The history of Forever 21: The brand that inspired millions of young people around the globe

Fashion 21, was founded by Korean Immigrants Don Won Chang and his wife Jin Sook in 1984. They did not speak any English or have college degrees. They were working odd jobs before their brand was created. The brand was opened in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, California located on Figueroa Street (a street informally called “Fig”). They opened the store with only an $11,000 life savings. They started with very few employees. In 1987 they changed the name from Fashion 21 to Forever 21 because young adults were becoming more independent and wanted to stay young forever. Their company expanded outside of the United States to its first foreign location in Canada in 2001. They started Forever21.com in 2003, expanding their trendy clothing to the web. The company originally started selling clothes for women only, but began to sell clothes for women, men, plus sized, beauty products, shoes, and home goods. The store eventually grew and expanded across the world. They are now multi-millionaires. The couple has two daughters who founded Riley Rose, one of the subsidiaries of Forever 21.

In 2007, the store was featured in the movie Made in L.A., a movie about Latina immigrants becoming victims of domestic abuse working in their factories. Ninety-Five percent of Forever 21 production is done in L.A. The Latina immigrant workers, most of them being undocumented, claimed of having to work long hours and making way less than minimum wage, making only $3 per hour in factories infested with rats and roaches. After living under horrifying sweat shop conditions, they eventually started a protest against the company. The workers (being illegal immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico City )reported having strong feelings of fear. Fear of being deported and not being able to take care of their family. 

In 2017, the U.S. department of Labor investigated 77 of the sweat shops in Los Angeles and discovered labor violations at 85% of them including a factory producing Forever 21 garments. The workers wages were so low, most of them couldn’t afford an apartment. During the investigation, they also discovered a makeshift factory in boarded up homes surrounded by barbwire so that the workers couldn’t escape. The sweat shop owners were given seven prison sentences. They were supposed to pay 50% more to sewing contractors to pay the workers to meet the federal minimum but never payed a dime.

A photo of Don Won Chang on www.vulcanpost.com

In 2019, the company was forced to file chapter 11 bankruptcy and ended up making a deal to sell all of their assets for $81 million dollars, due to the having extremely high locations cost and big competitors, such as Fashion Nova. Without selling their assets, the company would not have been able to stay open today. Now, there are over 800 stores globally, and over 32,000 employees, including Mexico and Latin America. According to a 2012 interview with CNN, Their former chief executive, Don Won Chang, stated that most of the company’s base are minorities, and that 40% of their customers range from age 25-40 years old. They put John 3:16 on every single yellow bag because they are Christians, sources say, and they also strive to keep their merchandise under $50. The company has about 14 million followers on the social media platform, Instagram. In 2020, the Garment worker protection bill was introduced to the California senate to protect the Garment Worker Protection Act to make sure garment workers receive their wages. The bill was not passed and Forever 21 is not one of the companies supporting the Act.

A Forever 21 In Times Square, in Manhattan, New York City

I have been shopping at Forever 21 for years. I recently purchased a box online that arrived on August 30th, 2021. After inspecting the clothes (which I almost never have to return because they fit so perfectly) I decided that it is just one of the stores I could never stop shopping at, no matter how hard I try. In a few more years I will have  reached the 40 year old mark for most of their minority customers. I feel like my time might be up already and I’m still trying to force it. The sexy, appealing, nature of the clothing is just not attracting the right type of people into my life and after discovering the disturbing sweat shop conditions the workers have to endure behind the brand, it is just too painful to bear. I spend at least $80 or more everytime I visit the store. I have shopped at several locations throughout my young adult life including New York City, and my favorite in Arlington, Virginia, located inside Pentagon City mall, that I visit very frequently. I love their clothing and I don’t want ever to stop shopping there, but all good things must come to an end.