The Chinese fast fashion company Shein has grown into an e-commerce behemoth said to be worth as much as $15 billion with an annual revenue of at least $5 billion, all without doing much to craft a public image.

But on Sunday, Shein debuted its most high-profile marketing effort yet: a reality TV show. The Shein X 100K Challenge is a four-episode competition that follows 30 designers as they compete for $100,000 and the opportunity to fly to Los Angeles to stage a fashion show. Shein announced a roster of fashion’s emissaries to serve as judges, including celebrity stylist Law Roach, designer Christian Siriano, former J.Crew creative director Jenna Lyons, Khloé Kardashian and InStyle magazine style director Laurel Pantin.

Those judges were immediately attacked on social media for their role in the competition, with online critics pointing to plagiarism allegations against Shein, as well as the fast fashion giant’s failure to disclose labour standards and concerns over the environmental impacts of its business model.

What infuriated Shein’s critics is baked into the show’s premise: an effort to recast the company as a friend to, and power player in the fashion industry, rather than merely an anonymous purveyor of cheap clothing. Even with its size and rapid growth (this year, the company overtook Amazon as the top shopping app on US app stores, and controls almost 30 percent of the American fast fashion market, according to data analytics company Earnest Research), the fashion industry has long been reluctant to acknowledge the ubiquity and influence of the China-based company.

The show, along with recent hires of fashion industry veterans to key roles and a programme promising to fund emerging designers, is a significant step forward in how Shein aims to exert its growing capital over the industry and rehabilitate its public image with consumers, regulators and the fashion world at large. Whether anyone will buy into Shein’s redemption campaign remains to be seen.

A ‘Philanthropic’ Endeavour

To many, the show’s premise — a fast fashion behemoth’s philanthropic efforts to champion young talent — sounded like a crude paradox.

Fast fashion’s relationship with independent designers and luxury houses alike has long been contentious and Shein is no exception. Over the years, several independent designers have accused Shein of replicating their designs, often adding that the company ignored their pleas to remove the copycats from the site. Earlier this month knitwear designer Bailey Prado claimed the brand stole 45 designs from her, listing them all at under $20. Shein declined to comment on Prado’s accusations.

Concerns over Shein’s manufacturing processes — the company has avoided disclosing labour standards in the past with production speeds that outpace nearly all of its competitors — have grown as pressure mounts for fashion to be more sustainable.

“This show is all about the designers and shining a light on their talent and hard work,” said the company in a statement. “We hope viewers will be supportive of these young creatives.”

So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that immediately after announcing on social media that they’d be participating in the show, some judges struggled to moderate backlash. Christian Siriano deleted criticism beneath his Instagram post of the announcement; Jenna Lyons removed the ability to comment and added a note for commenters about the merits of the competition, suggesting a reading from Theodore Roosevelt on criticism.

InStyle ended its digital and social advertising contract with Shein following the announcement: a spokesperson added that the relationship between the two companies was brief, and never involved the magazine’s editorial process.

Most partners, however, are standing by their participation.

“A platform like Shein isn’t going anywhere,” Roach told BoF, adding that he didn’t mind the criticism on his social media following the announcement. “What I wanted to do was use my profile to help change it.”

For Shein’s part, it has made supporting young designers a bigger part of its business strategy. This year it launched SheinX, an incubator programme that aids independent designers by manufacturing, marketing and selling their designs under their own name alongside the Shein X label. The programme began with seven designers before it was extended indefinitely, widening the pool to work with 50 designers per month. So far it’s carried 200 designers, with a goal of launching over 3,000 next year on the platform.

The show, one of the first projects to come out of the programme, follows that same process. In offering to produce, market and sell a designer’s collection for a low price, Shein plans to provide a new path for young designers to see their collections sewn and sold, without taking on the financial risk and logistical burdens that often accompany production. The move also presents a potential opportunity for the company to build out a stable of fast fashion brands similar to rival Boohoo, which owns Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal.

There are clear downsides, however. While a designer does receive an undisclosed portion of sales, in an industry segment known for razor-thin margins, it seems unlikely that the proceeds will be enough to finance an entire collection or even create a solid financial cushion. The company stated that between January and August of this year it paid over $1 million in commissions to designers.

There’s also the risk of designers cannibalising their own sales and diluting brand value by working with Shein: consumers using discount codes to purchase $6 T-shirts from their SheinX collections may be unwilling to pay full price for a brand’s mainline collections or buy from a brand with ties to the company.

And people are buying those $6 T-shirts: Shein said the SheinX womenswear brands saw a 90.63 percent sell through compared to the mainline women’s 34.5 percent sell-through. Sales of the SheinX collections came in over 400 percent higher than new products from the mainline women’s collections during the same period.

The show offers potential for even more attention, taking on the same gamified approach the brand encourages in purchasing, offering consumers daily deals and coupons to whittle down its already low prices. Viewers can only tune in on Shein’s social media channels and app; audience voting is incentivised with prizes such as discount codes of up to $500, won through a like, share or comment strategy. All of the contestants’ collections are already available for purchase on the Shein, with most products available for under $20.

“In a completely fragmented media environment where attention is such a big commodity, for the consumers they want to reach this is a smart strategy,” said Moya Luckett, a professor in fashion and media studies at NYU’s Gallatin school.

Reputation Repair

There’s concern over celebrating Shein and its ultra-fast-fashion approach, as initiatives like the show aim to do. Shein’s growing influence has also played an outsized role in the shifting power dynamics within the fashion world, in which nearly all factions of the industry are subsumed under fast fashion’s supply chain speed and social media algorithms.

“It’s incredibly dangerous. This isn’t just fast fashion, this is another category of disposability, and the relationship that it’s developing with young people is terrifying,” said Maxine Bédat, director of the New Standard Institute, a non-profit advocating for sustainability within the fashion industry. The show’s announcement, which took place a few days after a damning new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was “really just like a punch to the stomach,” she added.

The show and the incubator programme are just two parts of Shein’s larger image rehabilitation strategy, which has been ongoing over the past year to demonstrate a growing public consciousness within the industry.

Shein is casting a wide net in its efforts. This year it continued Shein Together, a virtual fundraising event launched last year in partnership with the United Nations to raise money for Covid-19 response. Along with SheinX, the brand has also started Shein Cares, a somewhat vague campaign to raise awareness for animal welfare, with the hashtag SheinCares garnering over 18.2 billion views on TikTok.

The backlash to the show proves that Shein’s reputation rehab will be an uphill battle, but still, it’s made progress. Freak City L.A., a brand participating in the competition, previously issued a public complaint to Shein for copying a design listed on its site. Now the brand is carried on Shein’s site, turning, as the company states in a press release, a “negative situation into a positive and lucrative partnership.”

Still, it’s uncertain if Shein has the ability to foster and promote talent in the long term. Reality TV design competitions rarely birth the next it designer. And for a site that churns out thousands of products daily — 47,177 on Monday of this week — it’s unclear how much promotion Shein will have to do to make its roster of designers stand out.

Until then, there are still a few more 18-minute episodes to see if the company has the ability to launch the next great American design brand.

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