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Gen Z retailer SHEIN eyes 2022 U.S. IPO, in what may be the first big Chinese firm to list in the U.S. since last summer

January 25, 2022, 8:32 PM UTC

SHEIN, the fast fashion e-retailer based in China, is rekindling plans for an initial public offering in New York later this year, according to Reuters.

CEO Chris Xu, a Chinese citizen, is considering obtaining Singaporean citizenship in a bid to help smooth the IPO process, says the same report, which cites two people familiar with the matter. Last year, Chinese regulators enacted a series of stringent laws targeting homegrown firms listing overseas, citing national security.

In response, a company spokesperson told Fortune that SHEIN has no IPO plans in the works, and that neither Xu “nor other executives have applied for Singaporean citizenship.” The company hasn’t publicly filed any IPO paperwork.

Should SHEIN successfully debut a U.S. listing, it would be the first major Chinese firm to do so since last summer, when China began implementing tougher rules for listing abroad. But any IPO plans that the fast-growing company holds could still fall through given the tight scrutiny—from both Chinese and U.S. regulators—placed on China-based companies eyeing a New York listing.

Founded in 2008 by Xu—who started his entrepreneurial career selling wedding dresses—SHEIN changed its strategy around 2015 to target international shoppers. The plan worked: The e-retailer now ships to customers in 150 countries, with the U.S. its top market, followed by other western countries and the Middle East.

SHEIN pursued a few key strategies to make this business model succeed, starting with a big bet big on social media. Platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat became SHEIN’s principal portals for selling, and marketing to young consumers. It roped in celebrities and digital influencers online to shore up its brand and promote its trendy and budget-friendly clothes. Last year, Khloe Kardashian partnered with SHEIN for a fashion challenge supporting young designers while musicians like pop singer and country rapper Lil Nas X performed at a SHEIN virtual fashion show in 2020. In 2019, television star Madelaine Petsch, star of the Netflix T.V. show Riverdale, was the face of SHEIN in 2019.

Gen Z females and parents of children under 15 are the fast fashion retailer’s main customers, according to China-based market research and consulting firm Daxue Consulting. Shoppers and influencers on social media often post videos of their #sheinhauls, or clothes they ordered from SHEIN, and videos of outfits the retailer sells.

Still, in recent years, Shein has drawn fire for its low-quality clothing and has been criticized for copying designs from independent designers.

SHEIN doesn’t disclose its financials. But third-party estimates pegged the retailer’s 2020 annual revenue at $10 billion—on par with firms like music streaming provider Spotify and VF Corporation, the owner of brands like Vans, Timberland and The North Face. Reuters’ sources said sales in 2021 surged to nearly $16 billion.

In 2020, SHEIN’s estimated valuation was thought to be $15 billion, but the same sources said this figure had ballooned to $50 billion by early 2021.

SHEIN’s other core strategy is focusing on its fast-moving, in-house production and distribution centers worldwide. It sells via social media and has no brick-and-mortar shops (though it has launched a few temporary pop-up shops in cities like London and Los Angeles). In 2020, the company on average released over 10,000 new items monthly, and launched 150,000 new items that year, according to Daxue. The e-retailer has operations in Guangzhou, Singapore and Los Angeles, “along with other key global hubs,” SHEIN’s spokesperson said. And as Bloomberg found last year, SHEIN has been able to dodge export and import taxes for its shipments into the U.S.; the firm ships most orders from its China-based warehouses, and the packages (which are usually valued at $800 or less) can enter the U.S. duty-free due to Trump-era tariff exemptions.

Yet, SHEIN’s position as an online-only retailer could hamper any IPO plans it might have. Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida and IPO expert, says that “there is a good chance that a U.S. IPO will never happen for the company” given its digital business mode, which subjects it to tighter scrutiny from Chinese authorities. It may have been able to dodge some regulatory scrutiny if the bulk of its business wasn’t online, he says.

The Reuters report indicated that SHEIN has already tapped the Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan to work on the IPO.

Plus, the “fundamentals of the U.S.’ requirements and Chinese government policies haven’t changed” says Ritter, but have become more stringent since SHEIN first started planning for a U.S. IPO in 2020. Last July—mere days after ride-hailing firm Didi (akin to China’s Uber) pulled off a $4.4 billion New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) listing—Chinese regulators cracked down on the company, and other national firms looking to list overseas.

The Didi IPO ignited a series of strict new laws regulating Chinese firms’ overseas listings that require domestic firms to first obtain regulatory approval before starting any overseas listing process. Chinese authorities also introduced new, sweeping mandates on companies’ cybersecurity, data and antitrust practices, further straining firms seeking a U.S. listing. On Feb. 15, China’s cyberspace watchdog is set to implement one set of these rules which was proposed last summer, mandating Internet platforms with over 1 million users apply for—and pass—a network and national security review with regulators before even thinking about an IPO abroad.

Meanwhile in Washington, U.S. regulators are pursuing a more hawkish stance towards Chinese listings in the country. In December, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, led by chairman Gary Gensler, finalized a rule that will allow it to delist firms that don’t satisfy regulators’ request for information and audit inspections. Many experts predict that by 2024, the majority of Chinese companies will be delisted from U.S. exchanges, and choose to list in Hong Kong or on mainland bourses.

Didi for its part, announced last month that it was moving to delist from the NYSE, and will relist in Hong Kong.

Even if Xu, or another company executive, obtains Singaporean citizenship, listing rules for SHEIN applies to the company and “not the citizenship of a given executive or shareholder,” particularly if most of the business is in China, says Ritter. And even if the company meets the requirements of the proposed rules, Chinese government officials “can still create problems” for the firm if the authorities so desire, he says.

As a result of these rules from China and the U.S., Ritter doesn’t envision many Chinese firms listing in the U.S. this year. After the Didi debacle least summer, experts told Fortune that the golden era of Chinese firms debuting in New York has likely come to an end.

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