store tour

Cintra Wilson on the New Forever 21 in Times Square

Forever 21 opened a colossal new megastore — four stories, 91,257 square feet, and 121 dressing rooms — on Friday amid great hype and circumstance. It’s now the largest retail venue in Manhattan devoted to a single brand. And like the rest of Times Square, it’s raw-capitalism-as-spectacle-a-go-go, with big plasma screens and shimmering walls and cash registers cranking until 2 a.m., seven days a week.

Reduced to its essential nature, Forever 21 is an Americanized version of Topshop, the British chain that makes a killing with designer knockoffs. Forever 21 refines this business plan into an even more lethal form of consumer crack: It makes knockoffs of Topshop knockoffs, and sells them even cheaper.

Like Topshop, many of the wares — look-specific, clumsily wrought, disposable kinder-slutwear — hearken back to the Flashdance era. But the prices are even lower than they were in 1983 — so low, in fact, they seem wrong. Your brain can’t help but factor in the invisible stuff: “Oh dear, surely there is a basement of horrors in some far-off land that makes these $4.50 stretch-capri leggings possible … ” But then your eye gets caught by another shiny gold lamé headband, and you end up carrying around half a dozen hangers’ worth of V-neck T-shirts just because they’re priced at a mind-boggling $2.50 apiece.

The interior of the new flagship was supposedly designed to reflect different New York neighborhoods — the West Village, meatpacking district, etc. — but aside from a taxicab parked on one floor, the theme was hardly evident. I did, however, see many areas that seemed decorated to evoke other familiar New York retail establishments: a Juicy Couture–ish neighborhood, an Anthropologie-esque block, and so forth. A jeans department features every flavor of knockoff denim, priced around $30, but aside from this and a nondescript men’s section, the zillion racks of glossy inventory are all hilariously similar. In one section, big T-shirts and cutoff shorts, with stripes! In the next: big T-shirts and cutoff shorts, with yellow stripes! On another floor, big T-shirts and cutoff shorts, with grommets!

Forever 21’s Topshop imitation goes well beyond flattery and almost into parody — right down to the jillion pie-eyed tweens milling around in Valley Girl outfits, as their mothers trailed behind them, wincing through every beat of the super-loud eighties dance music, supplied by a house “D.J.” (who was actually just a confused-looking store employee wearing headphones and poking buttons on a laptop).

Perhaps the decibel level was intended to scare off anyone over the age of 21, though the long-running joke about Forever 21, since its inception, is that at least half of the people who shop there haven’t been 21 for at least eight to fifteen years. Or maybe it was a strategic anti-Mom marketing offensive: The pounding bass acts as a mental buffer against potential style issues. To wit: “All right, Brittany, for Christ’s sake, you can get the damned Lady Gaga body stocking and the stretch-lace Day-Glo thong and the fake Léger bandage/bondage dress … just get me the hell out of here!” After four Excedrin and box of Pinot Grigio, moms won’t care if their daughters dress like they’re running a K-12 escort service.

None of this is to say I didn’t catch the high myself, of course. I was all set to splash out on a rayon-spandex pullover with dolman sleeves and enough capri stretch pants to see me through the next eight seasons of Glee — until I saw the line to the cashier.

“I’m sorry,” I said, handing a nearby employee my basket, defeated. “I just can’t wait in that line.” The young lady accepted my basket with a smile tinged by the kind of curdling hatred you reserve for someone who knuckle-punches you right in a bruise — and I knew I wasn’t the first to do this.

Forever 21 isn’t about fashion any more than fast food is about cuisine. The addictive component is kicky shapes at price points you can find beneath the cushions on your couch, and the fact that you can buy 37 clothing items for under $200. If it’s the slow-food, slow-clothes, minimalist approach of “less but better” you want in a wardrobe, you’d best skip this Times Square monstrosity and bugger off to Europe. Forever 21 is a shrine to the American obsession with More New Stuff. Suppress any thoughts of faraway places of horror; at these crazy prices, you can’t afford not to fence your grandma’s VCR and buy more neat tops.

Editor’s note: This post originally misidentified Forever 21 as a South Korean-based chain. The article has been updated.

Cintra Wilson on the New Forever 21 in Times Square