Why I stopped shopping at Forever 21
I’ll never forget the first time I stepped into a Forever 21. It was magical.
My heart palpitated — so many clothes, organized by look and color! I instantly gravitated toward the bohemian clothing; the style was having a resurgence thanks to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s adoption of the “bobo” (bourgeoisie bohemian) look — I at the time was obsessed with the musical “Hair.”
I was able to go home with a plastic bag full of new clothing that expressed who I was (or wanted to be) at that time.
The name alone — Forever 21 — evokes a particular fantasy. To be eternally 21! I was 16, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t vote, and I had never had a real boyfriend. Being Forever 21 sounded awesome to me.
And perhaps most significantly, my mother, who was footing the bill, didn’t balk at the price tags.
This was crucial to me, as I had been making concerted efforts to drag my parents into Abercrombie & Fitch less frequently. I loved the timeless sweaters, but they were far too pricey for the $20 a week I earned tutoring Spanish. The T-shirts, however, no longer rang true to me.
When I was 17, I worked my first summer job as a day camp counselor. While I earned a measly — albeit appropriate at the time — paycheck, I still wanted to look chic and trendy. And perhaps even more importantly, I wanted to feel like something I was not. I wanted to feel older — 21, perhaps.
Without spending my entire day camp paycheck, I was able to secure outfits and transform into a confident, fashionable young adult at the whim of an outfit change.
Volume was more important than quality. At a time when I was pretty strapped for cash, I wanted to be able to procure as much clothing as humanly possible. Fashion is so integrally linked to fantasy; I might have been a college student, but I could dress like a bohemian, a professional, or a supermodel. I could be whatever I wanted to be.
I continued shopping at Forever 21 in the years after college, although I slowly started shifting toward its slightly more expensive fast-fashion cohort, H&M. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that I spent a lot of time returning to Forever 21 — and not just because I was nursing a mild shopping addiction.
It was because the clothes wouldn’t last more than a few washes, let alone a few steps outside of the house and trips on the subway. Buttons would fall off, cotton dresses would fade, and my tiny New York City closet was rapidly filling with unwearable items. I loved Forever 21, but it was like it didn’t love me back. Spending money on clothing that would break on a dime seemed wasteful, especially when I was scraping together money to pay rent.
Value became more important to me. There seemed to be no point to spend $20 on a sweater if it wouldn’t last more than a month. It seemed to make a lot more sense to purchase something that, while slightly more expensive, would last longer. The desire to adopt “looks” seemed less important to me — I wanted timeless, classic staples that I could maintain for season upon season, year upon year. While I’m not hitting up Balenciaga on a daily basis, I’d rather shop at Madewell or Loft than Forever 21.
As I’ve steadily begun the process of ending the vicious cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck, I’ve started viewing finances as significantly less fleeting than I saw them during my cash-strapped late teens and early 20s. Clothing should not be ephemeral, either. I’m not alone in this regard.
As fast fashion starts to get even cheaper with the arrival of the wildly cheap Primark in the US, other consumers are veering away from shopping cheaply, and, rather, toward shopping smartly.
“There are two extremes happening,” Liz Dunn, CEO of Talmage Advisors, told Buzzfeed. “There is this complete consumption bubble but at really cheap prices, buying more and more things for less and less money … and this whole capsule dressing, limited wardrobe, really responsible approach that’s gaining a lot of momentum, too.”
And the former fast-fashion generation is growing up.
“A generation of consumers has grown up wearing what is often referred to as ‘fast fashion’ — trendy, inexpensive versions of runway looks that shoppers wear for one season, or one occasion, and often toss,” Elizabeth Holmes wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year. “Now, many of these shoppers are graduating to a philosophy of quality not quantity.”
Consider me one of the graduates. It’s a part of growing up — recognizing quality versus quantity.
Of course, it doesn’t help Forever 21’s plight that it’s struggled with ethics — a sordid history of alleged copyright-infringement battles, to start, as Jezebel detailed in 2011. And dirt-cheap clothing often comes with a human cost – hence this spring’s film, “The Cost of Fast Fashion.”
But as long as cash-strapped teens and college students are shopping, fast fashion will continue to pose a threat to traditional retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch and Urban Outfitters, whose supply chains cannot compete with Forever 21 and Zara’s speed.
When I walk into Forever 21, I see an era: high school, college, and the post-grad years. As I told Business Insider Video, I stopped shopping at Forever 21 when I realized I was no longer forever 21.
Now, to be “forever 21” evokes not a fantasy of being eternally cool, but rather a sad fantasy of someone holding on to her to college nights out, wearing flimsy “going out” tops and drinking Keystone Light. To be forever 21 seems … sad.
I concede — I still own some items for my Forever 21 obsession — a jacket, a sweater, a dress here and there. I’m not one to dump something in the trash simply because it possesses a particular label.
Sometimes, the urge to enter a Forever 21 washes over me, but I ask myself, “do I want to spend $20 on something that I’ll have to throw away?” (I don’t object to budget-savvy shopping; my mother told me back in high school to mix up my wardrobe with quality staples and inexpensive seasonal items. That’s great fashion advice! I pop into some of Forever 21’s slightly pricier competitors occasionally — but Zara’s and Topshop’s clothes will at least give me longer than a few weeks before they turn on me.)
But I no longer want to purposefully inundate my closet with dresses that feel like short-term flings. Perhaps it’s part of growing up — I want something sturdy, high quality, and long lasting that, while maybe less whimsical or laced with fantasy, will stay with me through the tough times.
This week, Forever 21 found itself ensnared in controversy. Again.
Customers were riled up after some reported receiving diet bars with their plus-size clothing orders last Friday. Then, the company also got flack for selling bike shorts with the words “fake news” printed all over it.
The fast-fashion retailer is prone to criticism because of a lack of sufficient product review and because of the risks it’s willing to take, according to industry experts. In the last year, Forever 21 has also come under fire for selling a “Black Panther” sweater using a white model, and it settled a lawsuit alleging the company knocked-off footwear company Puma’s design. In 2017, angry consumers accused the company of stealing the design of a T-shirt that was created by creative agency Word to raise money for Planned Parenthood.
“For a lot of companies, if there are new initiatives, you have to run it by people and they have to be checked,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData’s retail division. “Forever 21 sometimes has bypassed those things or discussions of those things, so they enact certain policies or products, whereas other companies would’ve filtered them out long before they reached the customers.”
It’s also because the volume of merchandise the company it handles. “With the volume of products they’re producing, it’s difficult for every product to undergo a sort of sanitary check, so to speak, so some things are going to creep through and reach the customer or shop floor,” he said.
Liz Dunn, CEO at retail data platform Pro4ma, also said that the issue applies to fast fashion more than traditional retailers. “Anyone who’s running the fast fashion model is going to make decisions on a shorter time frame,” she said. “Sometimes that lends itself to mistakes.”
After Forever 21 sold the T-shirt benefiting Planned Parenthood, it released a statement saying that the shirt was bought from a third-party source, and that since the product did not have trademark or intellectual property protections, there were no red flags raised at the time of purchase.
According to Dunn, that design and the other controversial styles were likely purchased from vendors that churn out designs to sell to retailers like Forever 21 and H&M. “It’s just a way of shortcutting the product development cycle … and goes back to this idea that there’s not as much vetting to what products get on the floor.”
Saunders also noted that the way the company tries to appeal to customers may expose itself to more controversy. “Forever 21 is quite an edgy company, and I think it does take risks, sometimes with fashion, sometimes with the things it does.”
Forever 21 said in a statement that the diet bars were part of a product giveaway test from third parties. “The freebie items in question were included in all online orders, across all sizes and categories, for a limited time and have since been removed,” the company said according to CNN.
The retailer wasn’t immediately available to comment further when contacted by CNBC.
Despite the social media storm, Saunders doesn’t think it will impact Forever 21’s sales.
“Very few people ever follow through on not using a retailer or shunning a retailer just because it’s produced a product they don’t like,” he said. “People tend to be a lot more pragmatic when it comes to taking action. It doesn’t do massive damage to this business, and that’s not just for Forever 21. That applies to a lot of other retailers that find themselves in hot water.”
Other retailers have also seen their share of stumbles. Just a few days ago, Macy’s pulled a plate it was selling that outlined portion sizes for “mom jeans” and “skinny jeans.” Last year, H&M apologized after selling a “monkey” sweatshirt modeled by a black child, while other animal styles were modeled by white children.
However, Dunn said that Forever 21 might be in a more vulnerable position, since the company has already been struggling. In June, the company was reported to be exploring restructuring options and financing should it file for bankruptcy.
And this might be especially true due to the nature of diet bar scandal.
“We’re in this moment where body positivity and inclusiveness is really, really important to the core consumers of Forever 21,” Dunn said. “There’s a natural dialogue for this to fall into about body shaming … and that’s something their customer is really attuned to.”