Not-Quite-Forever 21 & Fast Fashion’s Future

a row of empty mall stores including Charlotte Russe and Payless. Forever 21 might be next.

In September, Forever 21 — perhaps the most well-known and most criticized (and sued) bastion of super cheap fast fashion — declared bankruptcy. If you’re like us, you’re wondering what that means and why Forever 21 became so iconic in the first place. To help make sense of it, we put together this quick round-up of links and discussion questions and reflections.

Elise and Sara got together over drinks (and cute cats) to talk it all out in our first episode of Fashion Cats and Cocktails.

Listen Now:

Articles We Discuss:

These articles give some context for why Forever 21 is floundering, especially in relation to its core teenage demographic.

Growing Up In the Forever 21 Generation by Connie Wang for Refinery29

Forever 21 Underestimated Young Women by Amanda Mull for The Atlantic

The new Fashion District store may fit into Forever 21’s post-bankruptcy plan by Ximena Conde for NPR

These articles are more about shifting consumer habits in response to rapid economic changes, and how gender, race, class, ability, and other pieces of our identities influence what we want and what’s available to us. 

From Hauls to Minimalism: Why Fashion YouTubers are Changing Styles by Victoria Sands for Dismantle Magazine

The Myth of the Frivolous Female Spender by Kristin Wong the New York Times

Farewell to Payless and its Cheap, No Good, Occasionally Meaningful Shoes And What Will the 2000s Revival Really Look Like? By Sara Tatyana Bernstein for The Outline

These ones helped us think about labor issues, how shopping malls in the US became a thing, and what a post-retail-apocalypse world might look like (it’s not nice.)

From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America by Lizbeth Cohen

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s segment on Amazon Warehouses

Our Questions:

  1. What does each article offer? What is missing? Can one patch in a hole in the other? For example, the business article makes us think that the store isn’t necessarily in trouble because of less consumption among teens — it’s more that teens have changed the way they shop and the store needs to keep up.

  2. A lot of malls and shopping centers are restructuring as chains keep closing locations and going out of business entirely. The focus is shifting more to “experiences” and building community, rather than just selling “stuff.” What are some of the problems with this? How can malls avoid the forms of exclusion that were historically built into the “mall” formula?

  3. Why is Forever 21 in particular such a potent symbol of the highs and lows of fast fashion? Thinking about the PayLess shoes article, and how that chain helped prime us for the next stage of global capitalism, and eventually created the framework for its own demise, how did Forever 21 change our expectations about the shopping experience?

  4. Why is so much of this market and discourse aimed at young women?

Elise’s Pre-Happy Hour Reflections:

So when Sara first mentioned the topic — Forever 21’s bankruptcy and the cries that we’re seeing the end of unbridled “fast fashion” retailers — I was like, “oh, I don’t know if I have anything to say about that.”

But then I read these articles! And while they’re all great, I do think they leave out some important elements of the discussion that might help us think through the topic.

My main thing is that there are a lot of assumptions being made about age/generation. Funny enough, I did a participant observation ethnographic exercise at Forever 21 in graduate school. This was way back in 2007 and Forever 21 was still a bit of a novelty place (at least for me). From my fieldnotes I remember thinking two things:

  • The age range was much, much wider than I would have thought, and much wider than is represented in discussions about the store.

  • The shopping experience resembled a thrift store treasure hunt in a way that felt a little different from the more curated Marshalls or Ross experience. It was like this overwhelming, dirty, hot sensory immersion, and I really felt like I was in a thrift store looking for the One Great Piece in a sea of trash. It was all sooooo different: the weird schoolgirl skirt with a calico print contrasting the soft knitted grey short-sleeved sweater of insanely high quality…it was like this almost absurd range of quality and style and sizes.

I also couldn’t stop thinking about Victoria Sand’s article that we just published in September. While there are so many insights from her piece, one thing she shows is that the consumer desire that we assume has been catalyzed by the dirty label of fast fashion is really just a larger push by the capitalist machine (i.e., fast fashion is not solely responsible for the juggernaut of 21st century consumer capitalism).

Sara’s Pre-Happy Hour Reflections:

I wrote my dissertation on representations of retail workers in the 20th/early 21st century, so I’ve been closely following the so-called “retail apocalypse.” Forever 21 declaring bankruptcy is especially interesting because they’re the biggest symbol of fast fashion. So even if they aren’t actually closing, this does seem like a significant moment.

I agree with Elise that the coverage of it, while interesting, makes so many generational assumptions. I always found it frustrating that teenage girls were used as shorthand for vacuous over-consumption, but I also think it’s a big leap (and still oddly condescending) to talk about the demographic as just being “more sophisticated” than previous generations. It also sustains an individualist, consumerist value system.

My biggest question right now is: what’s coming next? We still need clothes. Wages and quality of life aren’t improving for most people, so a lot of us still have to buy cheap clothes. I don’t care about Forever 21 specifically (unlike PayLess, I don’t have any personal connection to it), but I’m worried that it’s not just a matter of teens buying more vintage or whatever. The “production/consumption disconnect” is actually getting even worse. A big part of my dissertation’s argument was that retail workers were the most visible part of an increasingly invisible system, so we project a lot of cultural baggage onto them. So what happens when that one link is swallowed up by Amazon warehouses?

I’m excited to talk more about this with Elise!

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So what exactly is Fashion, Cats and Cocktails? It’s Dismantle editors and co-founders Sara and Elise bringing together some of our favorite things! We read some stuff about a fashion-related topic and then get together to discuss it using a critical fashion and cultural studies framework. Also cats. Also cocktails. Patreon patrons will get exclusive access to reading guides that include articles, discussion questions, and other resources. You can use these as part of your teaching, reading groups, community education project — or just to satisfy your own interest. Think of it as a partner to our other soon-to-be regular Patreon-only feature: the Understanding Culture Toolbox!

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What do you think? Will you miss Forever 21? Do you see its struggles as hopeful or troubling? Share your thoughts on Patreon,  Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and tune in to the Dismantle Happy Hour for the whole conversation!

two tabby cats on a brightly striped blanket