Shein Is Opening Its First Australian Pop-Up Store — But Who Will Be Going?

Image: Shein
You’d be hard-pressed to find a fashion brand that elicits a stronger reaction than the two-syllabled name Shein. Known as the Amazon of the fast fashion world (though it’s arguably trumped Bezos’ conglomerate), Shein is the number one key player in the online shopping arena. And now, it’s setting up a temporary brick-and-mortar operation in Australia.
From May 13 to 15, Shein will be holding a pop-up shop in Melbourne’s CBD, a first of its kind in our country. The news has garnered a mixed response: some are excited for the chance to snag some cheap bargains IRL; others are shocked and appalled that the brand, which for many has become synonymous with labour abuse allegations and environmental depletion, is going to be physically here. 
As an ultra-fast fashion brand, Shein thrives on social media (in 2020, it was reported to be the most talked-about brand online). And one look at the brand’s TikTok presence — #shein has more than 26 billion views alone — will tell you just how divisive it is. On one hand, claims of cultural appropriation, poor quality and modern slavery flood Shein’s hashtags. On the other, hauls and try-on videos of dozens of items paint the brand as trendy, fashionable and affordable
So, where do Australians stand on Shein? For 21-year-old uni student and social media manager Anna, her view of Shein took a 180-degree turn after she posted a haul of the brand on TikTok back in September last year.
@annafountain09 take a shot everytime i cut myself off or say “this little number” 😶 #sheinhaul #sheinunboxing #sheinaustralia #unboxing #onlineshopping #fyp ♬ original sound - Anna Fountain
“My experience buying from Shein was not so great, [from] the quality [to the] sizing and overall look of the pieces [in] compar[ison] to the photos online,” she tells Refinery29 Australia, adding that the clothes took about a month to arrive.
Since then, she’s learnt about allegations of “poor treatment of workers and the ethical implications involved with the brand” and hasn’t bought from Shein since. Ethical reasons aside, Anna admits that she hasn’t worn the clothes she purchased and that it was “a waste of money”. It’s why she says she will not be visiting the store — though she reckons that it’ll attract a horde of teenagers, as well as some negative publicity. 
A common defence of Shein and other similar fast fashion counterparts is that the brand has a large selection of sizes — its women’s “curve and plus” section boasts over 67,000 clothing items. The lack of size inclusivity in Australia’s fashion scene (particularly affordable options) is a systemic issue and it’s one of the reasons that many plus-size shoppers choose fast fashion.
As a plus-size person, 30-year-old analyst Natasha knows this struggle firsthand. Last weekend, she spotted posters advertising the pop-up store and even walked past the space on Flinders Street, she tells Refinery29 Australia
“It made me cringe. It didn't sit right with me as I don't support Shein at all,” she says. “If the clothes are that cheap, I can only imagine the working environment, the pay and the welfare of those working.”
But Natasha acknowledges that she purchases from “questionable” brands because as someone who sways between a size 16 to 20, there aren’t a lot of high street brands catering to her size. 
“If I were younger and had less money, let's say 17 and plus-sized, I would probably have purchased from Shein due to ignorance, price and that need to fit in and be fashionable like straight-sized friends,” she shares.
28-year-old senior communication advisor Holly is a repeat customer of Shein and has made TikTok videos on her tips for navigating the sheer volume of stock and the hit-and-miss nature of the products. Her advice is to go by measurements, photos and reviews rather than the listed sizes.
“I’ve never had great experiences shopping anyway — [I’m] a plus-size gal and [experience] the age-old issue of fitting into a 14 in one store and a 20 in another. Shein is quite consistent actually; I’m pretty much always a 3XL,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. “I find their range of cute options for larger sizes to be fabulous. It’s incredibly size inclusive.”
As a woman with alopecia, she adds that Shein’s selection of wigs has been helpful. “I have found lots of fun coloured wigs on Shein, and [it] offers wigs of low [and] high quality, anywhere from $10 to $200.”
When asked about any environmental or ethical concerns she might have, Holly says that hasn’t seen any information about its treatment of workers, but it’s an issue she cares about. 
“It is important to me how all people are treated… I’d definitely be interested in learning more about Shein’s policy and approach to sustainability,” she says. The negative impact fast fashion has on the environment would be the most likely reason for me to stop buying from places like Shein.”
25-year-old Maddison has created the odd Shein haul video on TikTok, some of which feature fashion items, while others are items that help her manage her chronic illness. She tells Refinery29 Australia that she’s happy with her purchases but acknowledges Shein’s impact on the environment and its workers’ wellbeing.
“Some of [my purchases] helped make things more achievable for me with nerve damage in my arms! For example, I can now walk my dog again using one of Shein’s waist leads, [as well as] other nifty things that make household chores easier,” she says. “In a way, Shein is great and affordable… but at the same time a very backwards step for our environment and health.”
Maddison tells us that she won’t be visiting the store because of her chronic pain, but thinks that lots of people will “appreciate” the pop-up. 
But for the co-owner of slow fashion label Project Bowman, the announcement of the pop-up left her feeling shocked.
“I’ve placed myself within a beautiful bubble of Melbournians, both IRL and online, that reject companies that operate like Shein does. I guess I naively thought Shein was more of a problem internationally than at home in Australia,” 25-year-old Bella tells Refinery29 Australia. She acknowledges that being a sustainable business owner, not a “teenager overwhelmed with… microtrends being marketed to them,” led to her surprise. 
“My mind instantly envisioned swarms of people lining up for the promise of the hottest ‘fit for the price of a Maccas run. Rage quickly followed, a common emotion felt when fast fashion — or ultra-fast fashion — is the topic of conversation.”
Project Bowman is made locally in Melbourne and Bella prides herself on her relationship with both of her family-owned and ethically-run manufacturers. To hear allegations of labour abuses “breaks [her] heart”. 
“There’s so many amazing people and businesses that are deeply committed to making the manufacturing industry one that puts the rights of its workers and the planet at the forefront. As long Shein and businesses like it are given the green light to operate as they do... these efforts will hardly make a dent,” she says.
“This emphasises the need for globally enforced policies and laws — for labour, environmental impact and transparency. This needs to change, now.”
In a fortnight, the doors to Shein's first Australian pop-up will open. And with its physical presence, ultra-fast fashion brands are no longer a distant hashtag or an app that's accessible through a phone screen. They're here; they're in our wardrobes, in our landfills and on our streets. Shein is coming. Will you be buying in?
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