Spectacular Failures - Forever 21 goes from rags to riches to bankruptcy court (Transcript)
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Like so many new Americans, Dae Jae Kim came to this country on a quest.
Dae Jae Kim: I have a dream to realize for American dream.
After settling in Los Angeles, the Korean-born Kim did the immigrant hustle, working all kinds of jobs — he delivered laundry, sold cars. Finally he landed a gig working in the city’s Korean-American apparel industry, which locals call the “jobber market.”
Dae Jae Kim: I have a uncle who has one fabric company in Korea. He always export fabric to United States. Then he recommended to go to the jobber area and get a job in fabric salesforce. So I followed his advice.
His uncle’s advice paid off. Kim worked for a decade selling fabric. Then in 2000 he and his wife started a garment business of their own. They called it Tres Bien and they sold...
Dae Jae Kim: Fashion basic.
Lauren Ober: Fashion basic.
Dae Jae Kim: Can wear anytime and anywhere.
Kim’s company sold a bunch of wholesale separates — t-shirts, sweaters, little skirts and such — to clothing boutiques. And all of it was made right there in L.A.’s garment district, where we visited Mr. Kim in Tres Bien’s showroom.
Dae Jae Kim: I always said to my customer, I have a USA background. Made In USA is — that is a brand.
In the early days of Tres Bien, when Kim and his wife were still chasing their American dream, they got an order from a small clothing boutique run by another Korean couple. It was called Forever 21.
Kim happily supplied them with clothes. Until one day…
Dae Jae Kim: They cut me out...over 18 years ago.
Lauren Ober: They cut you out.
Dae Jae Kim: Yeah.
Lauren Ober: Why?
Dae Jae Kim: Because their business system is not a match with mine.
Basically, here’s what went down: Kim got a complaint from the warehouse that the sleeves on one of the three-quarter tops he sold them were a quarter-inch too long. Kim was not down with the critique.
Dae Jae Kim: I’m not tailor. I said, I told him, I am not tailor.
And you can guess how that went over.
Dae Jae Kim: He told me that he cannot do business if I said like that. So I say okay! Let us stop the business. That’s it. [laughing.]
Had Kim known that the company he was mouthing off to would grow to become one of the largest fast-fashion clothing brands in the world, perhaps he would’ve fixed that quarter-inch whoopsies. That little extra bit of sleeve cost him a slice of his American dream.
Dae Jae Kim: For 18 years, I could not get any order. [Laughing.] I regret.
Lauren Ober: Did you say you regret?
Dae Jae Kim: Yeah, I regret until last year. Because the order was huge.
A lot of folks from the Korean jobber market made A LOT of money off of Forever 21, the teen brand synonymous with $3 camisoles, nonsensical graphic tees and festival-wear for people who will never make it to Coachella.
But in the end, maybe it’s okay that Kim didn’t hitch his wagon to the clothing giant. Forever 21’s rise to fast fashion dominance was dizzying. But the brand’s unbridled expansion, mom-and-pop management approach and weak e-commerce game set it up to fall hard. Despite those $4.99 leggings.
I’m Lauren Ober and from American Public Media, this is Spectacular Failures, the show that looks cute even though failure’s always trying to jack our style.
There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, about three miles west of downtown, that is the beating heart of the city’s Korean community. It’s got everything — Korean karaoke bars and Korean barbecue joints, boba tea shops and banks.
Hyepin Im: There's also like beauty treatment, beauty makeup, the spas. You get—
Lauren Ober: I mean, you do have amazing skin. So…
Hyepin Im: I accept, I’m not sure if I…[laughing]
I came to get a tour of the neighborhood from Hyepin Im. She’s a leader in the Korean community here — she runs Faith and Community Empowerment, which is a local nonprofit.
Hyepin Im: Come this way...
This neighborhood is by Koreans, for Koreans. Though a hefty number of non-Koreans come for the aforementioned spas and the K-pop shops and the mouth-numbing kimchi.
Hyepin Im: So it’s really for us. It’s kind of like the political, social headquarters or center for our community. And also Koreatown L.A., in essence, is the headquarters for Korean America USA.
Los Angeles has the largest Korean community of any city in the U.S. But because of language and cultural barriers, Im says, her community has often felt isolated. This neighborhood though is a homebase.
Hyepin Im: In essence, like, as a Korean American, knowing there's Koreatown and all the people that I've been able to meet, because this space allows our communities to come together and to be visible, I don't feel alone.
I wanted to better understand how this place, with its tight-knit Korean churches and its ever-youthful K-beauty boutiques, birthed one of the largest fast-fashion brands in the world.
After the U.S. and Korea established official diplomatic ties in 1882, the first wave of Korean immigration began to roll in. First to Hawaii, then to Los Angeles. It was followed by a second surge after the Korean War. The Watts Riots of 1965 pushed a lot of Koreans to the L.A. suburbs. But the number of new arrivals to the city from South Korea continued to grow thanks to a loosening of immigration laws.
By the time Im arrived in the U.S. in 1974, the community was already on the way up. Thanks to some hustling by a few local Korean businessmen, Koreatown got its own official blue neighborhood signs in 1980.
Hyepin Im: So there was kind of that signage. Although, already there was the church, and the grocery stores, you know, started to anchor the rest of the community, right? And the restaurants, so...
Just after Koreatown became legit, a couple named Do Won and Jin Sook Chang emigrated from Seoul. They came in search of the same thing our pal Dae Jae Kim was after: the American Dream.
In South Korea, Mr. Chang ran a coffee and juice delivery business. Mrs. Chang was a hairdresser. When they moved to L.A., they took a series of menial jobs to make ends meet.
Sapna Maheshwari: Mr. Chang has talked about how he worked as a gas station attendant. He did janitorial work.
That’s Sapna Maheshwari. She’s a business reporter at the New York Times.
Sapna Maheshwari: And the legend has it that he was working at a gas station. And as he saw people with these really nice cars, he would always ask them what they did. And he noticed the people with the nicest cars worked in the garment industry.
Ok, now I would think that the people with the nicest cars in L.A. were like Jack Nicholson and Mel Gibson. But what do I know?
For some reason, the garment trade just became fixed in Mr. Chang’s mind. So he and his wife went for it.
Sapna Maheshwari: The two of them put together their savings and they decided to open a store that was first called Fashion 21. And they figured out what the garment manufacturing in Los Angeles, how to deliver fashions that people wanted and to come up with a way of selling clothes that churned through styles, made an exciting environment, and really created the type of place where you had to come in to see what was new.
Now, this might not seem very revolutionary. Especially today when consumers can get knock-offs of the latest luxury fashions seemingly before the models have strutted off the catwalk. But in the ‘80s, that wasn’t really how fashion was done.
Sapna Maheshwari: They hit on something — as happens in retail — they hit upon a formula that resonated with shoppers and they quickly became a success.
In 1984, the Changs opened Fashion 21 — a 900-square-foot boutique in the heart of the Highland Park neighborhood. They packed it with cheap, skimpy, teen clothes that they bought from L.A.’s Korean American garment manufacturers. Like the kind Mr. Kim sold.
Sapna Maheshwari: I think one of the things that definitely helped them was the fact that they were in Los Angeles and took advantage of the other Korean American garment manufacturers in that city specifically. So I think that very much was a propeller of their success.
Remember the “jobber market”?
Dae Jae Kim: Jobber. J-O-B-B-E-R. Jobber market.
Kim explains that the jobber market came about around 35 years ago with the arrival of Korean immigrants from South America. He came from Bolivia. Many of the other folks had worked in Brazil in that country’s massive garment industry. And they all brought that experience with them to L.A. They bought wholesale closeout garments and went to work opening their own stores.
Dae Jae Kim: People started to sell that merchandise. But the people come from the Brazil, they started making, manufacturing their own brand apparel.
By the time the Changs got to LA, the Korean American apparel industry was already in full swing. The couple worked with manufacturers in the jobber market to fill up Fashion 21 with inexpensive styles that could be turned over quickly.
[Car audio - Missy Elliott; Siri: Head northeast on South Figueroa Street]
My producer, Whitney, and I decided to see where it all began. So we took a trip to 5637 North Figueroa Street and cruised around the shop for a bit.
[Car audio - pulling up; Lauren Ober: Alright…(door closes)]
The sign on the front of the building still reads Fashion 21 — an homage to its humble roots. But it’s a Forever 21 store through and through.
Lauren Ober: See styles from one dollar. Body suits. You can get a body suit in there for eight bucks if you want.
Whitney Jones: I've got all the bodysuits I need right now.
Well that’s debatable.
We pop inside and it looks… pretty classy. Like maybe it’s more for adults than teens. We head to a rack of graphic tees and I’m kind of into them.
Lauren Ober: I mean, I would 100 percent wear that, actually.
Whitney Jones: It’s not a bad shirt.
Lauren Ober: If they have that in like a large, I would totally wear that.
Whitney Jones: Can't stop, won't stop.
Lauren Ober: Well, that's right. You can't stop won’t stop.
Alas, we left empty-handed. No $8 bodysuits for Whitney.
[Lauren Ober: Do they have it in large?]
If the Fashion 21 store on Figueroa was representative of what the Changs’ business was in the early days, it seems like it would have been a nice little life for them. In its first year, the store pulled in $700,000. And that was largely thanks to other Korean immigrants.
But then they realized how successful this business model was. And they started opening new stores.
That’s Ludovica Cesareo. She’s a marketing professor at Lehigh University.
Ludovica Cesareo: They then changed the name to Forever 21 with the idea that they're selling clothes for anyone who wants to be trendy or fresh or just young more generally.
This business model — selling cheap, trendy clothes that could be manufactured quickly and turned over frequently so the stores always felt new and fresh — that was the Changs’ secret weapon. Today we call this approach “fast fashion” and lots of global brands do it — H&M, Zara and Asos to name a few. But Forever 21 perfected it.
For a definition of fast fashion, here’s the Washington Post fashion critic. I’m sorry — the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic — Robin Givhan:
Robin Givhan: It's generally clothing that is produced very quickly, very much leaping on to a trend of the moment, and not meant to last.
Lauren Ober: Mhmm. Meaning the design is not meant to last or the clothing is not meant to last?
Robin Givhan: Both. The idea is that if you want to participate in a trend and a fad, and one that is most likely a fleeting fad, fast fashion allows you to glom on to that as soon as possible. It allows you to grasp it for minimal cost. Wear it a few times. Savor the moment, literally the moment, and then move on.
And fast fashion trades in FOMO, says Cesareo.
Ludovica Cesareo: There's this almost fear of missing out, that if you don't go to the store as soon as the shipment arrives there, you might not be able to find that product in your size. And so it creates this sense of urgency, basically, in consumers to make them keep coming back to the store.
That and insanely cheap prices. Like clothes for under $10 apiece. This business model, plus a manageable number of stores, meant that the Chang’s operation was profitable and everything was pretty decent.
But the Changs weren’t interested in “pretty decent.” They were chasing their big, bold American dream.
Sapna Maheshwari: I think that Mr. Chang, at least in this period where he started expanding into department stores, also thought that Forever 21 could be more than where college girls got a new outfit for Saturday night. He thought that maybe they could be a place where the whole family could be outfitted, where you would really trust this store to provide you with a lot of the clothing for your everyday life.
Twelve miles from the first Forever 21 property is the Beverly Center, a sprawling shopping mall that one Angeleno told me is “one of the most hated malls in L.A.” It’s more than 800,000 square feet of Prada, Fendi and Balenciaga.
Tucked into a corner on level eight is X-X-I Forever, which I guess is Forever 21, but make it luxury. The store occupies more than an acre of real estate and is not meant for people over a certain age. It’s bright and loud and the seemingly never-ending selection of clothes is disorienting. Honestly, I felt like I needed a Xanax and a nap after we visited.
But this is what the Changs were after. They were planting their flag with huge stores in fancy malls. This was their American dream realized. And they built it largely on top of the ashes of fallen retailers.
Sapna Maheshwari: It was really in the early 2000s that you saw them sort of burst on to the national scene, and that really emerged with the acquisition of stores owned by Gadzooks. Do you remember that retailer?
Gadzooks was a teen clothing company with hundreds of stores in malls across the U.S. In 2004, it filed for bankruptcy.
Sapna Maheshwari: And so, there's all these stores and other assets that were up for purchase and Forever 21 bid on those successfully. And with that, they really expanded their store base and also became a national player in a whole new way.
In 2005, Forever 21 began a period of mind-blowing expansion. When mall chains like Mervyns and Sears and others were toppling under their own weight, Forever 21 was snatching up their scraps. When the global recession hit in 2008, the Changs looked at it as an opportunity to push even harder. Nothing like hitting the gas when your competitors are slamming into the guardrails.
By 2011, Forever 21 had almost 500 stores around the country and employed 35,000 people. Within just a few years after that, the company had expanded to 47 countries. So that meant that tweens in the Philippines or Romania or Macau could all rock a “boxy shirred flounce-cuff top” or “leopard drawstring lounge shorts” for less than the price of a movie ticket.
2015 was Forever 21’s peak. It did $4.4 billion dollars in sales that year. Which means that they sold a helluva lot of $10 minidresses and bralettes and whatever dolphin shorts are.
But even though Forever 21 had grown into a multibillion-dollar business, the Changs ran it like a mom and pop operation. They owned 99% of the company and had never taken on investors, which meant that there was — and I can’t stress this enough — no real board of directors they had to run decisions by. Or at least not in the traditional sense. The board consisted of Mr. Chang, one of his daughters and another Forever 21 executive.
Sapna Maheshwari: They felt that they were building something of an empire. They were in charge. Mr. and Mrs. Chang were in charge and they were going to pass this business on to their daughters. And it was only going to grow and become bigger.
The fact that they owned everything also meant that there’s not much publicly available information about the company. And the family’s not real into talking to the press.
They 100% wouldn’t talk to us for this story, though we did reach out.
What we do know is that Mr. Chang oversaw business operations and strategy while Mrs. Chang ran the merchandising side of things one floor below. Their adult daughters, Linda and Esther, served as their deputies.
Sapna Maheshwari: They kind of oversaw their own fiefdoms within the Forever 21 business. Mr. Chang had to review every single real estate contract and was involved with the opening of every new store, which at the pace that they are expanding is a huge responsibility.
Mrs. Chang had her own hands full.
Sapna Maheshwari: Overseeing thousands and thousands of styles and garments and approving each of those individually before they appeared in stores. I mean, in many ways, it's flabbergasting that these two people could have taken on this amount of responsibility, especially at a company of this size.
One minute they’d be overseeing new real estate purchases or clothing designs and the next minute they’d be approving expenses for business lunches or Ubers. Which seems like the very definition of micromanaging. No billionaire CEOs are approving timesheets or even what buttons or zippers should be used on new designs.
Kevin Fegans was Forever 21’s global communications director during the time of the brand’s rapid international expansion. He says while having your hand in every pot might not be the most efficient way to run a business, it did mean that the Changs knew what their brand was all about.
Kevin Fegans: Well, I think the one thing they understood was... you know, brand personality. So they knew their customer incredibly well. So, you know, knowing. And, at least, I say that domestically. I mean, in the U.S., they knew who she was. They knew what she liked. They knew, you know, when she wanted things. So it's like back to school. It's Christmas. It's it's, you know, or holiday. It's, you know, festival season, which is huge, obviously.
While it’s important to understand product and who’s buying it, it’s equally important to understand the market you’re operating in.
Kevin Fegans: I think the challenge with running and operating a global business is that, you know, seasonalities change. The cultural mindsets change. So, you know, what the French customer wants the German customer doesn't. You know what someone in Australia is wearing, well, first of all, they're counter-seasonal. So, you know, it's when you're shipping that product, you can't ship them coats in January, right?
In Forever 21’s race to global domination, they spread themselves too thin. With nearly 800 stores worldwide, they couldn’t really manage all those physical spaces.
Now if you know anything about retail trends, you’ll know this: managing millions of square feet of retail space is a mega challenge in the age of the internet. Shoppers are increasingly buying online and having stuff delivered. Or they’re using your store simply as a pick-up location. The days of teens bopping around a mall for the afternoon in search of the hottest new lewks are over.
We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, how a billion dollar business goes bankrupt overnight. Plus, I bop around a real-life mall for the afternoon with a real-life teen. Fun!
In order to better understand how one of the world’s biggest fast fashion brands fell apart, I decided to go to the source — a teen girl. Eden Goldblum is a 16 year-old high school junior who lives just outside of Washington, D.C. She used to shop at Forever 21 a lot, she said, until they “stopped being cute.”
Eden Goldblum: They’re cheap. They’re not in good shape. They break fast. And some of them are really tacky.
We’re on our way to Montgomery Mall right outside of DC.
Lauren Ober: Explain. Explain what that means to me. Explain.
Eden Goldblum: You'll see like a normal shirt and then you'll turn around and it says something, like, weird on it. And it’s a real disappointment.
Before I go into the third Forever 21 of this story, I issued a challenge. Each of us had to find one cute thing to buy. But after many minutes of browsing the enormous store…
Lauren Ober: I don't think I can do the challenge.
Eden Goldblum: I don't think I can do the challenge, either.
Lauren Ober: [laughing] Because it’s overwhelming.
Eden Goldblum: There’ doesn’t seem to be anything very cute here.
Now, it makes sense that I couldn’t find anything cute for me. I mean, the store isn’t called Forever 41. But it should trouble the company that a member of its target demographic can’t find anything she likes in a store the size of a McMansion.
Lauren Ober: OK, so, basic white skirt.
Eden Goldblum: And it’s like a normal material.
Lauren Ober: Yeah.
Finally after some serious hunting, Eden landed on the ONE thing in the entire store she would wear.
Eden Goldblum: You can hold onto that.
Lauren Ober: Alright.
Then it was up to me to find something I liked. I tried on a crop windbreaker and that went about as well as could be expected.
Lauren Ober: It's very snug around here. Like, is it supposed to fit like this? Hey guys, I’m just gonna go out for a jog and then I'm going to go to the club afterwards.
Finally I landed on my item: a plain black baseball cap with the words “Dangerous but fun” written on the crown.
Eden Goldblum: Dangerous but fun.
Lauren Ober: I’m dangerous but fun.
Eden Goldblum: I think you should get that.
Lauren Ober: Do you think I should?
Eden Goldblum: I think you should.
Now, I can tell you that I looked neither dangerous nor fun. But I bought the hat and Eden bought the little skirt and we both fulfilled our Forever 21 challenge. Great job, us!
Eden Goldblum: Are we dunzo?
Lauren Ober: Are we dunzo?
Eden Goldblum: Do you feel like we're dunzo?
Lauren Ober: I feel like we're dunzo.
We were dunzo. I left Forever 21 $15.50 lighter and perhaps more confused than I had been before about how the brand’s business model could possibly make sense. There were hardly any shoppers in any of the stores I went to, and those who were there seemed more like old millennials than Gen. Z tastemakers. I couldn’t figure out what this giant store was all about. Or how fast fashion is even supposed to work.
I figured Robin Givhan could help. In addition to reporting on the runways of Paris and New York, Givhan often writes about what fashion says about how we live now. And she thinks a lot about fast fashion and its impact on our culture — aesthetically, socially and environmentally.
Surprisingly, she isn’t totally down on fast fashion.
Robin Givhan: I do think that fast fashion has kind of allowed everyone to have access to aesthetically thoughtful clothing.
Lauren Ober: Doesn't mean we're all dressing better, though.
Robin Givhan: Notice I said to have access to it.
In a way, Givhan says, fast fashion is kind of brilliant when it’s done right.
Robin Givhan: For the vast majority of people, they're not going into the designer boutique. They’re going into a department store or a mass merchant. And you know, those stores look at trend reports and they look at what's on the runway and part of their great skill in both marketing and manufacturing is being able to take those ideas and turn them around at just a rapid fire pace and get them into stores.
And there isn’t just one delivery that happens at the beginning of a season. No, no.
Robin Givhan: It's a constant stream of newness. And when I say constant, I mean like every two weeks for some of these places.
So, Givhan says that at its best, fast fashion means that new stylish clothes aren’t just for fancies with the cash to shop haute couture.
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It is impossible for clothing designers to go from original idea to brand spanking new product on the rack in two weeks. Especially not at the volume that Forever 21 needed to fill all of their bazillion stores. So the company had to find some shortcuts. Copying other designers’ ideas was part of Forever 21’s business model from the beginning.
Susan Scafidi is the founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University and she basically invented the field of fashion law. And she’ll be the first one to tell you that while Forever 21’s practice of copying other designers' ideas isn’t a cute look, it’s generally totally legal.
Susan Scafidi: Fashion is not recognized as an art form in the United States. So it doesn't get copyright protection in large part because 100 years ago the Copyright Office decided that fashion, no matter how fanciful, was utilitarian.
Only a couple of areas of fashion are protected from copying.
Susan Scafidi: We have a tiny bit of copyright protection, at least since the 1960s, for two-dimensional elements of fashion, things like fabric prints or lace designs. Over on the patent side, we've had historically a little bit of protection for some functional elements of fashion, things like zippers and Velcro or Kevlar and space suits or hazmat suits. And then at the end of the day, what fashion really has to rely on is trademark protection. That is protection for the logo or label.
So basically the polo pony on your chest or the giant double G on your belt buckle, those are protected. The design of the shirt and belt themselves are not. Original prints are generally also protected.
While there aren’t a ton of copyright and trademark protections for fashion in the U.S., Forever 21 has still found itself involved in many, many, many intellectual property lawsuits. Scafidi says they’re one of the most egregious offenders in the game.
Gucci, Puma, Adidas, Anna Sui, Diane von Furstenberg and Gwen Stefani have all pursued legal action against Forever 21 alleging various forms of copyright infringement. Many smaller brands have also claimed their prints or designs were ripped off by the mega-retailer. But most didn’t have the resources to go against a multi-billion dollar mammoth. And Scafidi says fast fashion brands like Forever 21 bank on that.
Susan Scafidi: A certain amount of copying is baked into the business model of every fast fashion company. The only question is how literally they're copying and how much they're changing it up.
In Forever 21’s case, they’d often barely bother to change anything about the original design they were ripping off. And some of their fabric prints were just a straight cut and copy job.
Susan Scaifid: And maybe on the back end you get caught and have to pay out the occasional settlement, or or pay some legal fees. But usually, that's cheaper than actually hiring designers and engaging in innovative product research.
Copying clothing designs hasn’t been Forever 21’s only questionable move. In 2001, a workers advocacy center filed a lawsuit on behalf of employees who said they were made to work insane hours for way less than minimum wage. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor sued the retailer for failing to pay federal minimum wage to its manufacturers and contractors.
And in 2019, pop star Ariana Grande slapped Forever 21 with a $10 million lawsuit.
CLIP [Good Morning America]: The company used a model in this ad campaign that looks an awful lot like Ariana Grande. She claims they did this to confuse consumers that she had endorsed them.
And that Ariana Grande lookalike was me. Just kidding.
A behemoth like Forever 21 rarely fails because of one misstep. How did it falter? Let us count the ways: how about — routine legal troubles; leasing too much expensive retail space; screwy merchandising that gummed up their supply chain; and no traditional board of directors to pump the brakes. And with retail moving more and more online, Forever 21’s weak e-commerce game didn’t help matters.
In recent years there’s been one other major issue tugging at Forever 21’s flouncy hem — sustainability. Cuz sustainable it ain’t.
Lauren Ober: I wonder is fast fashion, if we're talking about sustainability, like is that just as bad as it can get?
Robin Givhan: Well, I'm hesitant to say the worst, but I would be hard-pressed to think of another realm of the fashion industry that is as bad, because fast fashion has as its fundamental purpose. Quick disposability. You know, the $25 handbag that is a knockoff of some, you know, item that came down the runway that is really meant to be used for a few months and then, you know, chucked into the trash...well, that's going to end up in a landfill.
As opposed to, say, an Hermes handbag that is the price of a small car. That’s not getting tossed out. That’s going in a safe deposit box as insurance for the apocalypse.
Sustainability in fashion isn’t just about buying more durable, classic handbags. The rise of online consignment shopping as well as clothing rental startups like Rent the Runway means consumers are increasingly trying to buy used and own less stuff. A clothing brand that banks on disposability is not long for this new world.
By September 2019, it had all become just too much for Forever 21. The company — built by immigrants from a single storefront in LA into a $4 billion colossus — filed for bankruptcy.
CLIP [news]: It’s the end of an era. If you’re a fan of Forever 21, you may have to say goodbye to a store near you. Over the weekend the retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, all this in hopes of salvaging the company’s brand. That means hundreds of stores will close across the globe.
Naturally, the internet was abuzz at the news. Tons of Youtubers raced out to Forever 21 shops to get some deals, deals, deals. And, naturally, they made videos. Like this one from beauty vlogger Lauren Giraldo.
CLIP [Lauren Giraldo]: OK, honestly not gonna lie, I was expecting things to look different than the first one. I thought it was going to be like everything must go signs and stuff you know. I mean I feel like you can tell what I was expecting, but a little bit of it seems like business as usual. So I’m like, hello? Are the headlines…like, do they mean any--I don’t know. Let’s go in and see if we can get some bankrupt deals or not. Let’s just go see what the D is.
FYI, she didn’t actually buy anything at Forever 21. But she did put together some looks and filmed herself wearing them in the dressing room. So, close enough.
Deals are great and all. But Forever 21’s former global communications director Kevin Fegans said the bankruptcy news felt like a surprise gut punch. Even though he had already left the company.
Kevin Fegans: I really wasn't aware of the challenges. I mean, I would hear, obviously, and you'd kind of think that certain markets weren't doing well and maybe we needed to kind of push or help promote in those markets, i.e. kind of drive more PR, see how we can kind of, you know, increase foot traffic, but never was I aware that things were really kind of starting to come to a halt or at least, you know, where bankruptcy was going to be in the foreseeable future.
Its Chapter 11 filing really leaned into the Changs’ immigrant story. Under the subheading “Forever Dreaming: A Roadmap to the American Dream” it read:
“Forever 21 is a story about family and the ‘American Dream.’ In an age when retail, as most Americans know it, is under assault, Forever 21 intends to use these proceedings to remain viable and write a different ending from so many retail companies before it. The goal of these chapter 11 cases is clear: emerge with a viable and feasible standalone business and keep the dream alive.”
As part of its restructuring plan, the company announced that it intended to streamline its retail operation, pump up its e-commerce game and shut down a whole lot of stores. Nearly all of its international locations and more than 100 underperforming U.S. stores were on the chopping block. That’s more than 40 percent of their physical retail locations.
But those plans were all for naught. In February, a group of buyers including some of Forever 21’s biggest landlords put in an offer to buy the brand for the bargain-basement price of $81 million. A judge approved the deal, and boom...
CLIP [news]: Clothing retailer Forever 21 has been sold after declaring bankruptcy late last year. Court filing yesterday says a consortium is buying the chain for $81 million. Buyers made up to two mall operators and a brand management firm. Sale includes all of Forever 21’s assets including its remaining stores.
Just like that, the dream died. After 35 years, control of Forever 21 slipped through the Chang family’s hands.
While the Changs are no longer billionaires, it’s impossible to say they didn’t reach some type of American dream. Their aspirations of upward mobility, clout and prestige were realized a thousand times over. Their children achieved Ivy League educations and never wanted for anything. Their distinctive yellow shopping bags were ubiquitous in malls around the world. They truly made it.
Perhaps we can even say that bankruptcy is part of that American dream. The part that lets people pull themselves up off the ground, dust off their sleeveless wide-legged jumpsuits and try again.
Spectacular Failures is a production of American Public Media. It’s written and hosted by me, crop top aficionado Lauren Ober. Runway model Whitney Jones is the show’s producer. Our editor is bargain hunter Phyllis Fletcher. Clothing wearer David Zha is our assistant producer. Our theme music is by the delightful David Schulman. Other original music this season comes from Jenn Champion and Michael Cormier. Kristina Lopez is our Audience Engagement Editor and Lauren D.E.E. is our executive producer. Concept developed by Tracy Mumford. The general manager of APM Studios is Lily Kim. Super special thanks to Jess Lazar for letting us bop around the mall with her daughter, Eden. If you want to read Forever 21’s very enlightening bankruptcy filing (and why wouldn’t you), go to our website, spectacularfailures.org. We’ve got a super fun list of source material. And finally, thanks to the ULTRA CHIC Robin Givhan for letting slobs like us in her office.
Lauren Ober: What do you think of Whitney’s outf-- who looks better today, me or Whitney? Say me.
Robin Givhan: I have not come to judge.
Lauren Ober: [laughing] But, you're a critic. That's your job. So, you're saying I look better. Thank you.
Robin Givhan: I don't judge my friends.