Growing Up In The Forever 21 Generation
For aspirational messy adults, Forever 21’s pitch was irresistible. But as we grew up, the brand refused to change.
When I turned 16, I became a mall rat. With a new driver’s license, twice-monthly paychecks I earned from a job at a fast food restaurant, and a fledging sense of independence and need for self-expression, it became a weekly ritual to make the twenty-minute drive to the Mall of America. Forever 21 was always my first stop.
They had going-out tops and ostentatious dresses, and provocative jeans that made my heart race with fear and curiosity. There were so many things I wanted to sample — so many personas I wanted to try on for size — that I developed a system with the fitting room attendees so I could bring in more items than customers were allotted. Downstairs from the main store was an accessories-only Forever 21. Walls of jewelry reached up towards the ceilings, so intensely refracting the furious overhead lighting that it must have looked like if Times Square was built on the sun. Once purchased and taken home, the pieces would inevitably look dingy and cheap, but those bib necklaces and chandelier earrings still made my outfits sing and left my earlobes throbbing.
Forever 21 was a place where the logic of normal life didn’t apply. There, I could buy jeans for less than $10 and clutches of jewelry for the price of a coffee. New trends from the fashion shows I had just seen published online would magically show up at Forever 21 stores just a few weeks later. The places I had shopped at — Marshalls, Old Navy, and thrift stores — couldn’t compare to Forever 21’s prices or relevance. I’d usually leave the Mall with that tell-tale plastic yellow bag, filled with merchandise that cost so little, I started to divorce the association I had between shopping and guilt. My immigrant parents had spent a decade teaching me that impulse shopping was irresponsible. It took one trip to Forever 21 to forget.
And the name — Forever 21 — said everything. It was for aspirational messy adults who were still young enough to consider legal binge drinking an unspeakably glamorous pastime. We were a generation of girls who had issues of Cosmopolitan in our car backseats and outrageous push-up bras in our dressers that we still had to hide from our parents. Those aforementioned going-out tops were mostly theoretical, and yet we all owned one that we’d try on in secret on the weekends, dreaming of a future when a stranger’s attention would no longer be terrifying and perverted, but validating instead. We’d be 21 one day. Who couldn’t imagine not wanting to be that age forever.
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Forever 21 would be filing for bankruptcy. After years of explosive growth, Forever 21 would be shutting down many of its international operations, and shuttering 178 stores in the United States. It may close over half of its 600 stores worldwide. “This does NOT mean we are going out of business,” reads an open letter that Forever 21 posted on its website. “Filing for bankruptcy protection is a deliberate and decisive step to put us on a successful track for the future.” Forever 21 did not return requests for comment.
Nevertheless, bankruptcy is an acknowledgment that Forever 21’s past — and my past, to an extent — is not retail’s future. In the time since I first began shopping at Forever 21, the company has stubbornly maintained its juvenile approach to everything it does, including the carelessness and improper efficiencies that come along with it. While other fast-fashion brands understood that transparency, sustainability, and good ethics are paramount to holding onto an adulting consumer base (and attracting the arguably more moralistic Gen Z), Forever 21 has not committed to any such thing. Their sustainability initiative are paltry and inconsequential. There is no publicly accessible information about its factories and their working conditions. The brand continues to engage in blatant knockoffs of both big and small designers, and has been the target of some prominent lawsuits (recently, Ariana Grande sued Forever 21 for using her likeness to sell clothing). Unlike the celebrity-CEOs of buzzy brands today, Forever 21 owners do not give interviews, are not on social media, and — aside from the oft-told origin story of its Korean founders who found fortune in Los Angeles through faith, capitalism, and an immigrant work ethic — do not court press.
As the brand scaled, it continued to place all its eggs in one basket, its only appeal: It was so cheap and so on-trend that you could afford to ignore the rest. Documented and supported charges against the brand range from obscenely low wages to inhumane working conditions that allegedly include child and slave labor.
What Forever 21 promised to a 16-year-old me was meaningful: It was a chance to take complete ownership of my presentation without relying on anyone else. For the poor and disenfranchised, that was a lot. I remember that I once received a gift card to Forever 21 for $50 that I didn’t need, and offered it to my sister, who, at the time, was earning below minimum wage as an anti-sweatshop labor organizer. My sister has always had an iron moral compass, and will always shoulder discomfort and pain to alleviate someone else’s burden. But rent was due, and she hadn’t bought new clothes in a year. She eagerly took the card.
She told me that, in her work, she had come to realize that individual consumer responsibility can never match government and corporate regulations. It’s why she preferred to organize protests in front of company headquarters, and not its stores. Asking individual consumers to inconvenience themselves in order to punish companies is not a fair strategy, especially when the consumer base already has the most to lose from simple sacrifices. In a statement given to the NYT, Forever 21 acknowledged that a large part of their consumer base are minorities.
That conversation with my sister was a lesson among many that helped me grow up. It helped me understand that to be an adult is to know that every convenience comes with strings attached. The more attractive the convenience — and the more that convenience feels like a relief or deliverance — the more likely that what’s attached to the other side of the string is unjust and disturbing.
It’s true that Forever 21 has miscalculated when it came to how we shop in 2019. Closing down brick-and-mortar stores to offset the changes in mall foot traffic is long overdue. But necessary cultural changes will also be fundamental to the brand’s future success. I don’t know many women who want to be as naive and reckless as they were when they were 21 for the rest of their lives. And, these days, 16-year-olds seem more rightfully preoccupied with living long lives, if the planet — and those who control it — let them.
If Forever 21 wants to join us, and grow up, it’ll have to reckon with what’s on the other end of those strings.