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.
Since 2017, more than 20 US retailers including bigwigs like Toys ‘R’ Us have filed for bankruptcy.
For aspirational messy adults, Forever 21’s pitch was irresistible. But as we grew up, the brand refused to change.
Forever21 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 Forever21 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 Forever21 to forget.
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.
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.