For years, Forever 21 was the name most associated with fast fashion; its rise to notoriety in the early ’00s for offering absurdly cheap, designer-inspired clothing that could accelerate trends in mere days coincided with — and some might even argue, even helped usher in — the rise of fast fashion in the United States.
“When Forever 21 came on the scene in the early 2000s, it was a time when fashion as a concept was really different,” Christina Moon, an assistant professor of fashion studies and anthropology at Parsons New School for Design, told TIME. “Fashion was something that was really exclusive. There wasn’t online shopping. You had to go physically to the mall…[the offerings] were very basic, not very runway-driven. They were one of the first companies who could take what you see on the runways and create an affordable version.”
With Forever 21, style-conscious clothing was not only affordable (customers could easily pick up a shirt for $10 or less, while most everything in the store retailed at under $50), but available immediately. The rise of Internet culture in the ’00s helped fuel the demand for trendy, affordable clothing, Moon noted, pointing out that the influx of information made knowledge that one could formerly “only read in Vogue” into something everyone could access.
Designer or high fashion has historically only been available to rich (and usually white) consumers, while more affordable options were more functional than style-conscious, with trends trickling down at a much slower rate. The speed of the trend factored in Forever 21’s success too; as opposed to the traditional fashion lead time, or production cycle, where samples were shown 3-6 months before being available to buy and wear, Forever 21 made it possible for nearly anyone, from students to low-income families, to participate in the trends of the moment in real time. Suffice it to say, fast fashion’s allure lies mainly with the idea of accessibility.
In an interview with The New York Times, Linda Chang, Forever 21’s executive vice president and the daughter of founders Do Won and Jin Sook Chang, said that a large part of the company’s clientele are minorities and that customer studies suggest that many of Forever 21 shoppers are between the ages of 25 and 40.
The origin story of Forever 21 speaks poignantly to the democratization of fashion that the chain offers; the Changs founded the company after immigrating from South Korea to California. While working as a gas station attendant (one of three jobs he had to make ends meet), Do Won decided to go into retail, which led to the creation of Fashion 21 in the ’80s, which would later become Forever 21, the American dream for the sartorial set.
However, this democratization of fashion also came with high costs; the Los Angeles Times reported in 2017 that Forever 21’s dirt-cheap prices were made possible by factory workers in “sweatshop-like conditions;” one worker reportedly earned $6 an hour (far below minimum wage) according to one of hundreds of wage claims filed to the state’s labor department.
The chain’s close and frequent imitation of pieces and details of distinct designers and brands also took its toll on the company, with numerous “knockoff” lawsuits throughout the years about copyright and trademark infringement served to them by everyone from Ariana Grande this summer to Gucci in past years.
Forever 21 is far from the only fashion line to come under fire for its practices. European clothing giants Zara and H&M have been called out on multiple occasions for knocking off other brands’ designs and for concerning worker treatment (Zara’s alleged employee mistreatment infamously led unpaid workers to sew notes for help into the store’s clothing). Meanwhile, direct-to-consumer behemoth Fashion Nova consistently reproduces designer dresses under different names and with far cheaper materials in mere days after they’re spotted on the runways, or in the majority of cases, after a Kardashian-Jenner wears them.
Additionally, the rapid production of cheap, easily disposable clothes has called into question the negative environmental impact of fast fashion. These concerns were less at the forefront of consumers’ minds in the ’00s when the chain was at its peak success, a time that points to the over-confidence that led Forever 21 to later expand from having stores in seven to 47 countries in less than six years, all while technology — and with it, online shopping — was gaining momentum.
Not everyone is swayed by ultra-cheap prices for fresh-off-the-runway trends, however. As climate change has become a more widely shared concern, sustainability has become a focal — and selling — point for many fashion brands, both high and low. And while the attention to sustainability might be profit-motivated, more conscience shoppers, even if newly “woke,” is ultimately a good thing.
“Right now, we’re witnessing a shift in the way that we are behaving towards consumption,” sustainability advocate and The Slow Factory CEO Celine Semaan told TIME. “Because of the climate crisis being brought into the mainstream, I really think concerned citizens are not shopping the way that they used to…our direct relationship to consumption has shifted and changed.”
Semaan pointed out that contemporary consumers, especially younger ones, have a heightened awareness of the impact that their clothing shopping habits can have on both the environment and human rights, with many opting for more circular and sustainable forms of getting their fashion fix: buying vintage or sustainable brands, swapping and repairing items, or the best case scenario: just using less.
However, Moon argues that Forever 21’s bankruptcy woes aren’t necessarily the end of fast fashion, but instead a pivot to a different mode, pointing to the popularity of hip online retailers like Everlane and ASOS or the competitively Forever 21-priced and Instagram model-promoted Fashion Nova.
Fashion Nova opts to essentially replicate the Forever 21 formula: ultra-trendy clothes at ultra-low prices with questionable production practices, banking on consumers that value easy accessibility. The difference, however, lies in Fashion Nova’s savvy investment in its presence and merchandise online (one only needs to look at how it’s tapped social media influencers and celebrities to promote the brand to widespread success) instead of brick and mortars, which Forever 21 had banked on, like many other traditional retail stores in the now-dying mallscape.
“Even though we have the information of how things are being made, most of us still don’t care,” she said. “In some ways, as long as fast fashion is being created by these companies and still being sold in the amount and scale that they’re being produced, there’s always going to be someone who buys it…all these words, ‘sustainability,’ ‘transparency,’ ethical production,’ these new labels are marketing a new style and there are people who are ready to consume that new style, which places the blame on the consumer.”
Moon also stresses that when considering Forever 21 and the new wave of fast fashion, we should look at the situation with different reframing — one that complicates consumption in the contexts of class and power.
“Fast fashion is interesting to track and watch because inevitably, we’re trying to figure out the global supply chain of things and the ways in which technology and the tangible infrastructure from labor and the environment allow for this stuff to get made,” Moon said. “To study fashion is to study the global economy.”