Shein’s CEO is so low-profile that even his own employees don’t recognize him

In America, where we tend to celebrate successful individuals who turn ideas into multi-million-dollar companies, it’s a little odd to think of a CEO—especially one heading a company as colossal as Shein—going unrecognized by his own employees. 

And yet, that’s apparently the case for Shein’s 40-year-old CEO Xu Yangtian, also known as Chris Xu or Sky Xu, who has largely avoided the public eye including interviews and conferences—but the secrecy around him is being seen as unusual even in China.  

Shein has never published any photos of Xu, South China Morning Post reported, even as the firm records year after year of skyrocketing sales in the billions and besting rivals like H&M and Zara. Despite Shein’s rise to prominence, its CEO has largely remained in the shadows. That could change as the company continues working towards its highly anticipated debut as a public company. 

A number of things help explain the CEO’s reclusive tendencies. Xu, as described by South China Morning Post, is a “wiry, bespectacled,” and humble man who “often goes unnoticed by staff in the office.” According to several people who worked with Xu, the publication stated, the Chinese billionaire chooses to avoid a national spotlight because of his personality—and to minimize any inadvertent scrutiny Shein could face if there were more attention on him.

Reality TV star Natalia Zoppa attends the launch of the SHEIN pop-up store at Liverpool One on April 18, 2024 in Liverpool, England.
Reality TV star Natalia Zoppa attends the launch of the SHEIN pop-up store at Liverpool One on April 18, 2024 in Liverpool, England.

Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

Shein is headquartered in Singapore but was founded in China—and Chinese CEOs face different kinds of pressures from the Chinese government. They often take measures to minimize attention from government party officials, who can exert substantial control over their companies and personal lives. More than a dozen top Chinese business billionaires, including Alibaba founder Jack Ma, have vanished or disappeared in recent years in connection with Beijing’s crackdown on uprooting corruption in the economy. 

All things considered, though, Xu’s air of mystery is still unusual. No verified photos of him exist, and his company photo is simply a basic landscape marked with the phrase, “if you have dreams, you are remarkable,” according to the South China Morning Post. He has never made any public speeches or released videos to his customer base on social media, either. 

Shein, now the largest and fastest-growing apparel company in the world, is reportedly about to file a prospectus with Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority, one of the first steps it needs to get approved to launch its initial public offering (IPO) of shares, which is valued at about $63 billion on the London Stock Exchange.

Once it becomes a public company, Shein would have to forgo many liberties it once took while private. Publicly traded companies, for example, are subject to disclosure requirements—such as filing quarterly and annual financial reports and flagging important company moves by senior executives, like stock trading, selling assets, or considering acquisitions—and are often required to answer to shareholders. 

Shein first sought to go public in the U.S. last November, and filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) confidentially, which is a common practice by companies meant to avoid disclosing sensitive data. The SEC informed Shein its application would not be accepted unless it was filed publicly. 

The Catch-22 to a public filing, as Shein may be realizing, is that it also comes with more public scrutiny—and the company has not been without its bad press. 

In 2022, a Bloomberg investigation said the retailer was sourcing its cotton from China’s Xinjiang province, even despite growing evidence that agricultural products from the region depend on forced labor by the region’s persecuted Uyghur population. In 2021, the U.S. passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which barred any products from Xinjiang from entry into the U.S., based on a presumption that such products rely on forced labor. Shein, however, was able to slip through a loophole in that act: Shein ships its products directly to customers, bypassing the large shipment warehouses that the America’s Customs and Border Patrol inspect, and are therefore not subject to inspections under the act. 

Rather than re-applying publicly in the U.S, the fast-fashion company now reportedly plans to file its IPO in the U.K., where it may face different challenges from the country’s Labour Party, which largely focuses on workers’ rights and is widely expected to win elections.  

An investigation from Public Eye, a Swiss-based human rights violations watchdog, found Shein workers clocked in 75-hour work weeks, and other reports allege company violations like forced labor, stealing other designers’ work, and using potentially hazardous materials in clothing.

Shein did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment. 

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