Here’s a statistic that surprised even me, a follower of fashion and retail trends: The most downloaded shopping app in the U.S. in May 2021 was not Amazon. It was Shein, an online-only retailer of cheap fast fashion for women and men (plus beauty products, plus home products) founded in 2008 in Nanjing, China, by Chris Xu, a search-engine-optimization specialist with no previous experience in fashion or retail.
Today, Shein (often styled as SHEIN) is a “quindecacorn”*—its gross merchandise volume is worth US$15 billion—and it’s forecast to surpass $20 billion in volume by the end of 2021. The word “juggernaut” comes up frequently in coverage of the company, which has achieved its numbers by targeting the mostly female tween, teen, and early-20s members of Generation Z who can’t resist buying tops and dresses for as little as $5 (and posting about their “hauls” on social media) and who eagerly anticipate Shein’s monthly roster of designer collaborations.
Still from a Shein “haul video” posted in December 2020 by Instagrammer Fabienne Pelaud, who struggles with the pronunciation of “Shein.”
A couple more stats from “Taking Stock With Teens,” a recent survey by the investment company Piper Sandler:
- “52% of teens cite Amazon as their No. 1 favorite e-com site (down 200 bps Y/Y [basis points year over year] ; SHEIN took No. 2 spot (9% share, +400bps Y/Y”
- “Crocs, PacSun, Hey Dude, Zara, SHEIN, Gymshark are all fashion brands gaining share”
But I am not here to discuss Shein’s business model, which conflates shopping with social media to produce something called “social commerce.”** Nor will I get into the questionable ethics and environmental impact of fast fashion in general.
No, I’m here to talk about the Shein name.
When I first noticed Shein, more than a year ago, I assumed the name was pronounced Shine, and I thought it was a “30 Rock” joke, because who doesn’t remember the Sheinhardt Wig Company, which either owned GE or was owned by GE?***
But nein, mein freund: the Shein name doesn’t have a Teutonic pronunciation. It’s pronounced SHE-IN, a truncation of the company’s original name, SheInside.
It took seven years for SheInside to become Shein. A June 2015 press release, written in shaky English, purported to explain the renaming while in fact doing nothing of the sort:
“By altering our brand name into SheIn, we aim to at utmost provide our customer with better user experience. And we have strong confidence to transfer the large proportion of equity in the original brand name as well as marketplace and consolidated consumer loyalty and brand awareness,” says Chris Xu, the CEO of SheIn.
(Note the camelcase capitalization, which seems to have been dropped later on, in favor of the all-caps styling.)
Making pronunciation matters even fuzzier, there’s the Shein slogan. From the press release again:
Before changing the brand name, Sheinside held a worldwide slogan competition and after half a month voting and selecting, the winning slogan emerged. “She In, Shine Out” is exactly the embodiment of SheIn. This wide-range of activity has sparked heated participation and it is also regarded as warm up of brand name changing. Compared to the prior brand name, SheIn is easily recognized and remembered. It also fits in with the company’s corporate culture. “She wants in your heart rather than just to be by your side.”
Is “She In, Shine Out” a truly terrible slogan or just a cryptic one? Maybe it makes sense in its Chinese translation; it’s baffling in English.
The Shein name stands in stubborn, triumphant opposition to the good-naming principles I strive to practice. It embeds the feminine pronoun, but the company also sells merchandise for men. It points to internality, but the company is all about exteriors. And it’s hard to pronounce.
Encountering a staggeringly successful company (like Shein) with a bad name (like Shein) is a humbling experience for someone like me. After all, I’ve spent decades developing the skills I thought were required to create pronounceable, memorable, appropriate, and euphonious brand names. Shein dispenses with all that in favor of SEO, algorithms, and brute marketing muscle.
Shine on, you crazy juggernaut.
* If a unicorn company is worth one billion dollars, and a decacorn is worth ten billion…
** I will, however, share this jaw-dropping snippet from an October 3, 2021, story about Shein in The Economist: “Whereas Zara launches about 10,000 new products a year, Shein releases 6,000 new “stock-keeping units” (which includes old designs in new colours) every day. Though some of these are quickly discontinued, its permanent virtual wardrobe already numbers 600,000 individual items.” (Emphasis added.) And for more on how Shein fits into the global fast-fashion universe, read Terry Nguyen’s August 10, 2021, story for Vox.
*** You can buy Sheinhardt tchotchkes on Etsy and elsewhere.