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Forever 21 CEO: ‘We’re Trying to Move Away From Being a Fast-Fashion Brand’

Helming the CEO post of Forever 21 since January, Winnie Park knows she has a long road ahead to redefine the brand for a younger audience of what she calls “shapeshifters.” Once a mega-hit among millennials, the fast-fashion retailer’s post-bankruptcy journey is now about finding its footing with a pickier, more diverse Gen Z demographic—and that means delving deep into circularity, influencers and the metaverse.

“Truthfully, we’re trying to move away from being a fast-fashion brand,” Park said at the Retail Influencer CEO Forum on Monday in Manhattan. “I love everything about the speed at which we deliver and curate fashion, but we think we can be a lot more.”

One such effort—especially operating in a sector notorious for producing excess waste—is entering the circular economy. Park said Forever 21 is actively looking at rolling out more circular initiatives starting next year, but didn’t providing other details.

 In line with Forever 21’s pricing strategy, Park said the upcoming circularity initiatives will be “able to give you great value, and looking at that price-value relationship is so critical.”

Entering the circularity realm would represent progress for the brand, which isn’t typically the first name that comes to mind when thinking about sustainability. A late 2021 study of 60 fashion brands by non-profit fashion advocacy group Remake labeled Forever 21 as the worst-performing company (tied with Ross Stores) when it comes to tackling intersectional social, environmental, economic and political issues embedded in fashion supply chains.

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But as the brand tries to build an authentic experience for its Gen Z-heavy audience, Park is aware of the inevitable tie-in with sustainability, a value many young consumers continue to seek out during their shopper journey. In one example of the company’s ongoing improvements, Park said that 40 percent of women’s denim at Forever 21 is currently sustainable and made from recycled materials, with that number jumping to 50 percent next year.

Winning Gen Z also means being inclusive and accessible, which for Forever 21 means keeping prices low. Park called inclusivity the most poignant value for the company, trickling down from its diverse work force.

“What’s amazing is this notion that it is really this ‘United Nations’—it’s multiculturalism that’s at its best. It is fluidity in everything we do and how we think,” Park said. “What we want to embrace on a go-forward basis as a brand is how we can actually really be present and engage on an inclusive basis.”

This inclusivity also encompasses the overall wardrobe of the Gen Z consumer. Park said that many young shoppers aren’t pinned down to one style or look, saying they “wake up Barbiecore and they go to bed rocking Y2K fashion,” and that they mix and match apparel and accessories bought from Balenciaga or thrifted at The Salvation Army.

Tapping into that mentality is exactly what the brand, now owned by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) and Simon Property Group’s joint venture Sparc, is working toward. The company developed its first brand campaign video, Forever LA, to deliver a “behind the scenes” look at life in the company’s hometown of Los Angeles, celebrating life across the beaches to Wilshire Boulevard and beyond.

Forever 21 sells 1 million virtual beanies on Roblox

Beyond its branding, Forever 21 sought to meet consumers where they are by launching on Roblox in December—effectively entering the metaverse. The, Forever 21 Shop City experience enables users and creators to create their own storefronts on the gaming platform where they can buy and sell physical and virtual merchandise and participate in monthly drops.

Forever 21 CEO Winnie Park (left), chatted with CNBC senior reporter Jade Scipioni (right) at the Retail Influencer CEO Forum in New York City on Monday.
Forever 21 CEO Winnie Park (left), chatted with CNBC senior reporter Jade Scipioni (right) at the Retail Influencer CEO Forum in New York City on Monday. Glenn Taylor/Sourcing Journal

Shop City has spawned the success of the virtual Forever Beanie, which has sold more than 1 million units for 50 cents each. Forever 21 is also letting the Roblox community vote on design details of digital products, which the brand can use to inform its physical assortment.

“Then the question for us is, ‘Should there be a real Forever Beanie? And how do we collaborate further with creators on these great ideas?” Park said.

Not only does the Roblox partnership give Forever 21 a new eye for potentially popular merchandise, but it also offers the retailer a better opportunity to acquire its newest, youngest swath of consumers.

“Gen Z actually starts at age 10, so for us, we’re in a relationship-building marathon with Gen Z and it starts that young,” Park said.

Influencers lean micro, not macro

No brand that caters to Gen Z seems to be discussed without talking about influencers, and Forever 21 has a “whole pantheon” of them, according to the CEO. She noted that while millennials were digital natives, Gen Z consumers are actually social natives, making authenticity even more paramount.

This means the brand’s influencer strategy is focused more on micro-influencers than larger, celebrity macro-influencers, the latter of which can become lightning rods of criticism for their endorsement choices and product failures.

Park highlighted a story in which her then-10-year-old daughter summarily dismissed a paid promotion, giving her valuable insights into the mindset of many of the consumers Forever 21 is seeking to attract.

“She was really into makeup tutorials, and we’re watching a tutorial on YouTube,” Park said. “In the middle of it, she says, ‘Oh, this is endorsed. This is not real.’ So being able to see through things is a very real thing for Gen Z.”