Forever 21's bankruptcy isn't the end of fast fashion. But it is the end of a cheap, sparkly era.

Fast fashion democratized on-trend style to working class people, but only through its reliance upon even poorer women to produce the clothes.
Image: Fashion bloggers tour a Forever 21 store in Chicago on Aug. 8, 2014.
Fashion bloggers tour a Forever 21 store in Chicago on Aug. 8, 2014.Timothy Hiatt / Getty Images for Forever 21 file
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By Lily Burana

A blush pink "fur" jacket with hood and deep pockets. Soft chenille sweaters, in rose and in chocolate. The leopard print trench coat that made my heart sing. These are a few of my favorite things... from the struggling fast fashion brand, Forever 21.

The chain was unique in its international reach and (until now) brand durability, unlike the Debs (bankrupt and closed in 2015), Contempo Casuals (converted en masse to Wet Seals in 2001, which then went bankrupt and closed in 2017), and Joyce Leslie (went bankrupt and closed in 2016) stores of my youth; most such stores were only regional. And its name spawned a thousand jokes among even devotees, like “How about we start a store called Forever 39 that just sells yoga pants, baggy shirts and red wine?”

Still, by the time Forever 21 — which only opened its first mall store in 1989 and its first store outside California in 1995 — opened its Union Square location in Manhattan in 2004, I was already well over 21. In fact, I entered with some trepidation, as if a "Logan’s Run"-style red light might start blinking over my head, indicating that An Old had breached its barriers. But like its contemporaries H&M and Zara, Forever 21 was patronized by women of all ages. The owners might have been clear in the reasoning behind the selection of the name — young women wanted to be 21 forever, while older women wanted to be 21 again, which is a debatable proposition — but its purpose was to signal a kind of inclusivity, so let’s roll with it, given fashion’s fixation on youth. At least it wasn't "Forever 14."

But Sunday, the retailer announced that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, eliciting strong reactions from business analysts and fashion fans alike. We all know that shopping malls — and the flagship chain stores that anchor them — are faltering as retail commerce moves ever-more online and “let’s go to the mall” declines as a social activity for our nation's youth.

Should the brand not be able to stay afloat, I will, and won’t, mourn the loss of the fast fashion giant.

Forever 21 has always been a reliable place to find cheap staples such as T-shirts, hoodies and leggings, as well as third-generation knockoffs of designs you could never afford from the couture houses that originated them. I appreciated that their affordable clothes allowed people of humble means the opportunity to jump on any trend that tickled their fancy, no matter how absurd it might seem.

Fast fashion democratized style. Through stores like Forever 21, you could try out any goofball look and still pay your rent and, if an occasional impulse buy turned out to be something of a fashion faux pas, you weren’t additionally economically devastated by your purchase. Forever 21 allowed me many flights of fashion fancy myself, with mixed results. I admit it: The patchwork faux fur jacket of gold, teal, turquoise, white and black bits of synthetic pelt did not work out quite as well as I’d hoped (full disclosure: I looked like a court jester who got styled by a nearsighted raver), but I didn’t have to wring my hands over a $69 error — which, as Forever 21 prices go, is on the higher side.

Not every woman, femme, or girl can afford higher quality goods. But the cruel paradox of fast fashion is that it makes clothing accessible to working class women through its reliance upon even poorer women to produce it.

The canary yellow shopping bags — in a nod to the company owners’ faith — all have “John 3:16” printed on the bottom (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life). It is, of course, rather ironic to tote around a bag with a quote about eternal life when it contains, say, a pair of shoes produced by people under exploitative conditions and made of such inexpensive materials that they might disintegrate right off of your feet if you ran for the bus.

Eventually, despite my love for a good deal and a magpie-like attraction to fashion frippery, when I put something I wanted on the Forever 21 website into my shopping cart — because, like many consumers, I shop for clothes online more and more — I’d think, Wow, this feels gross. As climate change and other environmental issues become ever more urgent, it is hard to balance the joy of a cheap fashion fling with its collateral damage.

Forever 21 may be on shaky ground, but analysts insist the overall industry of fast fashion is hardly in danger of collapse. Competing companies like ASOS and Fashion Nova, both market-savvy brands, exist only online and know how to speak to a diverse market — ASOS through an appealing cast of desultory male and female models of all races and sizes in perpetual sulk, and Fashion Nova through unabashedly sexy models with after-hours makeup, big hoop earrings and hourglass curves of such extremity you wonder if the shaping force at work is God’s hand or someone with a stalker-level obsession with Photoshop.

Even with the brand a household name and stores well-populated with customers whenever I dropped in, I could tell that Forever 21 was unlikely to survive, well, forever. For one thing, they vastly overestimated their ability to sustain such enormous storefronts. (The average Forever 21 store is, according to the company website, 38,000 square feet, which is the size of this $188 million Bel Air mansion.) The location in the Palisades Mall, in Nyack, New York, a popular — as malls go these days — shopping destination just north of the New Jersey state line, was a cavernous two stories, with an escalator between the two floors. The first time I shopped there, I thought, “My dudes, isn’t this a bit much? ” (And, of course, the struggles of stalwart retail giant Macy’s have also been well-documented.)

Will Forever 21 save itself through the necessary business maneuvers, or will it fade like so many before it? That remains to be seen. But trends, like the stores that tout them, come and go. After all, one of the truisms of business is also the first first rule of fashion: Nothing lasts forever — especially being 21.