Photography by Alexandra Gavillet
By Alyssa Coscarelli
As a fashion writer who scours e-commerce sites all day long, for work, I notice when things change in the market. And there’s a certain type of shopping site that started popping onto my radar a few years ago, and have only gained in numbers since. They’re full of trendy items at affordable prices, with showpieces that feel more left-of-center than your typical fast-fashion site’s fare. But there’s something about them that just feel off. Spend a few minutes actually clicking around, and you’ll be overcome with a feeling that maybe you shouldn’t be shopping there after all.
It’s pretty easy to identify the sites I’m talking about. The homepages look innocent enough, usually advertising current trends and flashing big sales and timely promotions. But when you click into the pages, things start to get weird — the photography is often inconsistent (Wait, isn’t that photo straight from ASOS?), and prices just feel berserk ($5.46 for a chunky knit sweater, or $7.51 for an A-line skirt look like typos). And, upon clicking these sites’ “About Us” pages, you’ll discover almost all of them are based in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Japan, founded sometime in the early 2000s, and they make sweeping promises in typo-ridden manifestos in English (for a particularly bizarre example, read Romwe’s page here).
If you’re a fellow online-shopping obsessive, you’ve probably landed on a few of these websites yourself and stopped to think before ordering: Wait, is this legit? Am I actually going to get what I paid for? Is this a scam? Can this dress really be $12? We’ve heard the horror stories, too, from friends who’ve dared place orders, only to never actually receive the product, get their credit card compromised, or have an item finally show up from Hong Kong two months later, in a comically petite size, and made with material that’s closer to Kleenex than cotton.
It’s worth noting that not all of these sites are created equal. Sure, there might be a sea of hilarious blog posts and enraged forums detailing horror stories from shopping destinations of this nature. But occasionally, I’ll spot a coworker wearing something rad and ask her where it’s from only to be told it was scored at one of these very sites. Every now and then there’s something so on-trend and affordable, it’s tempting just to risk it.
So, to save you the stress, I ordered one affordable party dress from five of the most prolific, enticing sites to see what they’re really about. Keep reading to see what happened when I took a protected company credit card, set up an e-mail address especially for the occasion, and ordered from YesStyle, ChicNova, SheIn, Front Row Shop, and Romwe.
Description: Promising “thousands of fashion and lifestyle items from brands across Asia,” YesStyle is based in Hong Kong and actually has a decent social media following. I had taken the plunge a while ago to order platform shoes from this site without any problems, but ordering apparel felt a lot more risky. At least it appears that all of their product imagery is their own, the price is right, and you can’t beat their variety — you can get a longline hoodie and then entire outfits to wear under it all in the same place.
Item ordered: MayFair - Jacquard Babydoll Dress with Qipao Collar, $19.12
What gave me pause: Though not stolen, their imagery is a surrealistic attempt at lifestyle photography, and many of the photos are off-puttingly low-budget. The images for the dress I ordered were mostly mirror selfies, which I’m not sure if YesStyle thinks is trendy or just more cost-effective than a legitimate shoot. I thought the voluminous silhouette of this dress could make it look expensive IRL, and who doesn’t love a dress with pockets? Still, ordering something direct from Hong Kong for a grand total of $32 was sure to come with its risks.
Ordering, shipping, and packaging: I received an e-mail confirmation that was flagged as spam, and then a shipping confirmation on the day after ordering. The dress arrived 15 days after I placed my order, in an unmarked plastic package with a return address in China.
Condition upon arrival: The dress looked similar enough to how it did on the site, but the fit was more oversized than pictured. The one review on the site agrees that the bottom is just “too poofy,” but hey, at least the site has reviews. The pockets were awkwardly front-facing, and the fabric felt stiff and cheap. It also had some stains on the back (ew), and the top button wouldn’t fit in its corresponding loop (I had three people try).
Overall rating: 3 out of 5. The package arrived in a timely manner, but the dress was dirty and had a faulty button and weird silhouette. But if clothes with questionable stains are your thing, shop away. Oh, and if you’re unhappy with your purchase, you can always e-mail the CEO (but don’t expect to get a response).
Description: ChicNova is also Hong Kong-based and updates its stock every week, so there’s never a shortage of affordable newness. There are so many pages in every category that you’re sure to find something tempting, and you can’t find lower prices on the internet.
Item ordered: Embroidered Lace Dress, $25.50
What gave me pause: First of all, ChicNova’s tagline is “Love Chic, Be Nova.” Secondly, the site is the queen of shady prices (like, $3.15 for a weekender bag), and strange sales (“12% off!”). One of its current pushes is “Shawl Lust” because, and I quote, “Exquisite shawls make you an eyes-catching [sic] lady!” and the prices are advertised as $4.81 and up.
Ordering, shipping, and packaging: Check-out was via Paypal, which was promising safety-wise since its system prevents your identity and credit card information from being stolen, and a shipping confirmation followed. The dress arrived about two weeks later in inconspicuous packaging. The bag within the shipping bag did have a ChicNova logo, which felt like a treat considering the previous dress came in clear packaging.
Condition upon arrival: This dress is pretty cute, not going to lie. However, the double-layer lace detail in the front didn’t line up like it did in the product photo. What killed it for me, though, was that the photo was clearly stolen from Pixie Market. I reached out to Pixie Market co-owner Gaelle Drevet to confirm this and ask if she was aware of the issue, to which she responded: “Yes, we are aware of this, and yes, this is our photo. ChicNova definitely don’t ask for permission, and we spend a lot of time and money in the styling and models for our exclusive products, so this is definitely a problem.”
Overall rating: 2 out of 5. The dress that arrived wasn’t terrible, but it was still different than what the site promised, and the fact that the site is stealing its imagery from other retailers is definitely not okay. For that reason alone, I won’t be ordering from here again.
Description: Though it doesn’t say on the site, reports say SheIn is in fact based in China. It’s got a lot of items that look like you could find them at J. Crew, Nasty Gal, or Bloomingdales, but for a fraction of the price. Still, the same sketchy aspects like too-cheap prices and mixed imagery ring true here.
Item ordered: Navy Workplace Short Sleeve With Bow Zipper Dress, $15.99
What gave me pause: A quick Google search for reviews of the site will turn up nothing but unfortunate experiences and two-star reviews, and the site’s imagery is a random mishmash of street style, product shots, and some that look stolen from everyone from blogger Sincerely Jules to Nasty Gal.
Ordering, shipping, and packaging: I received a shipping confirmation about 20 minutes after ordering, and the dress arrived only nine days later.
Condition upon arrival: No major complaints here aside from the crooked seam down the front middle of the skirt.
Overall rating: 3 out of 5. The dress arrived quickly and looked just like the photo, aside from a crooked seam that was barely noticeable if you weren’t looking for it. But, though I can’t find the original photo, the product shot’s quality and styling looks eerily like it could be one stolen from ASOS. I reached out to ASOS and the brand declined to comment.
Website: Front Row Shop
Description: This site’s got a definite cool-factor between the ugly-cute shoe selection and on-point styling, and by this point, it was comforting to see that it appears to shoot its own product photography. I’ve included this site in roundups here on R29 before, but hadn’t ordered from it myself.
Item ordered: Satin Dress With Knot, $48.60
What gave me pause: The prices aren’t as creepily cheap as some of the other sites we’ve mentioned, but still almost too-good-to-be-true affordable. It’s based in Shanghai and has the classic weird-sounding “About Us” page.
Ordering, shipping, and packaging: I paid via PayPal and received an order confirmation immediately, but the shipping confirmation was sent to spam. The order arrived two weeks later, and it actually had the nicest packaging of the bunch: a soft pouch with the Front Row Shop logo on it was inside the plastic bag, which was more than any of the other sites managed to offer. The outside plastic packaging had a label typed out mostly in Chinese.
Condition upon arrival: The dress was true to the photo, but the fabric had a noticeably different texture than it did in the site’s images — it had a cheaper, rougher feel than what claimed to be “smooth silky satin” on the website. Alas, it is 97% polyester, and feels like it, too.
Overall rating: 4 out of 5. I’d say it’s safe to order Front Row Shop’s trendy wares, but just be prepared for slight differences in fabric texture or details compared to the photos on the site.
Description: I first came across this site a few years back as a favorite of users on Lookbook.nu. Since so many bloggers seem to use it, you almost think it can’t be that bad, right? From lace-up-front blouses to cocoon coats, you can tackle all your fast-fashion trends in one place.
Item ordered: Spaghetti Strap Back Zipper Hollow Dress, $46.33
What gave me pause: Familiar story here — the aforementioned About page makes no sense whatsoever; the clothes are dirt cheap, and it appears to use product photos from other sites. I also recognized that this dress was a Self Portrait knockoff (using a photo likely stolen from ASOS).
Ordering, shipping, and packaging: I did receive an order confirmation, and the dress arrived in nine days in generic plastic packaging.
Condition upon arrival: Boy, was this one a letdown. I didn’t expect too much considering this is clearly a $50 knockoff, but just about everything felt off. The lace was cheap, lacked structure, and stuck out weirdly around the neckline. The lining was much pinker than the nude in the photo, and the overall shape of the dress was a lot more unflattering than the perfectly voluminous one pictured. The straps also differed from the image, and were wide and flat instead of the thin cord straps on the real deal. Overall, it was an ill-fitting poor attempt at ripping off a gorgeous lace original.
Overall rating: 1 out of 5. This order had the most striking difference from what was shown on the site. That and again using another retailer’s photo mean I won’t be bookmarking Romwe this time around.All in all, no — these five sites definitely aren’t conning you in order to steal your credit card information and leave you with nothing but a phony order confirmation. Despite the cheap plastic packaging and unattractive UX, the dresses all arrived within a few weeks, and none were completely off from what the site promised. But, don’t expect super nice quality, pretty packaging, or really any customer service, either — because when it comes to these sites, you only get what you paid for (which isn’t a lot).
Related: The Secret To The Perfect Plank
The fabrics feel and look cheaper than they do in the photos, and the details, like button closures, textures, and lace edges, will likely be a bit wonkier than the real deal. But if that’s a chance you’re willing to take, and you’re fine with getting a close approximation of what’s pictured, shop away with peace of mind that, yes, your item will eventually show up.
The shadiest part to me, though, is the intellectual property theft. Creating blatant knockoffs is one thing, but using product photography belonging to another retailer or brand (likely a photo of the item you’re knocking off) is a whole other level of sketchy. But, as some of these sites showed (Front Row Show, YesStyle), some of them do create their own products and produce original photography — even if their styles are “inspired by” some other better-knowns.
Keep in mind that I did only place one order of one item per site, so there’s definitely a chance I just got lucky this time around. Have you taken the risk and ordered from any of these kinds of sites? Tell us about your experience in the comments.