When Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy in September, the fast fashion chain described its history in documents that read, at times, like a pitch for a memoir or a Netflix special.
Photos of the company’s husband and wife founders, Do Won and Jin Sook Chang, and their two daughters appeared under headings like “Forever Striving: A Story of Grit, Determination, and Passion.” The filing emphasized the improbable success of the Changs, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1981 and built a multibillion-dollar business from scratch.
公司創始人張東文和妻子張金淑夫婦，以及他們兩個女兒的照片出現在類似《永遠在奮斗：一個關于勇氣、決心和激情的故事》(Forever Striving: A Story of Grit, Determination, and Passion)這樣的標題下。申請文件強調了張氏家族所取得的不可思議的成功，他們于1981年從韓國移民到美國，白手起家建立了一家價值數十億美元的企業。
There were references to the daughters’ undergraduate degrees from “Ivy League universities” — both are top executives at the company — and summer breaks spent at Forever 21 stores.
At its peak, the retailer brought in more than $4 billion in annual sales and employed more than 43,000 people worldwide in hundreds of stores. Now it is leaving 40 countries and closing up to 199, or more than 30%, of its stores in the United States as part of its bankruptcy, and former employees and industry experts are pointing to the Changs’ insular management style as a significant reason for the collapse. They cite disastrous real estate deals and the chain’s bungled merchandising strategy in recent years.
“On the founder side, this hubris thing is pretty common, but it’s particularly deadly if you’ve been successful for a long time,” said Erik Gordon, a management expert at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. “They didn’t have a board of directors to give them a reality check, they didn’t have equity analysts to give them a reality check.”
“對于創始人來說，這種傲慢很常見，但如果你已經成功了很長時間，這種傲慢就尤其致命，”密歇根大學羅斯商學院(University of Michigan Ross School of Business)的管理學專家埃里克·戈登(Erik Gordon)說。“他們沒有董事會給他們進行實情核查，他們沒有股票分析師給他們進行實情核查。”
He added: “You can live in your self-created bubble for a lot longer, but then the bubble pops.”
The bankruptcy filing provides a rare glimpse inside a retailer that has been intensely secretive and privately held for decades. Six former employees, including three executives, also spoke to The New York Times about their experiences at Forever 21 on the condition of anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements.
Forever 21’s missteps, combined with industrywide changes in consumer tastes and shopping habits, will have far-reaching effects for thousands of people who work for the company, its vendors and malls. The chain says it will still operate hundreds of stores, along with its website. Through a spokeswoman, the Chang family declined to comment for this article.
Forever 21 — named because Do Won Chang considered 21 to be “the most enviable age” — was built on the idea of identifying apparel trends, then working with vendors to bring those products to stores quickly at cut-rate prices. From its early days, Do Won Chang, who is still the company’s chief executive, oversaw landlord and vendor relationships while Jin Sook Chang led design and merchandising.
Former employees say that the top floor of the company’s Los Angeles headquarters was viewed as Do Won Chang’s world, where corporate strategy unfolded and people kept quiet outside his office, while the bottom floor was Jin Sook Chang’s domain of buyers and planners, who showed their bags to security when leaving the building. Three former employees said that, as recently as this year, Do Won Chang was personally signing off on employee expenses and questioning executives about receipts for lunches or Uber rides.
The couple’s daughters eventually joined the executive ranks. The oldest, Linda, is the executive vice president and has been viewed as Do Won Chang’s successor; her sister, Esther, is vice president of merchandising.
The Changs never took Forever 21 public, unlike their biggest fast-fashion rivals, “declining numerous opportunities that would facilitate generational wealth,” the filing said.
Their inner circle included another Korean-American couple: Alex Ok, Forever 21’s president and a former supplier, and his wife, SeongEun Kim, who works in merchandising. Internally, some referred to Jin Sook Chang and SeongEun Kim Ok as the “Missuses,” a powerful pair who directed the tens of thousands of styles that landed in Forever 21’s bustling stores. The filing showed that the Chang family owned 99% of equity in the chain, while Alex Ok held 1%.
他們的核心圈子里還包括另一對韓裔美國夫婦：Forever 21的總裁、前供應商亞歷克斯·玉（Alex Ok，音）和他的妻子、從事銷售規劃的金盛恩（SeongEun Kim，音）。在內部，一些人把張金淑和金盛恩稱為“太太團”(Missuses)，這對實力強大的搭檔導演了成千上萬種風格的服裝，然后在Forever 21熙熙攘攘的店鋪上架。文件顯示，張家擁有該連鎖店99%的股權，而亞歷克斯·玉則持有1%。
As the business expanded, the Changs struggled with their desire to hire experienced executives and their distrust of outsiders, five of the employees said. In recent years, they said, Forever 21 eagerly recruited experts to overhaul parts of the business, then later ignored their recommendations on everything from new technology to marketing.
The Changs’ Christian faith played a role in the way they ran the company. Forever 21’s bright yellow shopping bags are stamped with “John 3:16,” a reference to a Bible verse. Do Won Chang has said the verse “shows us how much God loves us,” and hoped others would learn of that love. Former employees said Bibles were sometimes visible in conference rooms and on Do Won Chang’s desk. It was not unusual for department leaders to have ties to the family or their church but no experience working for another retailer, employees said.
張家的基督教信仰影響了他們經營公司的方式。Forever 21的亮黃色購物袋上印著“John 3:16”，指的是《圣經》里的一節。張東文曾說過這段經文“向我們展示了上帝多么愛我們”，并希望其他人也能學習這種愛。前員工說，有時在會議室和張東文的辦公桌上可以看到《圣經》。員工們表示，部門主管往往與張家或他們的教會有聯系，但沒有為其他零售商工作的經驗。
“Every once in a while, when we hired someone who had been there, we’d learn that they were never allowed to see the totality of the business performance and they were only given reporting on their specific sector,” said Margaret Coblentz, a former e-commerce director at Charlotte Russe. Rivals saw Forever 21 “as both monolithic and inscrutable,” she added.
“每當我們聘用曾在那里工作過的人時，我們就會發現，他們從來沒有被允許全面了解公司的經營業績，只能得到有關他們所在部門的報告，”前Charlotte Russe電子商務主管瑪格麗特·科布倫茨(Margaret Coblentz)說，她還說，競爭對手都覺得Forever 21“是堅如磐石、深不可測的”。
But Forever 21 made its biggest mistakes in real estate. In the years before and after the recession, the company expanded aggressively and decided to open huge flagship stores, setting up in cavernous spaces once occupied by Mervyn’s, the bankrupt department store, as well as Borders, Sears and Saks. Its former head of real estate told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011 that “having really big stores has always been Mr. Chang’s dream.”
但是Forever 21最大的錯誤是在地產領域犯下的。在經濟衰退之前和之后的幾年里，公司大舉擴張，決定開設大型旗艦店，在破產的百貨公司默文百貨(Mervyn’s)、以及Borders、西爾斯(Sears)和薩克斯百貨(Saks)等公司曾經占據的巨大空間里開店。該公司前地產主管在2011年接受《彭博商業周刊》(Bloomberg Businessweek)采訪時表示，“擁有真正的大商場一直是張先生的夢想。”
The stores became hard to fill with new merchandise, then turn over, however, and saddled Forever 21 with long leases just as technology was beginning to wreak havoc on American malls. Seven of the leases at the old Mervyn’s stores were not set to expire until 2027 or 2028, which is longer than a typical lease, according to internal documents obtained by The New York Times.
Forever 21 said in the filing that most of its international locations were unprofitable as of 2015 and that its stores in Canada, Europe and Asia were losing an average of $10 million per month in the past year. Overall, the annual occupancy cost of Forever 21’s stores was $450 million.
在那些文件中，Forever 21表示，截至2015年，它的大部分國際門店都沒有盈利，過去一年，它在加拿大、歐洲和亞洲的門店平均每月虧損1000萬美元?？傮w而言，Forever 21門店的年入駐成本為4.5億美元。
“They’ve gotten into categories and expression of fashion that are not closely aligned with their fast-fashion customer’s preferences,” said Mark A. Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “They never built the intelligence into the business that would have cautioned them from this real estate orgy and would have kept them from the kind of exposure that they have now.”
“他們進入的時尚類型和表現方式，與他們的快時尚客戶的偏好并不緊密一致，”哥倫比亞商學院(Columbia Business School)零售研究主管馬克·A·科恩(Mark A. Cohen)說，“他們從來沒有在公司中加入情報部門，而情報本可以提醒他們遠離這場無節制的地產狂歡，也可以阻止他們遇到現在面臨的這種風險。”
The Chang family will be listening to new voices. Its board of directors will grow from three members — Do Won Chang, Linda Chang and Alex Ok — to six, including Forever 21’s former head of real estate, a lawyer and the former chief executive of Things Remembered. It also said that it had added several new managers in recent months, including a new chief financial officer. Do Won Chang remains the chief executive.
張家將會聽到新的聲音。該公司的董事會成員將從三名成員——張東文、琳達·張和亞歷克斯·玉——增至六名，其中包括Forever 21的前地產主管、一名律師和Things Remembered的前首席執行官。該公司還表示，最近幾個月增加了幾名經理人，其中包括一名新的首席財務官。張東文仍是首席執行官。
“Forever 21 has basically been a one-trick pony,” Cohen said. “The founder and his wife did remarkably well until the business got too big for them to continue to do remarkably well by themselves.”