WOODBRIDGE, Va. — There is a little bit of everything on the $5 rack at Forever 21: a pair of thigh-high combat boots, a crop-top hoodie emblazoned with the Sprite logo, tweed shorts, a phone case featuring a smiling taco.

I have come here, to the Forever 21 at Potomac Mills Mall in Woodbridge, Va., 25 miles from downtown D.C., because Forever 21 just declared bankruptcy. Over the next few months, as many as 350 of its 549 stores will close worldwide; up to 178 of those closures will be in the United States.

The locations most likely to shutter are in “lower-quality malls,” executives say, making this store, right next to an old Sears — which filed for bankruptcy last fall — especially vulnerable. Soon, one final clearance may lure patrons to these very sale racks, sending them off with a Hot Cheetos tube top or some leopard-print spandex: the final offerings of a store that, for many, was a lot more than a place to buy cheap clothes.

Most customers were clustered in the sale section of the store. (Caroline Kitchener)
Most customers were clustered in the sale section of the store. (Caroline Kitchener)

Forever 21 has always catered primarily to young women in their teens and 20s. It was a place many went in middle and high school, especially, to buy trendy clothes on the cheap. But now much of the store’s original base has aged out of “Forever,” and younger consumers are turning instead to companies that make it easier to shop online. Gen Z is also eager to support brands that focus on sustainability, prioritizing good labor and environmental practices over low prices. (Forever 21 has come under fire for paying its workers well below minimum wage.)

This particular Forever 21 has been a fixture in Woodbridge for well over a decade, says Natalie Holmes, 26, who I found combing the racks for “crushed velvet.” Holmes knows, because she remembers coming here as a teenager. It was a big deal when the store expanded a few years ago, reopening with faux-white marble siding across the storefront and a three-foot-tall reflective sign: “XXI Forever.”

Ashley Stevenson, 34, remembers that, too. She’s been coming here since she moved to the suburbs from downtown Washington, D.C., almost 10 years ago. Today, browsing with her mom, she has selected a rainbow leotard.

But it is much more than a rainbow leotard.

The first time Stevenson ever went to a Forever 21, she was 25, single and paying her way through grad school with a hostess job in the city. Every time she got a paycheck, she’d head to the three-story location downtown, stocking up on whatever seemed to be in style. When she went out to the 9:30 Club, a popular D.C. concert venue, she wanted to look the part. Her favorite item was a jacket covered in sequins and white gorilla fur.

Stevenson doesn’t want to lose her younger self. But sometimes, living here with two kids and pregnant with her third, she worries that she might. So every couple of months, she plans nights out at the 9:30 Club with her husband. And she comes to Forever 21 to find something to wear.

“It kind of makes me feel like I can actually, maybe, be sexy again,” she says, holding out the hanger with the leotard. “Maybe I can reconnect with that person who likes to paint her fingernails and does her hair.”

One customer said she decided to come to Forever 21 because she'd heard about the bankruptcy news. She thought there might be good sales. (Caroline Kitchener)
One customer said she decided to come to Forever 21 because she'd heard about the bankruptcy news. She thought there might be good sales. (Caroline Kitchener)

Most people told me they started coming to Forever 21 in middle or high school, when they were still figuring out what they liked — or what they were supposed to like. Kayla Settles, 19, used to come here after school with her older sister and her sister’s friends. She’d ask the older girls if they liked what she’d picked out, trying to play it cool, even though her decision to buy rested entirely on their answer.

“I’d be like, ‘Hey, do you think this is cute?’” says Settles, who came to the store today because she’d heard about the bankruptcy, and assumed there would be good deals. “We all wanted to be like the older kids.”

Forever 21 founder Do Won Chang describes the store as a place for older people who “want to be 21 again” — and for younger people who “want to be 21 forever.” People go to Forever 21 to try out different versions of themselves: younger, older, spunkier, hipster-ier. It’s the place you go the summer before college, to buy clothes your mother would never see. You might look at a velvet mini-skirt and think, well, usually that wouldn’t be me. But it’s only $17. And my friends are here, telling me I look good. So you think, maybe, just today, I’ll try.

Chynah Sital and Jeneal Johnson, both 18, have shopped at Forever 21 together since they were in middle school. But they’re not surprised that the company is struggling financially. It’s just not a place you’d go to shop online, they say. The experience of being at the store — sifting through racks of nonsensical graphic T-shirts with friends, until you find that one thing you like — is the whole point.

“When I shop online, I don’t go to Forever 21,” says Sital. The website doesn’t have many of the cheapest items in the store, she says. “And I don’t like the way the website looks, either.”

“It’s just really old looking,” says Johnson. “It’s been the same since we were in 8th grade.” When she and her friends shop online, she says, they usually go to online-first shopping platforms like Fashion Nova or PrettyLittleThing. “Forever 21 just hadn’t developed well technologically.”

Settles has a different theory.

There was a time when being “totally random” was cool, she says. But now Forever 21 is clearly trying too hard.

“I knew something was wrong when they made that Hot Cheetos collection.”

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