On 29 September, it was declared official: Forever 21 has filed for bankruptcy.
Immediately, people began picking the brand apart, pointing out how they were now paying for their “retail mistakes”.
While it has its faults, the fact that its founders built up Forever 21 to become a household name is still something to be admired. Here’s what’s inspirational about their entrepreneurial journey:
1. They Started Off As Immigrants In California
Married couple Do Won and Jin Sook were 27 and 18 respectively when they immigrated from South Korea to the U.S. in 1981.
They were penniless, didn’t speak English and didn’t have college degrees.
Having worked in coffee shops while growing up in South Korea, Do Won thought that coffee might have been his ticket to the American Dream after immigrating.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. To make ends meet, they started off working in various service jobs.
Do Won worked as a janitor, a gas station attendant, and washed dishes in a coffee shop, while Jin Sook worked as a hairdresser.
2. Against All Odds, They Made It Work
All it took was one simple observation by Do Won to spark the conception of what is known today as Forever 21.
“I noticed the people who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business,” Do Won told Los Angeles Times in 2010.
In 1984, armed with determination and USD$11,000 in savings, the Changs opened their first store spanning 900 square feet in Los Angeles.
It was named Fashion 21, and the Korean American community made up their initial clientele. Once sales took off and they hit USD$700,000 in revenue in their first year, they were opening new stores every six months.
3. They Made Their Business Last Over 30 Years
Fashion 21 had its name changed to Forever 21 in 1987 after the founders felt “young adults saw 21-year-olds as having the independence they so desired and older adults fondly remembered being 21 and unburdened by life’s obligations and responsibilities.”
Its first international store was established in Canada in 2001, and in 2003, Forever 21 expanded its business online through its website, forever21.com.
Not only did Do Won and Jin Sook have to stay ahead of the retail game, but they also did their best to keep up with the times by catering to the interests of different demographics.
They added 21 Men, their men’s line, to the brand in 2006 and launched their own lingerie line in 2007.
In 2009, they even ventured into producing their own cosmetics and launched a line specifically for plus-sized women called Forever 21+.
Forever 21 reached its peak in 2015 when it was bringing in USD$4.4 billion in sales from over 600 stores.
Forbes also reported that Do Won and Jin Sook had a combined net worth of USD$5.9 billion at the time.
4. They Built A Globally Recognised Legacy
26 years after Do Won and Jin Sook entered the retail industry, they were running around 500 stores under the brand Forever 21 in the U.S.
By 2018, they had about 800 stores in 623 locations spanning from Africa to Asia, Europe, and even Oceania. As of 2019, they have 32,800 employees across the globe.
All the while, they’ve kept Forever 21 a family-owned business by involving their two daughters, Linda and Esther in company operations.
5. And They’re Not Giving Up On It
Forever 21 may have filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11, but it doesn’t quite signify the “end” of the brand.
Not ready to close its doors yet, it’s obtained USD$350 million to facilitate in its restructuring: USD$275 million from JP Morgan Chase and USD$75 million from TPG Sixth Street Partners.
The founders’ daughter Linda Chang, who’s the brand’s Executive Vice President, said that this would enable them to reorganise their business and reposition Forever 21.
She went on to say, “With support from our key landlord and vendor constituents, we are confident we will emerge as a stronger, more competitive enterprise that is better positioned to prosper for years to come, and we remain committed to delivering the fast fashion trends that our customers have come to expect from Forever 21.”
It’s unrealistic to think that every single journey will have a happy ending. Instead, what should count is what has happened throughout the journey.
Forever 21 may be bankrupt, but in the time in between, it’s changed the lives of its founders.
Do Won and Jin Sook went from being immigrants making ends meet to becoming billionaires and owners of a global retail brand.
Even though they fell off Forbes’ billionaire ranks in July 2019, they still have USD$1.6 billion in combined net worth, which means they’re worth USD$800 million each.
Their entrepreneurial story is one that’s undeniably impressive, and you’d be a fool to dismiss that just because Forever 21 is now bankrupt.
- You can read more about what we’ve written on Forever 21 here.