Dear Forever 21, We're Breaking Up

You are a gift and a curse, Forever 21. For today, while you are friendly companion to my pitiful grad school budget, one day you will become the antithesis of everything I stand for, as a newly-minted fashion designer.
Publish date:
June 21, 2012
fashion, Forever 21, consumer culture

After reading the Wall Street Journal’s Q&A with Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion,” design student and xoJane contributor Veronica couldn’t help but to nod and shout a few “Amen!”s. Then she wrote this kinda-sorta-ode to her favorite store: Forever 21.

Oh Forever 21. How I love you. Let me count the ways. You give me skinny jeans, in a rainbow of colors, that don’t cost the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries. Your novelty tops are cute and colorful, and arrive at my doorstep for the low price of $10.50. Your earrings are trendy and cheap, your shoes are cheaper, and your sizing has finally gotten right, as your plus-size apparel adequately covers my Pluto-sized breasts.

Oh Forever 21. You are a gift and a curse. For today, while you are friendly companion to my pitiful grad school budget, one day (and that day is coming soon), you will become the antithesis of everything I stand for, as a newly minted fashion designer.

The haphazard stitching [My favorite. --Jane]. The plastic embellishments and tenuously secured buttons [Little Charlotte lives in these. --Jane]. Is that shirt ONE HUNDRED PERCENT POLYESTER [LOVE. And love you more, Veronica. --Jane]? My dear, how gross.

But you’re ever the slickster, Forever 21. For if I had not gone to fashion school, I wouldn’t have been aware that thin rayon -- of which many of your breezy maxi dresses are made -- has the lifespan of a diabetic fruit fly. All I would have seen were the trendy styles and the bright colors -- the equivalent of putting a shiny, dangly thing in front of an overly rambunctious kitten.

Sure, there are people who already knew those things. But they’re not your target customer. In fact, I’m probably your perfect target -- a girl who grew up middle-class, whose parents put our back-to-school wardrobes on layaway, whose childhood closet was dictated more by price than quality or style.

So of COURSE when I get to college, when I see your promise of “trendy styles!” and “low prices!”, I immediately fall victim to your wiles. I can be cute like the rest of the girls on campus and NOT blow my book budget for French class? C’est magnifique!

Fist-pumping in Forever 21

This love affair ebbs and flows as the size of my breasts multiplies, seemingly threefold (between sophomore and senior year). I can no long squeeze into your woven tops, but the stretchy knit ones just. might. work. And I try. I try and try again, until one day, you tell me you’re debuting a line JUST for me. And I yelp with joy.

Now that childhood closet is replaced with a smattering of findings from Forever 21+ -- flirty little dresses, cute floral tops, and of course those skinny jeans. But as I wear these clothes as an adult, I can’t help but to think that something feels a bit -- off.

Then I go to fashion design school and I figure it all out. The scratchy feel of the figure-hugging jeans? It's because you dilute the cotton with polyester. The way that graphic T-shirt twists uncomfortably around my torso? Because you cut the fabric crooked.

Still, Forever 21, there's a reason why you're so successful.

As we all try to recover from a recession, who can argue with cute wallet-friendly retail therapy? And as for those of us trying to learn fashion and the business of it all? You'd make for a great case study.

In the midst of an economic downturn, you scooped up a bunch of properties from bankrupt companies and used the locations to make your wares even more available to the budget-conscious customer. And when you collab'd with emerging designers (who are always trying to find their audience), you simultaneously delivered a massive customer base AND the sourcing know-how to keep the clothes (fairly) cheap.

And so I’m conflicted, Forever 21, when I’m spending long hours in the design studio, figuring out all of the fit problems in a mock garment, meticulously cutting dozens of pattern pieces for one dress, and carefully selecting fabrics that AREN'T polyester.

I get what you're doing, Forever 21, and I can't totally knock the hustle. But as cheap clothes become more and more available, consumers becomes less and less willing to spend more than fast-fashion prices. No matter if there are full linings, carefully matched patterns or reinforced stitching (all things designers do and fast-fashion chains don't).

It's all too easy now to cast a well-made garment off as "overpriced." Which sucks, Forever 21. Because it's literally impossible for any fledgling designer to survive offering clothes at the same prices as you and your friends.

The pride I felt when I finally finished my first original design last month is unmatched -- and probably only magnified by the fact that sewing needle went through my thumb as I was stitching it all together. Yet, people still don’t get it -- why a perfectly-fitted dress, in a natural fabric, with a sweetheart neckline and self-faced sleeves, cost more than $40 in materials and hours upon hours to create.

The dress that got me an A in "Draping and Design." Would probably retail for at least $160.

And that’s my biggest beef, Forever 21. The public’s become so accustomed to the offerings of you and your colleagues -- the H&Ms, the Wet Seals, the slightly-more pricey Zara -- that when they see one of my creations, they ooh, ahh, and gush -- only to balk when I tell them how much my garment will cost to own. The cost of labor, the time it takes to create a beautiful garment that won’t fall about part after a wear or three, never occurs to them. Because your clothes are just so damn easy to come by.

Forever 21, we’re going to break up soon. I want to say, “It’s not me, it’s you.” But it’s definitely you. I’m poor and in school now, but soon, I’m going to be making a living (or at least trying to) providing quality and fit -- which directly opposes your philosophy of trendiness and low cost. Will I have a hard time converting some of my fast-fashion friends into customers? Of course.

But eventually, Forever 21, they’ll peep game. They’ll get older, start thinking harder about the clothes they buy and the businesses they support. They’ll realize Elizabeth Cline has a point when she suggests supporting independent designers, and retailers who manufacture in the States. And they’ll definitely want something more special than a dress that came from a pile of mauve poly-chiffon from a factory floor in China.

And when they move on from you, Forever 21 -- and they will, it’s coming, watch -- I’ll be here in Philly. Waiting with open arms, an oiled up machine, and thimble to protect my thumb.