I said the words out loud to my older sister: “Forever 21 was the first place I could shop as a plus size teenager.” The news was trending on Twitter at the time when I told her about Forever 21’s bankruptcy. We, like many others, were shook. As corny, vapid, and extremely first world problem as it sounds, my heart broke over something as capitalist as a fashion chain’s demise. Industry news of store closures have become more common, but I never thought Forever 21, my teenage dream shopping destination, would be on the retail chopping block.
Why Was Forever 21 Was The First Place I Could Shop As A Teenager?
Anyone who was a Tween or Teen in the mid-2000s (aka me at 12 rocking a crusty perm with stringy ends) would be rocking a variation of classic mid-2000s looks. Forever 21 first came out in 1984. In the age of “Sk8er bois” when I first discovered the store, the vibe was tunics, anything fringe and tank-toppy, or posing in group photos with an over-the-eye side bang.
As I grew up and packed on more pounds, I had to shift from the juniors section to Old Navy’s Women’s department for my thick ole’ bottom. Forever 21 was the age-appropriate place where I learned the definition of a “statement top.” But it was the brand’s 1X-3X size range, released in 2009, that became a starting point for me to navigate my personal style.
A plus size line that existed in a store that was also cool and trendy was exactly what I needed as I phased out of my childhood size. I didn’t realize the popular store would become my only shopping spot as I braved into a tough fashion industry for my ever-growing curves.
I Shopped At One Store Before I Knew Forever 21 Existed
For as long as I can remember, I have always been the “big kid.” Throughout my early upbringing from preschool through fifth grade, I was raised in the suburbs living amongst mostly white people. While I was consistently the only big, Black, fat girl in class, all the other (mostly white) girls were thin enough to sit cross-legged with their feet on their knees. Minute things like that set the precedent for most of the body insecurities I’ve acquired today. On the other hand, I could still shop at JCPenny’s junior section.
Like a lot of stories regarding shopping while fat, mine starts with my mother, a fellow heavyset woman. Throughout my childhood and into my preteens, my mom took my sister and I on trips to the mall. We went nearly every weekend for new school clothes, hair appointments, etc. The mall was on the agenda. All three of is us spent our time sifting through racks of clothes in the junior section at JCPenny. I preferred the pink bedazzled tanks and mini-skirts at the Limited Too.
I still vaguely remember my mom looking at me with an empathetic face one day. The junior sizes at JCPenny didn’t fit me anymore. She said something to the effect of “I’m sorry, baby, but you grew” in that compassionate Black mother sort of way. That fact hit me as if I just found out the earth was round. Our girls’ trips to the mall became a little less frequent — but then we discovered Forever 21.
Forever 21 Plus Helped Me Find My Identity
I was bummed that I grew out of my JCP clothes but May of 2009 truly changed the game for me. Forever 21 launched plus sizes. By this time, I was well-adjusted to living in the Bronx. I had turned 14 in March that year, and I was desperate to ditch my mom on our shopping trips. I’m sorry, but I wanted to shop the plus section without her critiques. I found tees, tops, and (some) bottoms that fit me perfectly. There were easy camis to find and plus size dresses that were a straight-up “no” from mom who asked me about my receipts after. There were some pieces that were ugly and some that I still have buried into my closet.
Though, the beginnings of the Forever 21’s plus size line were underwhelming to say the least. You were getting a sliver of plus size items compared to the massive amount of product for straight sizes. But the thing is, it was my sliver. As a teenager, I could actually shop with my best friends (and again, not my mom). We were old enough to buy our own sweet looks. And I didn’t think Forever 21 stores would integrate plus sizes into their floor plan as they did.
The store experience gave me access to try plus size fashion.
The popularity of the store called for more openings. I was proud to see some stores already came with plus sizes already waiting upon arrival. Anytime I was in the city, I could have the same privilege as a skinny girl. After all the teen queen movies I’d watched, I could finally be that girl. The girl who worked at a magazine, spilled coffee on her shirt and could just to “go grab a new one.”
The brand was one of the early leaders in the fast fashion plus size market. Following Forever 21’s release of plus in 2009, big retailers followed. ASOS launched its plus line in January 2010 and expanded to include Big & Tall clothing in 2016. Lucky Brand extended its sizes in 2012. Also, Mango’s Violeta line came out in 2013, and the list goes on.
Numerous looks, questions, compliments and what have you have come out of my shopping experiences at Forever 21. Now as a plus size fashion and beauty writer, witnessing the brand go through bankruptcy and store closures is bittersweet. There’s no doubt the fashion industry has come a long way with its plus size releases. But for me, Forever 21 will always be that (fat) bitch who started it all.
How do you feel about the bankruptcy of Forever 21? Did or do they represent plus size fashion well? Which brands have impacted you the most in plus size fashion so far?
Let us know in the comments!
Ari is a plus-size blogger and writer with a focus on representation in fashion and beauty from a Black, fat, and queer perspective. Having worked in media for over 10 years, she has delved into television and fashion show productions as well as public relations. Ari and her work have been featured in Bustle, Apartment Therapy's sister site, The Kitchn, Revelist, Narcity, Refinery29, The Cut, the late Babe.net, and now The Curvy Fashionista