THIS LOOK -- Will a wave of piracy lawsuits bring down
(the original article is no longer online; full
NOT TOO LONG AGO, a down-market clothier
could sell cheap runway knockoffs for pennies on the dollar
and no one cried foul. After all, major fashion designers
didn't exactly lose customers when suburban day-trippers
picked up "Channel" clutches on Canal Street.
But in the late '90s, cheap-chic mega-retailers like H&M,
Zara, Mexx, and Topshop figured out that with breakneck
turnaround and passable construction standards, they could
offer affordable pieces haute enough for even the trendiest
Condé Nast assistant. Best of all, aspiring Carrie
Bradshaws didn't seem to care if their garments disintegrated
At first glance, Forever 21, a clothing chain run by a
devoutly religious husband-and-wife team, seems strangely
out of place in this clique of cheap-chic powerhouses.
Stockholm-based H&M employs 60,000 people and is run
by a 12-member board of directors. Zara is the giant flagship
brand for Spain's Inditex. Mexx, based in the Netherlands,
is owned by Liz Claiborne. And the UK's Topshop is a division
of retail giant Arcadia. Forever 21, in contrast, operates
in relative obscurity from a shabby corner of Los Angeles.
The company has no famous designers or ad budget, nor
a single public relations flack. Yet its revenue topped
$1 billion in 2006, catapulting Forever 21 into the ranks
of the top 500 privately held companies in the United
States. In just five years, it has quadrupled in size,
crushing competitors like Rampage and Gadzooks—and
is putting the squeeze on mighty retailers like the Gap.
In 2001, the house that khakis built posted a $7.7 million
loss, while Forever 21 boasted 64 percent growth in revenue
thanks to 36 new stores sprinkled across the country.
How did an operation founded by poor Korean immigrants
and headquartered in L.A.'s sweatshop district so rapidly
become a player in an industry dominated by huge European
conglomerates? Its founders chalk it all up to hard work
and a frugal corporate culture. Others allege outright
design theft. In the past year, the company has faced
more than two dozen federal lawsuits for piracy, brought
by labels including Anna Sui, Diane von Furstenberg, and
Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Lovers, along with a raft of fabric
AT THE CENTER of the storm are Do Won
"Don" Chang and his wife, Jin Sook, the ferociously
private, deeply Christian couple who founded the store
24 years ago. "In L.A.'s Korean community they're
a constant topic of gossip and speculation. Everyone has
a story about being screwed by them," says a local
fashion player. "But you have to admire their success.
People join their church just to get close to them,"
The Changs, now in their fifties, emigrated from South
Korea to California in 1981. According to company lore,
it was while working at a gas station that year (one of
his three jobs) that Don noticed the nicest cars were
driven by people in the fashion industry. Shortly thereafter,
the Changs put their native tongue to use making deals
at local garment factories, and in 1984, they opened Fashion
21 in a low-rent area near Pasadena.
From the start, the store featured the bright lights,
loud music, and friendly staff that quickly became its
trademark. It peddled a wide array of cheaply made skimpy
clothing, carefully chosen by Mrs. Chang herself. A former
hairdresser with a keen eye for salable new trends, she
acted as the chief merchandiser, personally selecting
fabrics and designs for the company's tailors to knock
off. A hard-charging, fastidious woman, she remains obsessively
hands-on with all aspects of the business, while her more
retiring husband, Don, mainly attends to the company's
By 1995, as growing numbers of teenagers flocked to the
L.A. store in search of bargains, the Changs had changed
the name of their company to Forever 21 and opened their
first store outside California, in Miami's Mall of the
Americas. Six years later, their empire had grown to 100
locations. In a daring but ultimately prudent move, the
Changs chose not to advertise, instead putting their money
toward premium real estate that attracted heavy foot traffic.
Then, in 2004, around the same time they opened their
first Manhattan store, Forever 21's inventory began to
evolve from miniskirts and tights for teenage girls to
include fashionable coordinates for respectable adults.
The gamble paid off. Today, more than 400 stores—in
the U.S., Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Jordan, and the
United Arab Emirates—operate under the Forever 21
umbrella, including Forever XXI (the large urban flagship),
For Love 21 (accessories), Heritage 1981 (an attempt to
penetrate the midmarket), and Twelve By Twelve (an attempt
to penetrate couture), with more on the way.
A faded Fashion 21 sign still hangs outside their first
L.A. store, which has changed surprisingly little since
it opened. Inside, it remains a garish, disorganized explosion
of semidisposable apparel. But even in this modest 900-square-foot
corner space, Mrs. Chang's vision is very much evident:
She has always believed that shopping should be "a
little bit of a treasure hunt." Fresh merchandise
arrives every day—a typical store will roll over
20 percent of its stock in a given week. The constant
turnover is key to the chain's appeal: If you like something,
you must buy it right now, as you may never see another
one like it again.
Typically, midmarket competitors like the Gap, Old Navy,
and Urban Outfitters need three months to take an item
from design to rack. For Forever 21, the cycle is reduced
to a matter of weeks. To produce on such a tight schedule,
the company depends on flexible, eager manufacturers,
and doesn't waste time on original designs. Instead, immediately
after the season's latest styles hit the runways or trade
shows, they are duplicated by the company's journeyman
designers around the world, and often arrive on shelves
before the originals do. Stroll through a store, as I
did recently in New York, and the knockoffs are easy to
spot. On the ground floor, a black shift dress descended
from a Gucci design is priced to sell at $24.80. Upstairs,
a Marc by Marc Jacobs–inspired checkered peacoat
goes for $59.80, and a $22.80 white button-down smacks
This brazen pilfering of high-end fashion has left the
injured parties in something of a bind. The variations
and permutations that define fashion—hemlines, stitches,
sleeves—sit outside of U.S. copyright law; only
logos and brand names are protected. "Just about
every other area of creativity gets some kind of protection.
Fashion design gets next to none." says Susan Scafidi,
a professor of copyright law at Fordham Law School who
runs counterfeitchic.com. "And Forever 21's rip-offs
are, in many cases, extremely blatant."
But while the designs aren't protected, the original fabric
prints may be. Which is why, when Forever 21 produced
a rose-patterned dress clearly "inspired" by
a Betsey Johnson original in 2007, Betsey Johnson, Inc.,
didn't sue. Instead, Carole Hochman Design Group, the
Johnson vendor that actually created the pattern, took
Forever 21 to court.
In a bid to curtail copycats, Representative William
Delahunt introduced the Design Piracy Prohibition Act
in 2007. As president of the Council of Fashion Designers
of America, Diane von Furstenberg is a key proponent of
the legislation. Oddly enough, though, she's also one
of the few claimants to have settled with Forever 21,
under undisclosed terms in September.
ON A WARM SPRING DAY, I visit the Forever
21 nerve center, located on a sketchy stretch of Alameda
Street. It's a taco-joint neighborhood, with an adult
bookshop and a scrap-iron buyer just down the road; on
several lampposts, flyers advertise "transitional
housing." Through an open garage door, I spy the
packing lines, where thousands of plastic-wrapped garments
float overhead and hundreds of mostly Latino workers shuttle
items to a small fleet of unmarked panel trucks. In a
bare conference room, Forever 21's senior vice president,
Larry Meyer, a youthful fiftysomething with an active
BlackBerry, gets down to business. Asked about the copyright
infringement suits, Meyer passes the buck to the company's
fabric vendors. "We pay them a licensing fee, or
the manufacturer does. We rely on them," he explains,
"but the problems happen, and we deal with it."
Unlike most of its competitors, the majority of Forever
21's manufacturing is U.S.-based. They use American labor,
which is not to say they're pro-labor. In September 2001,
with the help of the Garment Workers Center (GWC), 19
employees filed suit complaining about a variety of issues,
including unpaid wages, mandatory unpaid overtime, 12-
to 15-hour days, and compulsory weekend shifts—without,
of course, any benefits. The GWC initiated a nationwide
boycott, which led to protests at several stores and a
demonstration at the Changs' $9.8 million Beverly Hills
home. Then, according to GWC director Kimi Lee, "things
got ugly." Forever 21 filed defamation suits against
the workers, GWC employees, and the GWC itself for connecting
Forever 21 with sweatshops, and maintained that they were
not responsible for conditions at a supplier's factory.
In March 2004, the Los Angeles Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals disagreed, ruling that retailers could be held
accountable for sweatshop abuses. An undisclosed settlement
was announced later that year.
The garment industry isn't exactly known for its humanity.
From the infamous Kathie Lee Gifford case in Honduras
to the mid-'90s controversy over Nike's practices overseas,
it's a business built on moral relativism. Or as one anonymous
fashion buyer tells me, "Everyone in this business
is a scumbag to some degree." But the irony is that
Don and Jin Sook Chang also happen to be hardcore evangelical
Every Forever 21 shopping bag bears the words John 3:16,
pointing customers to the Bible-thumpers' mantra: "For
God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten
Son...." The verse, according to Meyer, is simply
"an exhibition of their faith." The Changs are
charitable people who give to their church, he tells me.
"They travel on mission trips, and that's part of
their being." In May 2006, the Fuller Theological
Seminary dedicated its new housing commons to the Changs,
who had reportedly ponied up $3 million. The Pasadena-based
seminary seeks to "best equip leaders who are ready
to serve the Church and the world." According to
a business insider who spoke anonymously, Mrs. Chang,
who attends predawn services every day and strongly encourages
her vendors to do the same, makes it a point to give Christians
in the industry a leg up, too. "She plucks young
designers out of the companies she's working with,"
he says. "And if they're Christian and religious,
she puts them in business."
Rowena Rodriguez, a 33-year-old fashion consultant and
onetime "unbeliever" who was born again with
Mrs. Chang's help, may be one of those lucky designers.
"In the short time I worked with Mrs. Chang, my life
was transformed, and I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord
and savior," she recalls in an e-mail interview.
"Mrs. Chang prayed me into the kingdom!" Rodriguez
says she has been approached by executives looking for
the secret to Forever 21's phenomenal success. "I
usually say, 'If you really want to know, I'll tell you.
But you won't believe me. ... The Changs love Jesus!'"
If the religious fervor fazes Meyer, he doesn't show it.
"They're proud of being Christian," he says.
"We are who we are because of the inspiration they
give." He attributes the company's growth not to
divine intervention but thrift. "We share rooms when
we travel," he says. "We don't spend money the
way other people spend money."
Compared to their attention-addicted fashion-world colleagues,
the Changs are careful to maintain a low profile. There
is exactly one photograph of them available online. Last
year, after consenting to an in-person interview with
the New York Times, they unexpectedly sent a proxy instead.
(The surprised reporter described the substitute interviewee
as having "a born-again zeal.") Still, despite
their best efforts, the intensely private pair have become
a hotly discussed topic in L.A.'s close-knit apparel industry.
Not that anyone at Forever 21 worries about what the fashion
world thinks. "We're not garmentos," says Meyer,
with a dash of satisfaction. "We're vertical retailers.
We don't need panache. It's not about that. It's about
the customer seeing it and feeling it. That's what wins."
And winning, he says, "is walking through the malls
and seeing your store is the most crowded. That's really
all that matters."