/Forever 21 didnt win over Gen Z, leading to downfall, experts say

Forever 21 didnt win over Gen Z, leading to downfall, experts say

  • Forever 21‘s bankruptcy comes as a result of a series of missteps, but its most egregious failure may be failing to appeal to Gen Z shoppers, experts say. 
  • While Gen Z is looking for affordable clothing, it’s more sustainability-minded than older generations and has taken a liking to resale and thrift shopping, threatening the former dominance of fast fashion. 
  • “They want to have more autonomy over the way they put themselves together, more so than they get from a place like Forever 21,” Vanderbilt lecturer Alexandra Sargent Capps told Business Insider. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On any given day on Vanderbilt’s campus, the group of students in Alexandra Sargent Capps’s theater course arrive wearing an eclectic mix of clothing, the type of ensembles you wouldn’t see at your run-of-the-mill mall store.  

“They really love to go to Goodwill,” Capps said. “They like to feel that by recycling old clothes, they’re a little more creative in the way that they put things together. They really like going to thrift stores.”

As a senior lecturer of theater and manager of the Vanderbilt Costume Shop, Capps works intimately with clothing and discusses it frequently with her students. She also teaches a course on the history of fashion that features sustainable and “slow fashion” on the syllabus, a topic she first added to her class eight years ago — a period in post-recession America when fast-fashion retailers were in their heyday. 

Read more: Photos show the glory days of Forever 21, which thrived with cheap styles in the wake of the recession but has now fallen into bankruptcy

“That sense of individuality that was taken away with fast fashion is something [my students] recognize and they want to make amends for,” she said. “They want to have more autonomy over the way they put themselves together, more so than they get from a place like Forever 21.” 

‘So unappealing, so cheap, and so generic’

Capps’ students aren’t alone in their sentiments. Around the nation, fast fashion has fallen out of favor with Gen Z shoppers, a loss that ultimately contributed to pushing Forever 21 into bankruptcy this past week. According to a recent analysis from the marketing and research firm YPulse — which examined factors like willingness to buy among shoppers age 13-30 — the retailer’s overall momentum “has seen the steepest declines.”

Forever 21_YPulse Brand Tracker Momentum Scores


Likewise, on social media, young consumers weren’t too shy to share their thoughts on where Forever 21 went wrong. Their primary grievance was out-of-touch designs, including a slew of collections like its United States Postal Service line and an assortment of Cheetos-inspired clothing. 


“People walk into [Forever 21] and are shocked by what a mess some of the stores are in, just masses of clothes that are so unappealing, so cheap, and so generic that they don’t seem like something people would want to purchase,” Capps said. 

Anil Mathews, CEO of analytics firm Near, said that while he doesn’t think Gen Z will be shutting the door on mall brands completely, it’s just less interested in what Forever 21 has to offer.

“Retailers may think they have Gen Zers pegged, but our data shows that it’s not necessarily fast-fashion brands like Forever 21 attracting young shoppers, but the likes of Target, Adidas, Nike and even brands you might not expect like Lululemon,” Mathew said. 

Resale beats out fast fashion 

Just because Gen Z is aiming to be more unique, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to do so at a bargain. Now they’re seeing the value in thrifting and resale, rather than buying mountains of cheaply made $5 shirts. 

According to a recent Business Insider survey of 1,884 Americans between the ages of 13 and 21, 60% of respondents said price was their biggest factor when deciding whether to purchase from a specific brand. While a desire for cheap clothing may seem to lend itself to fast fashion, Gen Z is also more sustainability-minded. A 2017 Cone Communications study found that 94% of Gen Z respondents believe companies should help address social and environmental issues, compared to 87% of millennials. 

Read more: Gen Z is leading an evolution in shopping that could kill brands as we know them 

Spotting an opportunity to capitalize, resale companies like Poshmark, Depop, and ThredUp have risen up in recent years to meet the rising demand for cheaper fashion, attracting Gen Z shoppers with their user-friendly e-commerce and mobile platforms. 

Tim de Paris, CTO at Decibel, a company that helps brands improve their user experience, told Business Insider that part of Forever 21’s downfall rests in its failure to innovate digitally. The company overinvested in massive physical retail spaces in the US and abroad instead of working to better meet their customer where they are: online. 

“The shopping experience it’s delivering offline might not have translated well online,” de Paris said. “It’s why we’re seeing many retailers struggle against rising competition from online rivals. Stores that are surviving and thriving in this era of retail don’t just have a website and leave it be.”

Ultimately, Capps said she hopes the Forever 21 bankruptcy is “endemic of a sign of a real changing tide” against the dangers of fast fashion. 

“Forever 21 has always represented the worst evils of fast fashion,” she said. “There’s just an ugliness to what’s in their stores, to the way they’re set up. Hopefully this is a sign that people see that buying endless numbers of items for $1, $5, and $10 doesn’t make any sense.” 

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