Don't get me wrong. I am all for the success of sustainable fashion and hope that one day it will become the norm. But that day has yet to come. Forever 21 may have been ousted out of the race, but does it mean that the game is over? I don't think so. It just paved the way for other stronger players.
In particular, newcomer Fashion Nova is gaining prominence by taking cues from the fast fashion business model that propelled Forever 21 to success, complementing it with impressive social media acumen. But to understand why Fashion Nova may very well be the successor of Forever 21, it is important to revisit the once-promising clothing chain's history.
Back to where F21 began
Before it became the poster child of fast fashion, Forever 21 was first showcased as an immigrant success story. The founders, married couple Do Won Chang and Jin Sook Chang, came to Los Angeles, United States from South Korea in the '80s. To make ends meet, Do Won Chang worked multiple jobs simultaneously as a janitor and gas station attendant. In a 2010 interview with Los Angeles Times, he shared that at one point he noticed it was the customers in the garment business that drove the most luxurious cars. So he decided that the clothing industry may just be his golden ticket.
It didn't take long before he and his wife opened their own clothing store, then called Fashion 21, which targeted the fashionable local Korean-American community in LA. Its business model was simple yet effective — get wholesale clothes at a discount and sell them fast at very affordable prices. This proved to be a winning formula. Soon, the Changs were expanding Forever 21 every six months and the brand stayed strong throughout the 2008 recession.
But Forever 21's fast-paced way of doing things eventually became their pitfall. The increasing demand for brand new designs at a rapid rate may have led to the company rolling out clothes of questionable quality. This demand also could have been one of the reasons that drove them to derive "inspiration" from other artists' works, leading to copyright disputes. On top of that, they were exposed to have been hiring factories that employ underpaid workers.
As if it was right on cue, the documentary film The True Cost was released. Many influencers who saw it, including prominent YouTuber Marzia who then had 7.5 million subscribers, spoke about "feeling guilty" of becoming a fast fashion consumer without knowing the social implications. Controversy piled up against fast fashion brands and Forever 21, being at the vanguard, became its prime target. Soon after, the retail apocalypse ensued. The online sphere became the future — and guess who's conquering it with unprecedented speed?
Fashion Nova's "ultra-fast fashion"
Fashion Nova mirrors after Forever 21 in more ways than one. Its founder, Richard Saghian, an Iranian-American, was noted to be as private (if not more) as the Changs and often shied away from interviews. But when he did talk to WWD, he revealed something interesting: that Fashion Nova is not just operating as a fast fashion brand. Saghian believed he turned this concept and made it even more efficient, coining it "ultra-fast fashion".
The way it works is similar to Forever 21's core ethos: sell cheap, trendy clothing at a rapid rate. But while Forever 21 worked with a relatively longer timeline (I say relatively, because let's not forget that at one point Jin Sook was approving 400 designs a day) to produce items after a trend becomes popular, Fashion Nova could easily spot a trend online thanks to Instagram, make their own samples in 24 hours and have it ready for a photo shoot in 48 hours.
Indeed, it doesn't take long for Fashion Nova to push out their own version of what a popular personality has recently worn.
In the case of Kim Kardashian West and the infamous Mugler dress incident, allegations of colluding with one another were put forward after hawked-eye Diet Prada spotted model Yodit Yemane's Instagram stories that show her modelling a dress with a design eerily similar to Mrs. West's outfit the night before. "Did Fashion Nova whip up the dress overnight in their Los Angeles atelier after seeing Kim in it or is she peddling her vintage finds to mass retailers ahead of debuting them for a calculated, timely release?" Diet Prada wrote on their Instagram post. Either way, this gives us an idea of how Saghian's ultra-fast fashion works — much faster than Forever 21 did in their heyday.
Different aesthetics, same old tactics
While Forever 21 and Fashion Nova have strikingly different aesthetics — the former is known for its "basic" trendy aesthetic, while the latter proclaims itself as a purveyor of "club-wear" — both are banking on what is popular. In the early 2010s, it was the casual, vintage-like hipster-inspired aesthetic that reigned. Now, it's the "unapologetically sexy" style ala Cardi B and the Kardashians that's coveted. So while they are very different on a surface level, the tactics they are using are strikingly similar.
You could say that Forever 21 was fuelled by Tumblr, and Fashion Nova gained success through the much more fast-paced microblogging app Instagram. Both brands' bread and butter is our unquenchable thirst for something new to show off online, leading to a "can't stop shopping" sentiment.
On the web, nobody wants to be caught wearing the same thing twice, especially not aspiring influencers who incidentally are the main spokespeople for these two brands.
And not surprisingly, they also share the same controversy when it comes to how they produce their clothes. Just three months after Forever 21 filed their bankruptcy, Fashion Nova faced their biggest controversy to date (yes, bigger than the Versace lawsuit): working with a factory that grossly underpaid workers, as revealed in a New York Times article.
Will Fashion Nova face the same downfall as Forever 21?
With its website only seven years old, it is impressive how fast Fashion Nova was able to achieve success in a short span of time. In 2018, they were the most googled fashion brand — a feat that's more or less on the same scale as Forever 21 becoming one of the major retail tenants in an age where the WWW is the place to be. But could the very same fast-fashion tactics (high design turnover, cheap items) that made these two brands successful lead to the same downfall trajectory? Only time will tell.
At this point, all I can really say is that Fashion Nova is on its way to replace Forever 21 as the leading horse in the fast fashion race. Fashion Nova took a cue from Forever 21's winning strategy and amped it up in every way to keep up with modern tastes. The continuous success of Fashion Nova is the biggest proof that fast fashion is far from dead. It simply took on a new form on a new platform. Can Fashion Nova hold on to its crown, or will we soon see another fast fashion brand entering the arena at super speed?
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