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Forever 21 Files For Bankruptcy, May Close Up To 178 U.S. Stores

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Forever 21 has become the latest store to remind us that nothing is really forever. The clothing chain has filed for bankruptcy. The company says it is not going away, but it may close nearly 200 stores. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: In many ways, the story of Forever 21 is that of the mall-going teen culture of the 1990s and 2000s. The teens grew up, and their once-favorite brands went down the bankruptcy path - American Apparel, Topshop, Quicksilver - remember Wet Seal? - and now Forever 21. Today's 21-year-olds, like Madeline Partow, aren't enamored with this kind of forever.

MADELINE PARTOW: Low quality, cheap clothing. Yeah, that's pretty much it (laughter). But it is very, like, on-trend.

SELYUKH: Back in the '90s, when Forever 21 got big, all that was actually quite groundbreaking. It was a time when access to fashion was exclusive, says Christina Moon, fashion studies professor at Parsons School of Design.

CHRISTINA MOON: What you saw on the runway remained on the runway. You read it in the pages of Vogue magazine.

SELYUKH: But Forever 21 propelled the era of fast fashion.

MOON: Suddenly you can actually get something for under $50 that you saw on the runway within just a couple weeks time.

SELYUKH: For the couple that started the company, this was the American Dream. Do Won and Jin Sook Chang were Korean immigrants who started with one store in Los Angeles. Together with their daughters, the two are still executives at Forever 21. And what they did for shoppers is make fashion accessible. Precy Trinidad says she's been shopping at Forever 21 since 1999, where she likes to buy gifts for her relatives.

PRECY TRINIDAD: I get some shirts and some skirts for my nieces, fashion earrings for my other nieces here and back home.

SELYUKH: Back home is the Philippines. Trinidad says she loves the store. It's fashion she can afford as a live-in housekeeper. We caught her today checking out the store in downtown Washington, one of more than 500 that Forever 21 has in the U.S. alone.

The company grew very fast. It's also still one of the biggest tenants in American malls, which are struggling. And the fashion world keeps changing. Younger shoppers want clothes that are more environmentally friendly, recycled or thrifty. They want higher quality and better working conditions at factories. And if they want fast fashion, they often go online to stores like ASOS or Fashion Nova.

And so Forever 21 is trying to reset, hoping the bankruptcy will lead to a start of a new forever. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.