Bloomberg Businessweek

Forever Is a Long Time

The singular practices and spectacular flameout of Forever 21

Larry Meyer stood not-at-all-still near the entrance of Forever 21’s new store on Fifth Avenue. Twenty-four hours until the grand opening, and no one had slept much. Tomorrow there would be a DJ and carnival games and velvet ropes on the Manhattan sidewalk. There would be giddy teenagers and older tourists wondering what happened to the Japanese department store that used to be in the space. It was November 2010. Businesses of all kinds were closing, but Forever 21 Inc., the most exciting name in fast fashion, was expanding, and Meyer was in charge of finding the biggest spaces in the best locations.

So he stood, and he chatted, and he looked around. He was scanning for someone, and that someone came into view: Do Won Chang, who, with his wife, Jin Sook, had founded the retailer in Los Angeles in 1984, just a few years after they’d arrived from South Korea. Everyone, including Meyer—a senior executive at the company for almost a decade—called them Mr. and Mrs. Chang. “Mr. Chang needs you,” someone rushed over to tell him. “Oh, I have to go,” Meyer told a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter. Would he be in Los Angeles next week? “We never know where we’re going to be.”

Over the next two years, Meyer was everywhere, including Hong Kong, where he opened Forever 21’s most expensive store, in Causeway Bay. The rent was $1.4 million a month, he announced proudly on Bloomberg TV. And it wasn’t even the company’s biggest store. That was a 150,000-square-foot emporium in Fresno, Calif.

By the end of 2012, Meyer had gone for good, or so it seemed: He became president of Uniqlo Co.’s U.S. operations. If anything, though, the pace of store openings at Forever 21 sped up. There were more parties, more ribbon-cuttings, more happy landlords in London, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, Beirut, Jiddah, Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Manila, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Cape Town, Sydney. At its peak in 2014 the company brought in some $4 billion in revenue. Forever 21 was secretive and hierarchical and 99% owned by the Changs. And it had become a crucial tenant for mall owners.

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