By Alyssa Hardy
Forever21’s prevalence in the world of quick and cheap fashion is hard to overstate. Considered by many as the ultimate marker of when a trend has reached the masses, the brand’s heavy mall presence and low average price point made it as well known as any other label; Kanye West even name-dropped it in a lyric. Even so, the brand’s days may be numbered, but that might not signal a shift for the better.
In late August, Bloomberg reported that the fast-fashion retailer was considering a bankruptcy filing to manage its longstanding debts. (At publish time, the brand has yet to officially file, or comment on reports; Forever21 did not return a request for comment made by MTV News.) Some critics on social media took the bankruptcy rumors as an indicator that the era of fast fashion may be finally ending as consumers move toward sustainability.
The reality is likely more complicated than that, especially given that a 2019 survey by Piper Jaffray found that Forever21 is still among the top places that young people like to shop. Yet between the rapid expansion to 723 stores worldwide, dozens of lawsuits over alleged copyright infringement, as well as privacy violations and rightful criticism about their contributions to waste problems in the industry, a change felt inevitable. It was just a matter of when.
At its inception, Forever21 was a younger, cooler brand that other labels first scoffed at, but ultimately feared. They could make the same trends seen on the runways, but faster, cheaper and certainly more accessible, the cost of which was often felt by sweatshop workers rather than consumers. The brand’s design model wasn’t an outlier in the space, either: Other fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara, both of which have also seen a significant downturn in sales this year, worked to claim a space that quickly changed the landscape of fashion. The mall was at its height and brands were on a mission to serve teenagers looking for the next trendy thing they could actually afford.
Then Instagram happened. Brands like Nasty Gal and FashionNova suddenly offered the same trend-driven products, but prioritized their digital and social footprint; in the process, they grew their customer bases through the platform. Other retailers like Amazon offer a wide variety of products, often at dirt-cheap prices. Best of all, any digital-first property primarily did so without brick and mortar presence, thus cutting down on their overhead. And with the advent of two-day shipping, many shoppers began to view the mall as obsolete, thus making stores a higher and higher gamble.
“Retailers are facing dramatic shifts these days. Those that have a model that utilizes too much space, stores that are bigger than needed and require more rent and even merchandise, creates an obsolete formula,” Marshal Cohen, Chief Industry Advisor at retail analytics firm the NPD Group tells MTV News. “Combine with the ability for competitors to play in a similar arena as fast-fashion retailers and sell fashion products at a great price, and that too breaks the fast fashion model.”
But while competition and threats of lawsuits — just this week Ariana Grande announced she would be suing the company for using her likeness — are enough to make a company shutter, that’s not the only problem Forever21 seems to be having. The younger demographic, particularly the ones they are targeting, don’t seem to be interested in the brand the way the generation before them was.
“I honestly only shop at Forever 21 if I am looking to waste time,” Marissa, a 19-year-old student at Cornell University told MTV News. “When I want to go shopping, the store is not my first choice because I have to search for something I like. Almost everything seems cute at first glance, but awkward when you take a closer look.”
Marissa also noted that Forever21’s sizing “feels off” across its offerings, which is a problem many of these quick-to-market brands have faced over the years. Vanity sizing, where a brand purposefully marks an item smaller than it actually is to encourage a customer to purchase, is one issue; another is a concerted lack of standard for sizing, which allows brands to cut corners by sewing and cutting items in bulk. And in an era when labels like Aerie earn major industry writeups and customer kudos for baking body diversity into their brand ethos, failing to account for shoppers' emotions in fitting rooms can be a death knell.
Other students felt that the company’s once super on-trend styles haven’t kept up with the times. “Being away at college, I could no longer ensure the quality of items being shipped to me,” 21-year-old Cameron told MTV News. “The price isn't worth it if what you buy is only good for one wear.” Instead, she shops at Fashion Nova. “It caters more to curvy women, and their return policy is easier,” she added, noting that their options are still within the same price point as Forever 21.
She’s not alone in simply taking her business towards other fast-fashion retailers. “I normally opt for stores like Target, Pacsun, American Eagle in malls, or online stores such as Zaful,” Marissa explains, nodding to a company that has been accused of selling counterfeit clothing at a steep discount from the original — the furthest logical conclusion of fast fashion ware.
But while some shoppers are simply looking to other companies with similar turnaround models, many customers have become more aware of the societal and environmental impact that fashion leaves in its wake. For its part, Forever21’s website cites sustainability efforts in the form of recycling programs for used clothing as well as recyclable packaging, but the fact remains that the amount of clothing being made with wasteful and harmful materials is still a major problem.
According to the New York Times, the fashion industry is one of the largest polluters of clean water, and three-fifths of apparel ends up in landfills, within a year of being produced. Given both its price point and the quality of its wares, many Forever21 pieces seem primed for a quick life inside your closet. Plus, with the rise of reselling sites like Depop and Poshmark, people are finding more sustainable ways to purchase clothing that lasts longer for less.
“I used to frequent Forever 21 because it was cheap and I wanted to follow fashion trends. But in college, I took a class on environmentalism and sociology, where we talked about human rights and the environmental impact of fast fashion,” 22-year-old Molly told MTV News. What she learned flipped a switch for her, and now she tries to shop in a way that is both sustainable and affordable: She shops second-hand. “My friend showed me how easy it was to thrift, and I developed a new personal style that focused less on trends but on basics that don’t go out of style,” she added.
While Forever21’s future may not be the best indicator of the shift in fast fashion at large, it does highlight a shift in how young customers shop overall. Young people may still want affordable, trendy pieces — but just like its clothing, perhaps the Forever21 model wasn’t made to last.