Like other 22-year-old graduate students, I grew up with the cheap constancy of brands such as Forever 21, Rue 21, and Charlotte Russe. These businesses, lined up side by side in the run-down mall in my college town, provided easily accessible going-out ‘fits and fed the never-ending pile of perpetually decaying t-shirts and sweaters in the corner of my cramped dorm room. Yet with Forever 21 closing storefronts after filing for bankruptcy and Charlotte Russe vacillating between liquidation and re-branding, the future of bargain fashion seems uncertain. 2019 has been an unrelenting reckoning for fast fashion behemoths, and has raised questions about the future of fast fashion in an increasingly hostile cultural climate.

In the 1980s, 18-year-old Don Chang and his wife, Jin Sook, immigrated from South Korea to California. Four years into their new life, they opened the doors of the first ever Forever 21. Don Chang proudly declared, “Forever 21 is my American Dream.” The brand rose quickly to the fore of popular fast-fashion companies, outshining Pac-Sun and Gap in production and store square footage, such as in their 45,000 square foot Beverly Hills store. Forever 21 promised easily accessible, quick-fix clothing: affordable fashion that, in the wake of an incoming recession, felt all-too reliable. 

Indeed, the great recession of 2007 seemed to set the stage for a change in the American conscious – Americans wanted cheap, on-trend clothing that made them feel that couture was attainable. Forever 21 promised the visage of splendor, churning out designer knock-offs or interpretations in under six weeks and promising its customers a way to dream richly in a turbulent economic climate. As a New York Times article from 2007 declared, “Forever 21 has positioned itself as a retail powerhouse, the American answer to fast fashion emporiums like the European-based Zara, Mexx, and H&M.” 

This attitude, however, brought Forever 21 into clashes with designers, and the company weathered multiple lawsuits. It also faced lawsuits surrounding shady labour practices, documented in films like Made in L.A., and boycotted over in 2001 and again in 2012. In 2013, it reacted to the recession by transitioning many workers into an army of part-timers in advance of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for full-health coverage for full-time employees. The company, founded on an American dream, predicated on the promise of economically savvy designs and shrewd deals, had fallen prey to its own vices – vices that had now become known as a ruthless and relentless greed, blind to its many victims. 

But beyond this re-interpretation of the previously-lauded American value of enterprise, fast-fashion’s environmentally unfriendly conditions and sketchy labour policies had drawn the attention of an increasingly conscious American public. In 2012, a blogger started the temporarily viral WordPress page, WTFOREVER21, where she featured a number of shoddy designs gone awry in the mass manufacture of clothing. 

Greed makes for unappealing aesthetic side-effects: increasingly flimsy fabrics, poor-quality designs, and unflattering and hastily assembled silhouettes grace the mannequins and racks of Forever 21’s remaining stores. Their styles are increasingly corporatized, and collaborations with snack companies are  the most recent in a number of cash-grabs that indicate a turn away from fashion and towards advertising profit. On TikTok, Depop, and other social media sites, young teens are returning to a nostalgic 80’s clothing style, which Forever 21 has failed to deliver. 

This past year has marked the beginning of fast fashion’s skeletons climbing out of their closets and playing catch-up. In September, American singer Ariana Grande sued Forever 21 for $10 million for using her likeness to advertise garments in the style of her music video, 7 rings. Since then, the company has transitioned from closing stores across the country to filing for bankruptcy in September of 2019.

The closing of affordable fashion giants such as Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe may not mark the sudden end of fast fashion, but their demise indicates a critical turning point towards the slow end of thoughtless manufacture with the singular goal of generating revenue at any cost. H&M and Zara are turning towards eco-friendly ventures, while the American public move towards repurposed clothing avenues through resale, such as Depop. Whatever the future, Forever 21’s demise marks the close of a chapter of the fashion industry that will most likely not be missed. 

Far from death, however, fast fashion is finding a rebirth of sorts in the world of online shopping. Companies such as ASOS boast a mobile app that has been downloaded over 7 million times in the past several years of operation. ASOS’ lack of a physical storefront allows it to appeal not only to a younger generation of shoppers, but also provide a more durable series of outfits for its customers . ASOS offers brand names and is capitalizing off the new understanding of convenience in the current fashion market. Perhaps, then, fashion consumers aren’t moving away from fast fashion so much as simply reinterpreting what convenient fashion means to us: rather than cheap sweaters in a fluorescent-lit warehouse of a store, we’re turning towards the arrival of fashion on our doorstep: cheap, convenient, and new. Fast fashion isn’t dying a slow death so much as exploring its potential for rebirth and reinterpretation: this time, economical, assiduous and environmentally aware.  

  • Attiya is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Migration, Mobility, and Development Studies at the University of SOAS in London. She holds a Master's degree in Women's Studies from the University of Oxford and a B.A. in Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia. Her research, writing, and advocacy center a critique of neocolonial projects' exploitation of Muslim and subaltern women.