Forever 21 began in 1984 as a single store called Fashion 21 in Los Angeles. After expanding locally, it spread to malls beginning in 1989, but it has only truly proliferated in the last decade. It now has 477 stores in fifteen countries, and projected revenue of more than $2.3 billion in 2010. The worldwide success of Forever 21 and the other even more prominent fast-fashion outlets, like H&M (2,200 stores in thirty-eight countries), Uniqlo (760 stores in six countries), and Zara (more than 4,900 stores in seventy-seven countries) epitomize how the protocols of new capitalism—flexibility, globalization, technology-enabled logistical micromanaging, consumer co-creation—have reshaped the retail world and with it the material culture of consumer societies. (…)
Unlike earlier generations of mass-market retailers, like the Gap’s family of brands (which includes, in ascending order of class cachet, Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic), companies like Zara and Forever 21 make no effort to stratify their offerings into class-signifying labels. They also don’t adopt branding strategies to affiliate with particular luxe or ironic lifestyles, à la Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie & Fitch. Instead they flatter consumers in a different way, immersing them in potential trends on a near weekly basis and trusting them to assemble styles in their own images.