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Forever 21 embraces stores that seem to go on forever

The cheap-chic retailer is aggressively super-sizing its stores as other chains shift to smaller locations. Retail experts aren't sure whether bigger is better, but Forever 21 says the larger stores are attracting new customers.

May 25, 2011|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times

Despite its growth, Forever 21 has largely remained a family enterprise, with Do Won Chang running the business as chief executive and his wife in charge of merchandising. A couple of years ago, the couple's daughters joined the business. Linda, 29, runs the marketing department and Esther, 24, spearheads visuals such as store displays and window design.

On the morning of the Beverly Center opening, the Chang sisters, bleary-eyed from working through the night, gave a tour of the two-level store, which includes expanded shoes and lingerie sections as well as a dedicated area for gifts such as key chains, ear buds, cellphone covers, notebooks and candy.

"This is a Swedish summer concept. It's unique only to this store," Esther says, sweeping her arm out toward racks of floral-print dresses, high-waisted shorts and flowy tops. "This is called 'glamazon,' it's more for the girl who wants to be a little bit sexy, who's very Kim Kardashian-inspired.... This is our Lolita section: We have little polka dots, we have stripes, we have hearts, it's supposed to be kind of like that Bettie Page look."

It's a dizzying assortment of fashion styles, made all the more impressive by the fact that nothing in the store costs more than $52 (for a men's jacket) and by how quickly the company is able to whip up new merchandise.

"It's all about keeping your eye out on the street, traveling, magazines. Inspiration comes from everywhere," Linda said. "And now with the Internet, it's easy to identify trends really quickly."

But Forever 21 has also been dogged for years by accusations that it is copying designer labels and manufacturing poorly made knockoffs for cheap overseas. Dozens of trademark and copyright infringement lawsuits have been filed against the company, which said it has never been found liable; it has settled some of the suits out of court.

Linda acknowledged that the company has faced criticism, but noted that the company was "doing a lot more legal compliance" and making sure its vendors were aware of the problem.

"We have millions of styles, and it's something that's kind of hard to control," she said. "But I think in recent years, people would say there has been a marked difference and that we have been putting it as a priority."

But Christian Avila of Hacienda Heights, who was keeping his girlfriend company at the Beverly Center opening, said he preferred more original looks. "They're all right; not necessarily my style," the 19-year-old said of Forever 21. "To be honest, I don't want to be wearing something I know everyone is wearing."

Forever 21's entry into large stores is injecting some excitement into malls, analysts say, noting that traditional department stores in particular have become boring for many shoppers. But competition is stiff in the fast-fashion world, with rivals H&M, Zara, Wet Seal and Charlotte Russe all vying for the same customers.

As she rode Forever 21's in-store escalator up to the second floor, hip-hop music blaring and throngs of customers angling to get inside, Linda Chang said she was confident Forever 21 could handle the competition and the large spaces.

"We're not going to stop and look back," she said. "Yes, we've had explosive growth, but we've been around for a while and we're prepped for this."

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