Forever 21 - The Collapse of a Fast Fashion Empire
As a 14-year-old, there was one store where all my friends bought their clothes. Two floors filled with dresses, ripped jeans, skirts, and colourful scrunchies – and always packed with people. It took twenty minutes to reach the front of the billing queue on a good day, and the fitting rooms were almost always completely full. Fast forward four years, and I can’t remember the last time I went there, it’s almost completely empty when I see it, and it’s a single-storey retailer in the basement of a mall. So, what happened?
You’ve all heard of Forever 21 - global fashion retailer, leading fast fashion brand, always on trend. You’ve also probably heard that it filed for bankruptcy in 2019, which is puzzling because well - who wouldn’t want to be on trend?
Today, we look into the curious case of Forever 21, and how it fell from a multi-billion dollar company to a series of bad fashion jokes on Twitter.
The first thing to know - what is fast fashion?
As consumerism has become more rampant, we’ve become more and more desperate to constantly keep up with the flood of trends; however, that comes at the cost of our wallets. Fast fashion, however, eliminates this concern. It’s the cheap, trendy clothing that’s filling your closet, with new styles entering the market every week.
In 1981, South Korean immigrants Jin Sook and Do Won Chang moved to Los Angeles, working low paying jobs and struggling to make ends meet, until they saved up to open a clothing store called Fashion 21, buying merchandise from manufactures at a discount and therefore giving people an incentive to buy their inexpensive clothes. In the first year itself, they made $700,000. Soon, they began expanding across the nation, opening a new store very 6 months, and changed the name to the one we know today - Forever 21.
The brand revolved around selling trendy clothes at low prices - a business model Forever 21 was one of the pioneers of.
They began raking in money, and in 2015, peaked with $4.4 billion in sales. The Changs net worth boomed to $5.9 billion, making them one of Americas richest couples.
And then, however, came the fall.
Changing Tastes of Consumers
Forever 21 was once popular for its constant change in styles and uniqueness, selling every style for a very limited time. Now however, it became synonymous with tacky clothes and poor quality, losing touch with its consumers. At the same time, brands like H&M and Zara grew, keeping up with tastes and giving a high-end feel to their products. Their clothes soon become generic, uninspired and bland, while their competitors made efforts to make their items stand out. Forever 21 soon became a joke in the fashion world.
Too Many Stores in an Age of E-Commerce
In an age of expansion of online retail, Forever 2 remained determined to open more physical stores. In fact, it not only opened new stores but expanded already existing ones into multi-storey shops. In a time when the youth was shifting to online shopping, Forever 21 seemed to stay stuck in its ways. In an age when brands were cutting down on physical space, they did the opposite.
The online retail business began exploding, and brands like Fashion Nova, SHEIN, and ASOS became more and more popular. In 2018, in fact, Forever 21’s sales dropped by almost 25%.
Following its success in the United States, the brand had begun to expand into international markets - China, Japan, Brazil, India, and so on. Here, however, it failed to understand the markets and tastes it was supposed to cater to, leading to it hemorrhaging money in these regions. Its national sales weren’t able to compensate for these losses, pushing the company down further.
Failure to Move Towards Sustainability
When we think fast fashion, the very first name we think of is Forever 21 - and that is because they made no effort to change the fact.
Fast fashion may be trendy and cheap but the hidden cost is far greater - a horrific environmental impact and inhumane working conditions. A UN report revealed that 20% of the worlds water waste and 10% of its carbon emissions are a result of fast fashion.
Moreover, sweatshop workers work for less than minimum wage, in unsafe, hazardous conditions.
As the world has become aware of the impact fast fashion left on the world, it is slowly moving towards sustainability, sustainable fashion and minimalist wardrobes.
However, Forever 21’s efforts to move towards more sustainable production remained minimal, and the youth, more attentive than ever about sustainability efforts, noticed. While brands like H&M and Zara, though still incredibly detrimental, made small efforts towards this goal, Forever 21 remained silent, and so, lost more and more consumers.
The fall of this global brand shows us what happens when a brand does not adapt with a changing industry, just as Forever 21 failed to do. It also points towards a hopeful, anti-consumerist future, where fast fashion brands are either forced to change their unsustainable ways or replaced with more sustainable options.
Its worth noting that Forever 21 has filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy which wouldn’t necessarily lead to the death of Forever 21, at least not yet. It's like a reset button for a corporate to reorganize their businesses, giving them a lifeline.
They say nothing lasts forever but let's see if that ends up being a case with Forever 21.
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Written by Tishya Doraiswamy
Content Writer @ Skyshot Media