SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

April 17, 2010

American Dream – FOREVER 21



So perfect are the Chang sisters as faces for the Forever 21 brand, one can’t help wondering why they haven’t been out front all along.

Sisters join their parents at thriving fashion chain

LOS ANGELES — As the fast-fashion chain Forever 21 continues to rocket into the 21st century, competitors are undoubtedly trying to figure out the formula.

Low prices?

Trendy merchandise that cycles in and out of stores daily?

Supersize stores modeled after the 86,000-square-foot location that recently opened in Cerritos, Calif.?

Forever 21 has all those, but the secret weapon might involve a couple of women who resemble recent high-school graduates.

Linda Chang, 28, and sister Esther, 23 — the daughters of the Korean-American founders, Don and Jin Sook Chang — seem to have the stylish eye and marketing savvy to take the $2 billion brand into the future and make it a competitor on a global level with European fastfashion giants H&M, Mango and Zara.

The Chang sisters joined the Los Angeles company a little more than a year ago — Linda to run marketing, and Esther to spearhead visuals, including graphics and store displays.    Linda is the quintessential young professional in an Alexander Wang boyfriend jacket and Forever 21 jeans, cooking lasagna on weekends for friends in her Hollywood apartment. Esther, the younger sister in Forever 21 denim shorts, a Topshop flannel shirt and American Apparel kneehighs, still lives at home with Mom (Forever 21’s chief merchandising officer) and Dad (CEO).

The company traditionally shied away from courting the media. A reporter visiting Forever 21’s downtown headquarters is admitted only to the lobby and a conference room, and the building has no sign outside.
These days, though, the Chang sisters — best friends who are “pretty much inseparable” when not traveling — are talking.   So perfect are the two as faces for the brand, one can’t help wondering why they haven’t been out front all along.

Making a start
Don and Jin Sook Chang, who were born in South Korea and immigrated to Los Angeles in 1981, embraced the fashion business while Don was working at a gas station and noticed the best cars were driven by clothing merchants.
The couple opened the first Forever 21 store in 1984. Initially, the offerings were cheaply made knockoffs.
There were some lean years while the Changs built the business, but eventually, Linda said, the family had enough money to afford private school — Buckley and Harvard Westlake — for the girls and a Beverly Hills estate.   By 2000, Forever 21 had 100 stores.

Last year, the retailer took over several leases from a bankrupt department store, signaling a move from specialty store to big-box retail format. One of those stores was in Cerritos, where the new Forever 21 store is the prototype for all openings going forward.    There, all eight of Forever 21’s collections are merchandised in separate departments, each with its own visuals. Every spring trend is covered — tribal ($11.50 belted zigzag tunics), military ($22.80 cropped khaki cargo jackets), florals ($29 floralprint lace-up bootees) and creative knits ($27.80 crocheted dresses).   And that has earned the chain some props.

Forever 21 has been name-checked recently by American Idol contestants and Hollywood stylists, and announced its first designer collaboration — a collection of graphic T-shirts with designer Brian Lichtenberg.

“Forever 21 offers great, trendy merchandise at low prices, and it turns very quickly,” said Michael Stone, president and chief executive of brand licensing and consulting firm Beanstalk Group in New York. “The customer likes shopping there more than Walmart, Target and Kohl’s because of the experience. It’s brightly lit; there’s merchandise all over; there’s a hip and cool aura.”

Today, the chain has 456 stores, including three in the Columbus area.   The recently updated Polaris store is most like the Cerritos concept. The Easton Town Center location is in temporary space until August, when the remodeling of its original site should be completed.

Without question, the recession has helped fuel the growth of Forever 21, but so, too, have socialmedia outreach and more compelling store environments — both attributable in no small part to Linda and Esther.

Shaping the future
As kids, when the Chang daughters weren’t studying, they were helping out, wielding price-tag guns at the company warehouse and working the store cash registers. Still, they weren’t locks for joining the family business after college.
Linda studied management as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and worked as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch and a product planner at Pottery Barn.   “I came in (to Forever 21) thinking I was going to do planning, because that was my background,” she said. “But I discovered we were missing a whole marketing department.

“A brand image and having our customers understand who we were — that’s what was missing. We were just doing what we could to survive because we had expanded so quickly.”   She hired a staff (now numbering 20), launched a Facebook page (at 747,000 followers), a Twitter feed (73,000 followers) and a blog (the Skinny, aimed at the Teen Vogue set). Forever 21 largely bypasses old media, reaching out to customers and fashion bloggers directly. Blog content is updated daily with do-it-yourself projects (rainbow hair streaks), video of Forever 21 shoppers (British pop star V.V. Brown) and trend features (“Pastel Pretty”) highlighting Forever 21 merchandise. The company even sent a photographer to the South by Southwest music festival to document street style.

Linda is eager to shape the Forever 21 story as “a realization of the American dream founded by immigrants on really hard work” and to make headlines for topics other than allegations of design theft. (Forever 21 has settled several lawsuits over alleged copyright infringement.)

“We are a retailer, and the majority of our merchandise is bought, not manufactured,” she said. “When you see our stores, there’s fresh new merchandise every day. We’re getting more proactive, but mistakes happen, and I think it comes up more for us because of our millions of styles.”   “It’s the nature of fast fashion,” Esther added.

If Linda is giving Forever 21 a voice, her sister is giving it a more colorful look. As head of the visuals department, Esther supervises 30 people, including display and graphics designers and merchandisers.   Esther majored in fashion and merchandising at Cornell University and had fashion-related internships at CosmoGirl magazine and Nordstrom. She thought she would be part of the buying team at Forever 21 but fell into visuals instead.   “Because we don’t advertise that much,” Esther said, “I want to distinguish our brands using interior finishes and visuals.”   Her inspirations include Japan’s LaForet and Korea’s Lotte stores.

For spring, Esther decked out the Cerritos store with flower murals and mannequins in gardens. Forever 21 stores can feel sprawling and Spartan; but the visual elements define each department and collection.   “We want to do more of what we did in Cerritos, only bigger and better,” Esther said.

Next up: three store openings in Japan next month and a 96,000-squarefoot store opening in New York’s Times Square in June.

Forever 21, Shinjuku Tokyo

Following a pattern
The sisters are all business and don’t easily talk about their personal lives. They work hard, they say, and stay out of trouble and save their money.   They enjoy shopping (Urban Outfitters, H&M and vintage stores) and eating (Umami burgers). And, on most Sundays, they attend church with their parents, who are deeply religious.   Forever 21 has “John 3:16” printed on the bottom of its shopping bags, referring to a New Testament passage, and Bibles are on display in the corporate offices.   “It’s a proclamation of my parents’ faith,” Esther said, “not them saying you all have to believe.”   Her sister agreed, adding, “I wouldn’t say we’re as devout as they are, but that’s not to say we won’t eventually get there.”

For now, they have a seriousness of purpose, knowing that someday the business will be theirs.   “I love it when people come out of our stores being so happy,” Linda said. “You go into some places and buy one item, and come out thinking, ‘Should I have gotten that?’   “But our customers don’t have to feel that way. They can spend $100 and get a ton of cute things.”


A GROWING PRESENCE: The chain, based in Los Angeles, has 456 stores worldwide.
The new supersize store in Cerritos, Calif., signals a switch to big-box retailing.

Shopping options

Forever 21 has three stores in central Ohio:Easton Town Center, the north end of The Strand (until its return to the main structure in August)

  • Mall at Tuttle Crossing, 5043 Tuttle Crossing Blvd.
  • Polaris Fashion Place, 1500 Polaris Parkway

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: