Alexis C. Madrigal, the Atlantic:
It all started with an Instagram ad for a coat, the West Louis (TM) Business-Man Windproof Long Coat to be specific. It looked like a decent camel coat, not fancy but fine. And I’d been looking for one just that color, so when the ad touting the coat popped up and the price was in the double-digits, I figured: hey, a deal!
The brand, West Louis, seemed like another one of the small clothing companies that has me tagged in the vast Facebook-advertising ecosystem as someone who likes buying clothes: Faherty, Birdwell Beach Britches, Life After Denim, some wool underwear brand that claims I only need two pairs per week, sundry bootmakers.
Several weeks later, the coat showed up in a black plastic bag emblazoned with the markings of China Post, that nation’s postal service. I tore it open and pulled out the coat. The material has the softness of a Las Vegas carpet and the rich sheen of a velour jumpsuit. The fabric is so synthetic, it could probably be refined into bunker fuel for a ship. It was, technically, the item I ordered, only shabbier than I expected in every aspect.
Madrigal’s a smart guy, so I’m not sure I buy the idea that he thought he could get anything better than H&M quality for H&M-like prices. But it’s pretty incredible to me that almost anyone with a few hours to spare every day could conceivably run a convincing-looking boutique online with no held inventory, no unique products of its own, and little risk. This sort of thing fascinates me — partly because I find fast fashion brands generally objectionable, but also because of how inventive it is. The scheme Madrigal describes is the product of relatively accessible technologies that simply weren’t available not that long ago.
Younger and more alert shoppers have already cottoned on to this scheme, though, and are bypassing the Shopify storefront to shop directly from AliExpress. In the haul video genre on YouTube, there are over half a million results for AliExpress shopping sprees. For comparison, there are a little over a million results for each “H&M haul” and “Zara haul”, and less than 200,000 results for each “Abercrombie haul”, “Hollister haul”, and “Lululemon haul”.