At age 21, Esther Dukhee Chang ’08 was studying stitches as a fiber science major in the College of Human Ecology. Now, Esther is better known by fashion professionals as the second daughter of Forever 21 founders, Do Won and Jin Sook Chang. In September, while serving as the famous fast-fashion brand’s vice president of merchandising, she was part of their declaration of bankruptcy.
Once regarded as the most popular brand among teens and twenty-somethings, Forever 21 at its peak made more than $4 billion in annual sales. This year, the retail titan was forced to file for bankruptcy due to its overcalculation in opening stores in expensive areas, according to The New York Times.
Chang joined her parents’ company in 2011 as the head of the visual display team and was placed in charge of creating graphics and window displays with the company’s trademark bright yellow. In partnership with her older sister Linda, she co-launched Forever 21’s beauty and accessories brand “Riley Rose” in 2017.
In 2015, Chang’s parents borrowed $5 million from each of their daughters’ trust funds to keep the company afloat, The Los Angeles Times reported — ensnaring them both in bankruptcy proceedings.
FSAD Prof. Van Dyk Lewis referred to Forever 21 as “a friend” of the Cornell department. “We’ve done projects with them before,” Van Dyk Lewis told The Sun. As part of a class assignment years ago, Cornell students designed two collections for the brand, which later were sold in stores.
According to Grace Anderson ’21, an E-board member of Cornell Fashion Industry Network, the department also accepted a donated set of mannequins a few years ago.
Forever 21 is no stranger to controversies — according to The Los Angeles Times, The U.S. Department of Labor alleged that the company’s factories operate with “sweatshop-like conditions.” And as one of the original companies that helped shape the fast-fashion industry, Forever 21 has been criticized for its vast water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The perils of fast fashion are a hot topic on-campus in FSAD classrooms, too. Prof. Tasha Lewis and her fellow student researchers focus on the principles of sustainability, and the once multi-billion company’s recent announcement of its bankruptcy has sparked the conversation among academic professionals.
“[The industry] is a bit problematic,” Prof. Mark Milstein, director of Center for the Sustainable Global Enterprise in the SC Johnson College of Business, told The Sun.
“I suppose in theory it addresses consumers’ desire for a different change in clothes, but the impact that it has environmentally and the amount of waste it produces is pretty significant,” he continued.
For similar reasons, Forever 21’s demise was no surprise to several students who spoke to The Sun.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it were due to the decline in the demand for fast and cheap fashion,” Mikala Bliahu ’22, an environment and sustainability major, said. “Brands like Forever 21 are cheap and insolent and don’t deserve to be a staple for youth. Fast fashion in all promotes consumerism while keeping a secret as to how the clothing is made.”
Eva Milstein-Touesnard ’22, a government major and environmental and sustainability minor, says she is not surprised because both the company and the entire fast-fashion industry often fail to be sustainable. “Obviously they need materials that are even cheaper than the cheap prices of their products.”
According to the Letter to Our Customers on the company’s website, filing for bankruptcy protection under chapter 11 allows Forever 21 “to continue to operate its stores as usual, while the Company takes positive steps to reorganize the business.”
Thus, it is still early days to conclude the final fate of Forever 21. Anderson wishes them well and “we hope they consider investing further into protecting the environment and their workers,” Anderson said.