I bought my first pair of ripped-up, cutoff jeans at Forever 21 when I was 17 years old. My teenage body felt entirely foreign to me. But as I stared at my bare, ingrown-laden legs in the dressing room mirror, I felt the delicious ubiquity that comes with knowing you’re part of the party, dressed like everyone else.
Forever 21, which announced it would file for bankruptcy on Sunday night, gave women across the country a sense that they belonged, even if that feeling came with the price of serpentine checkout lines and sweaters that ripped after half a wearing.
I last shopped at Forever 21 around a year and a half ago. I don’t remember why, but I was in desperate need of yoga pants. As I wriggled into a pair, I heard the sounds of a couple a few dressing room doors down kissing and giggling. I closed my eyes and thought of Bloomingdales.
As news of Forever 21’s not entirely unexpected demise spread last night, there were predictable jokes made on Twitter regarding rushing to the mall for sales (30 to 50 percent off sitewide, if you’re interested).
But running GIFs aside, the news relayed some sad truths: as The New York Times reported, 178 stores will shutter in the United States alone. Over 30,000 people stand to lose their jobs.
Founded by Do Won Chang and Jin Sook Chang, a husband-and-wife team of South Korean immigrants who opened their first Los Angeles store in 1984, Forever 21 became a nearly mythic retailer to millennial women.
The store’s constantly-revolving stock of crop tops, skinny jeans, and various sparkly things allowed shoppers a chance to try out trends on the cheap. Sure, employees were gruff and nothing was standardized. You needed to be a true hunter-gatherer to find what you wanted. But that only added to Forever 21’s hate-to-love reputation.
Visiting a Forever 21 felt like an exercise in autonomy. You were on your own among a sea of $15 bodycon; one had to be a true crate digger to succeed. And when your haul of $5 goodies inexplicably ran up to $300 at the cash register, you had to exercise restraint while editing your bundle down to an appropriate price.
All of the complaints about Forever 21 rang true. The clothes didn’t last. The people who made them didn’t get paid. Artists alleged that the company ripped off their designs, and leaders at the company never quite learned that it’s not OK to sell “Navajo panties” or “Oriental girl necklaces” or put all-white models in “Straight Outta Compton” t-shirts.
Forever 21’s bounty of offenses has been the subject of too many listicles to link. Still, for customers who outfitted their youth in the franchise’s faux leather and striped rompers (so many rompers), walking into a Forever 21 felt like coming home. Not the comfortable, mom-just-made-a-pie home, but the real, messy, disorderly home where people leave their socks out on the couch and your uncle doesn’t believe in climate change.
The brand even famously blazoned “John 3:16” on every shopping bag, referencing the Bible verse. I have personally witnessed a tween use this tidbit to convince her nice Evangelical mother to let her buy one very un-Christian thong bodysuit.
Former suburban mall rats, such as myself, quite literally grew up at Forever 21. The brand’s large footprint in shopping centers explains our nostalgia, but it’s also the reason for Forever 21’s current situation.
“Forever 21 specifically challenged all the market’s previously conceived notions on how quickly and cheaply you could get your hands on a hot fashion trend,” Elizabeth Shobert, director of digital strategy for retail analytics company StyleSage, said. “Ten years ago, this matched how a large proportion of shoppers wanted to access fashion—cheaply—and importantly, by heading to the mall.”
But now, as malls and department stores resemble less bustling bazaars and more empty settings worthy of a slasher film, things have changed. Forever 21 does have an online presence, but the manic design looks completely unhinged.
“Forever 21 is just a mess in-store and overwhelming to shop,” Charcy Evers, a fashion and retail trend analyst, said. “Consumers are overwhelmed as it is, and brands need to offer a point of view, curation, and cut out the noise for them.”
Shobert believes that Forever 21 can get more “disciplined” when it comes to editing its mammoth collection of merchandise, and do more to “make sure both their online and in-store shopping experiences are more organized and less chaotic.”
“Gen Z wants shared values, and companies need to stand for something and be advocates,” Evers offered. “Forever 21 couldn’t be further from this.”
True, the brand often lacked a moral compass, but in its heyday it encouraged many women to express themselves. Even if the going-out top or see-through shirts only made it through one wear before falling apart, the clothes made for many memorable nights.