The gospel according to Forever 21

Susan Scafidi in The Guardian, July 17, 2011

Media Source

by Eva Wiseman

The Observer, Sunday 17 July 2011

Forever 21 shoppers are young, grabby and fast, zooming through the Beverly Hills store on heels, their fingers ripping clothes from racks like birds swooping for fish. This is the American fashion chain run as a family business, the chain that, thanks to its "pile very high, sell very cheap" operation, has been a phenomenal success, with profits (in 2008) of $135m despite the fact that nothing it sells costs more than $65. This is the chain whose founder, Do Won "Don" Chang, is worth $1bn; the chain that, having conquered America and the Far East, is this month finally coming to London.

"Florals, Festivals and Feminine," says 29-year-old marketing manager Linda Chang, the public face of the notoriously private family, pointing out trends as she strides among the bulging rails of playsuits and denim; her Chanel bag clangs against her Balmain-clad arm and Forever 21 jeans. There are fringed vests and one-shoulder dresses and slogan T-shirts, all under $20. "But it's not about prices. It's not a gimmick for us," says Linda. "It's about value."

Stretching over 45,000sqft, the Beverly Hills store feels vast and church-like, calm but for the customers, who rarely look at price tags before snatching down a dress, and who all emerge with swollen plastic bags. Standing outside, in the air-conditioned mall, they sigh. On YouTube, teenage girls upload their Forever 21 "hauls" – spandex tunics, jumpsuits, cocktail rings held too close to the camera; one of the most popular videos has had almost 2m views. Few bargain brands inspire such a following. And it's a brand that started humbly.

Don Chang and his wife Jin Sook (now the company's buyer) emigrated to California from South Korea in 1981, when he was 18. While working in an LA petrol station he noticed the most expensive cars were driven by fashion retailers. Three years later, blocks away from the one-bedroom flat where he eventually brought up his two daughters, Linda and Esther (now their creative director), Chang opened his first shop. "I feel truly blessed by Forever 21's success," he says today. "Forever 21 is my American Dream." While the business grew, with sales climbing from $35,000 to $700,000 in the first year, 11 stores opening within five years and a further 440 opening across the world to date, this shop, a half-hour drive (but a million dollars away) from the Beverly Hills store, remains the same. Where the Beverly Hills store is white and soaring, the Koreatown shop is dim-lit and jumbled. While still a working shop, it seems to exist as a museum for the brand, a period piece, a reminder of quite how far the family has come. The air-conditioning unit over the doors pumps through a steady smell of sweat; the carpet, once beige, is a mottled charcoal. Linda meets me by the counter. She recalls her dad giving her the tagging gun on Christmas weekend, when she was two, her job being to price up garments while he worked the counter. She giggles at the memory. And I ask, gently, why they don't clean the carpet. "It's almost historical," she says, sweeping it with her toe. "We want to keep the integrity."

The brand's integrity has been tested regularly, with various lawsuits seemingly being settled quietly out of court. In 2001 factory workers supplying Forever 21 called for a boycott until working conditions improved – an Emmy award-winning film, Made in LA, documented the protests. In 2007 Diane von Furstenberg filed a lawsuit against them for duplicating her designs, as did Gwen Stefani, Anna Sui and around 40 other labels, though for the record the family has never been found liable for copyright infringement. The company says its buyers simply trust their vendors not to copy other labels' designs. "I have in the past overly trusted people and was, in turn, let down by some," Mr Chang tells me in an early-morning email. "Since then I have learned the difference between putting faith into people and blindly trusting them."

"Their design is swathed in mystery," said professor of copyright law Susan Scafidi. "But it probably looks a bit like a crime scene, with the chalk outlines of the garments they're copying." In fact the Council of Fashion Designer's 2010 accessory designer of the year Alexis Bittar was delighted when he saw a version of his $295 lucite ring selling for $5.80 at Forever 21. He told Business Week: "I thought: 'Great! This is like declaring I'm someone to knock off.'"

This year Forever 21 threatened to sue blogger Rachel Kane for making fun of their clothes, a move that incensed online communities and was reported internationally as an example of intimidation by a big business. Last month, however, when the chain ignored her pleas, Kane fought back. "My attorneys and I will not permit Forever 21 to use silence as a strategic tool or intimidation tactic, particularly when the company stood idly by for over a year as I blogged about their design disasters," she wrote. "This is a dark defeat for MC Hammer pants, floral jumpsuits and blinged-out mini hats, but a joyous triumph for those who like to make fun of them. Which is pretty much anyone with eyes."

The next morning, at Forever 21's downtown headquarters, where an all-day cafeteria supplies free meals for staff and a sign on the door yells "We make it happen!", I ask Linda about the brand's plans to prevent future legal problems arising. "We've never settled," she says of the label's lawsuits, making unquivering eye contact. "We're not manufacturing goods ourselves," she clarifies – they use third-party manufacturers – "and we've put legal procedures in place [to avoid breaching copyright]. On in-house designs, our influences are always stated." How does she feel about the internet uproar following their threat to Rachel Kane's blog, WTForever21? "Y'know?" she begins, smiling tightly, "any conversations had about us are welcome. They've all helped us grow."

Liability is one cost of producing such fast fashion – Mrs Chang, as staff (including Linda and Esther) call her, reviews 400 new designs a day. "People think fast fashion is the same as throwaway fashion, but we do high fashion, fast," says Linda. "There's a difference in quality. And we have procedures in place to stay ethical." She is obviously well-versed and passionate about her work, work that stretches over her life like clingfilm. "The great thing about this being a family business is that we all care so much. The stressful thing is that my mum and dad are also my bosses. I don't have a personal life. We don't stop. We talk about business over dinner. We go on mission trips [to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan] instead of vacations."

Her parents, who are born-again Christians, go to church at 5am every morning. Mrs Chang has been quoted as saying that when they came to America she went to the top of a mountain to pray – God told her she should open a store. Today, Mr Chang is famous for keeping a Bible open on his desk, and the bottom of every Forever 21 carrier bag reads "John 3:16", the core Christian message. Does their Christian faith jar with the ethics of selling fast fashion? How will British customers feel about the brand's religious tilt? "There is no religious tilt," answers Linda firmly. "The faith of the founders is separate to the brand – the bag is simply a statement of faith."

But this is a country where many are cynical about religion – how will we react to a Bible verse being served with our beaded boob tube? Verdict's retail analyst Sarah Peters is undecided. "Religion? This is new for the UK's high street – we've never seen it before, but I don't think customers will pay it too much attention. Nothing matters if they like the clothes."

While Peters says their US success is down to low prices and a high turnover of stock, she thinks it will be trickier for Forever 21 to establish itself in the UK. The acquisition of its new flagship store, an old HMV, on London's Oxford Street (leased for nearly £14m) is a good move, she believes, but "the value market is growing at a slower rate in the UK than in the US, so it might have trouble. Primark dominates the sector, while with New Look and H&M there's some tough competition." Could this be the brand to topple Primark?

Linda walks me slowly back to the lobby, under the exposed pipes and triple-height ceiling, past the counter selling Forever 21 umbrellas, hot sunlight making triangles on the floor. One day she will run this $3bn chain. I ask her how she feels about the prospect, and again she holds my gaze, this time softly. "Sometimes I do feel… overwhelmed," she says.