Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Forever 21 aims to take the UK by storm

They’re religious, they’re secretive and they’ve wowed the US with their affordable fast fashion. Now the people behind Forever 21 are about to open the brand’s first store in Britain

By Eva Wiseman  /  The Observer, LONDON

Sales clerks for Los Angeles-based fast fashion brand Forever 21 promote the grand opening of the company’s flagship store in Tokyo on April 29 last year.

Photo: AFP

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 US$135 million despite the fact that nothing it sells costs more than US$65. This is the chain whose founder, Do Won “Don” Chang, is worth US$1 billion; 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 US$20. “But it’s not about prices. It’s not a gimmick for us,” Linda says. “It’s about value.”

Stretching over 4,180m2, 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 2 million 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), Don 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 US$35,000 to US$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,” Don tells me in an early-morning e-mail. “Since then I have learned the difference between putting faith into people and blindly trusting them.”

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