Husband and wife behind Forever 21’s global success

OUR life is what our thoughts make it.” That’s a powerful quote by Marcus Aurelius.

According to writer Alyssa Sparacino, New Year’s resolutions are a bit like babies: They’re fun to make but extremely difficult to maintain.

But I want to resonate the eight powerful words above that might just change your life forever. And that, my dear readers, connects me to the story of Forever 21, the fifth largest specialty retailer in the United States that was started by a simple Korean immigrant with a dream.

The average Forever 21 store is 38,000 square feet; the largest is approximately 162,000 square feet.

It all began in a 900-square ft. shop on Figueroa St. in Los Angeles on April 21, 1984. Forever 21 did not start off as Forever 21, but instead, Fashion 21. Founded by South Korean husband and wife team Do Won Chang and Jin Sook, Fashion 21 was launched in Los Angeles in 1984. Back then, both of them were immigrants to the States.

Forever 21 has seen some remarkable accomplishments over the past 30 years.

With a goal to become an $8-billion company by 2017 and open 600 stores in the next three years, it’ll be exciting to see the company achieve in three years what it initially took 30 years to do.

Forever 21 has expanded to an international brand, with 480 stores worldwide that generates around $3 billion in sales every year. What’s the story behind it?

In 1981, Jin Sook and Do Won “Don” Chang, both 26 at the time, emigrated from South Korea to California penniless, speaking broken English, and without college degrees.

For three years, Don worked as a janitor, pumped gas, and served coffee to make ends meet. Then, a simple observation sparked a monumental shift in their direction, which would eventually make them billionaires.

“I noticed the people who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business,” Don told the LA Times in a 2010 interview.

This realization led them to open a 900-square-foot clothing store in LA in 1984. They called it Fashion 21. Unlike the three failed businesses that had previously occupied the space, they raked in$700,000 in sales in the first year. After this initial success, they began opening new stores every six months and eventually changed the name to Forever 21.

Since launching and working on Forever 21, the husband and wife team’s personal net worth has been estimated by Forbes to be over $4 billion. The role is complemented perfectly between the both of them: Mrs. Chang approves the designs of the company’s merchandise, while Mr. Chang focuses on turning Forever 21 into the fastest fast-fashion chain in the business, and in the process he has made the company widely successful.

In an age where innovation is more than ever about being fastest to market, the Changs are faster than anyone.

What keeps Forever 21 going?

Do Won Chang replies, “We keep changing. We are always thinking about the customer, not just for the company. That’s why we are successful. Women’s fashion is very difficult because it is changing every day. Fashion changes so fast, so time is the most important thing. If you are too late, you are too late. If you are too early, you are too early. So timing is very important.”

Why is Forever 21 so successful?

“The company keeps its prices low. It lives up to its motto, “Shop Chic Styles for Less,” by continually updating its merchandise to remain fashion forward”, replies Chang.

Even with the company’s tremendous growth, it still remains a family owned business.

Daughter Linda Chang, the chain’s marketing manager says, “The great thing about this being a family business is that we all care so much. The stressful thing is that my mum and dad are also my bosses. I don’t have a personal life. We don’t stop. We talk about business over dinner. We go on mission trips [to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan] instead of vacations.”

Her parents, who are born-again Christians, go to church at 5 a.m. every morning. Mrs. Chang has been quoted as saying that when they came to America, she went to the top of a mountain to pray – God told her she should open a store. Today, Mr. Chang is famous for keeping a Bible open on his desk, and the bottom of every Forever 21 carrier bag reads “John 3:16”, the core Christian message. Does their Christian faith jar with the ethics of selling fast fashion? How will British customers feel about the brand’s religious tilt? “There is no religious tilt,” answers Linda firmly. “The faith of the founders is separate from the brand – the bag is simply a statement of faith.”

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