

The Bottom Line: Shein must prove it is more than a commodity if it’s to survive over the long-term. Design collaborations have worked wonders for H&M’s image, after all. But as the bankruptcies of Forever21 and Topshop show, there is always faster, cheaper fashion waiting in the wings.

Mind the Gap

  • Gap Inc. reports second-quarter results on Aug. 26
  • The company has seen strong sales at Old Navy and Athleta, and taken steps to revive Banana Republic and Gap
  • Kanye West has promoted some Yeezy Gap items, but a release date remains unknown

Gap Inc. is on a roll. Its biggest brand, Old Navy, has likely benefitted from strong back-to-school spending and won positive headlines last week for its plan to offer all women’s apparel up to size 30, rather than offer extended sizes as a separate category. Athleta is riding an Olympic high; one brand ambassador, Allyson Felix, became the most-decorated US athlete ever with her 11th medal in Tokyo, and another, Simone Biles, is embarking on a new career as a mental health advocate. The trajectory of the rest of the company’s brand portfolio is less certain. Banana Republic is showing signs of life with a well-received vintage collection and upcoming collaborations, but its immediate future hinges on whether workers return to the office this fall. Then there’s Gap itself, which is in a holding pattern until its Kanye West collaboration hits stores. The rapper’s album tour is performing double duty as hype for the collection, though so far only puffer coats are available for pre-order.

The Bottom Line: Gap Inc. has spent the last year making big moves at all four of its brands. In the coming months, we’ll see whether they were the right ones.

Making Plans

  • Fashion week schedules are out for New York, London and Milan, and Paris is soon likely to follow suit
  • Each features mostly physical shows for the first time since the pandemic, though international attendance is likely to be limited
  • Host cities require attendees of indoor events show proof of vaccination, though enforcement mechanisms are still being worked out

Fashion month is around the corner, and on paper at least the industry appears to have figured out how to live with the pandemic. Most shows will feature a conventional runway before a live audience, though the crowds are likely to be smaller. That doesn’t necessarily mean scoring an invite will be harder; travel restrictions and concerns about the delta variant are likely to keep many editors, buyers and influencers from risking international travel. Proof of vaccination is required to attend indoor events in most cities hosting fashion weeks in September, either by event organisers, local officials or both. How those mandates will be enforced remains to be seen. Some brands will no doubt be tempted to let the odd anti-vax celebrity or model slip through, though one would hope a collective desire to suppress the spread of Covid-19 outweighs the allure of a buzzy front row.

The Bottom Line: As the delta variant’s rapid spread this summer has shown, a return to normal can be illusory. Brands planning lavish fall events would be wise to have contingency plans at the ready.

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