Shein’s meteoric rise from anonymous fast fashion brand to the world’s largest digital fashion retailer took the industry by surprise. Now the rest of the industry is fighting back in court, on Instagram, or at the mall.
Dolls Kill, an internet retailer known for its niche music festival-ready style, became the latest brand to sue Shein for copyright infringement last week, claiming the Chinese company has duplicated dozens of its products, down to the way the models appear in advertisements photos were styled. The seller of pleated mini dresses and fishnet shirts joins Dr. Martens owners Airwave International, Ralph Lauren and others on increasing legal challenges; Since 2019, Shein parent company Zoetop Business Co. has been the target of at least 25 lawsuits in US federal courts.
“Shein respects the intellectual property rights of others,” a Shein spokesperson said in an email statement. “When legitimate complaints are raised by valid IP rights holders, Shein takes prompt action to remedy the situation.”
But the Shein threat goes beyond clothes, said Dolls Kill CEO Bobby Farahi. The industry hasn’t found an answer to the upstart’s ability to replicate trends at uncanny speed and staggeringly low prices. According to market estimates, Shein’s sales surpassed $10 billion in 2020, and the company ranks 12th among US apparel retailers by sales — up from 47th in 2019, data from Euromonitor shows. Shein now surpasses both H&M and Zara in US market share.
“They’re taking market share from everyone, from independent designers to Walmarts and Targets around the world,” Farahi said.
Retailers trying to compete with Shein on price and speed face great opportunity. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap in the US and Next in the UK tried this mostly unsuccessfully when Zara and H&M were their biggest threats; now the former fast fashion disruptors are also finding themselves on the defensive. Shein has additional advantages that its predecessors did not have, including a tariff gap This allows it to avoid US import tariffs that its competitors have to pay, which some experts say is key to the company’s low prices.
From independent designers to billion-dollar global brands, companies that have successfully fended off Shein are focusing their efforts on their competitors’ weaknesses: curation, customer service, and quality.
“Anyone who follows the exact same recipe as Shein is likely to come in second or third,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a marketing consulting firm. “But when you invest in brand building, you don’t attack them in their strength, but in areas that they don’t focus on.”
A unique aesthetic and recognizable range is the best defense against Shein, said Ana Andjelic, brand consultant and former Chief Brand Officer of Banana Republic.
She said luxury brands like Chanel, whose brand codes date back decades, or Rick Owens, with its distinct aesthetic, are relatively Shein-safe. The same goes for small labels like Telfar, which have their own perspective and community focus. Everyone else is vulnerable, particularly mall retailers who target middle-street tastes, she said.
“You’re either a trendsetter or a quick follower,” Andjelic said. “If you are neither, there is no place for you.”
This is not lost on mainstream brands. Gap’s collaboration with Kanye West, for example, is an attempt to cultivate the cultural cachet, said Rick Evans, strategy director at brand company R/GA. Shein could appropriate the designs, but they won’t have the Yeezy or Balenciaga stamp of approval.
You’re either a trendsetter or you’re a quick follower.
The trick is to keep the flow of coveted products drop by drop so it’s not a one-time publicity stunt that doesn’t end up resulting in significant sales or new customer acquisition.
“If you think of that cultural cachet, it’s going to make headlines, but could it make customers stay here?” he said.
Fast fashion brands take a similar approach. Over the past five years, Zara has invested heavily in its own creative vision, rather than just chasing catwalk trends, collaborating with high fashion photographers like Steven Meisel and Willy Vanderperre on sleek new campaigns. Some fast fashion consumers already see Zara as more premium than Shein.
“Even though Zara’s clothes aren’t the highest quality fabric, it shows the care that goes into the design and production of their clothes,” said Tamara Van Lesberghe, a 26-year-old film student, bartender and regular Shein, Asos shopper and Missguided.
Meanwhile, Farahi says Dolls Kill has also invested more in design, quality control, and storytelling around its products as Shein continues to rise. Some of the new designs are more difficult to reproduce, such as Such as embroidered patterns, unique embellishments and embellishments.
Bailey Prado, the designer behind her eponymous knitwear brand, said she found more than 40 of her crochet designs copied on Shein last summer. While her sales were largely unaffected by the incident, the experience has prompted her to redouble her ethos of handcrafting, to order, nearly every product at prices ten times Shein’s.
“I’ve built a pretty strong aesthetic so people know it’s my work,” Prado said. “[My customers] know that everything is handmade and I show the process.”
connection with customers
Van Lesberghe bought dozens of pieces from Shein after spotting her friends wearing the brand in the summer of 2020. Some items are fantastic, she said, like swimsuits, which she owns 20 from Shein. Others, not so much: Denim and sweatshirts tend to be made out of very thin material, she said.
Though cheap, the poor quality items became a problem for Van Lesberghe as she described Shein’s fastidious return policy. She said she couldn’t return some purchases because she threw away the plastic bags they arrived in.
Her frustration is an opportunity for Shein’s rivals. Brands can prioritize customer service, including responding quickly to customer inquiries via direct message or email.
“Customer service is not an area of Shein’s strength,” said Neri Karra, brand consultant and professor of corporate strategy at the University of Oxford.
Stationary retail can also strengthen the customer’s emotional bond with a brand. (Shein has opened pop-up stores in San Diego and Chicago, among other places, but has no permanent physical stores.)
Sandra Habib, strategy director at Siegel+Gale, a brand company, points to Nike’s running clubs as an example of using stores as places to build a “tribe.”
Strengths of a “small” brand
Some small brands copied by Shein have realized that embracing their junk can pay off.
Like Prado, Anna Butler found a similar version of her brand’s favorite product, a ruched white button-down shirt, at Shein last year. But Butler, whose brand is called Run & Follow, said she understands her client is completely different from Shein’s – and that even if they offer some look-alike blouses, she doesn’t compete with the fast-fashion giant.
“Shein is not an emerging brand; we’re not even in the same market,” Butler said. “For brands like mine, we need to be able to rely on our values, and my customers appreciate the fact that our pieces are made in the USA and that all of our products are made from better fabrics.”
Both Bailey Prado and Run & Follow got an unexpected positive outcome from Shein’s fake: they caused a stir on social media after speaking out about the incident. Prado said after Diet Prada shared her experience with Shein, her Instagram followers grew by at least 10,000.
“I feel like Shein ripped us off … gave us authority over people who didn’t know us,” Butler said. “It’s affirming, but annoying, but also affirming.”