There has been a great deal of talk online about Forever 21 lately, and most of it is not good. But you wouldn’t know it if you left the net and walked into a store. Recently in my local mall they moved into an empty Mervyns, a space at least 5 times larger than their previous one. And I admit, when I walked in for the first time, it was exciting. While many smaller stores can be impossible to find anything in, this one was organized and spread out, filled with customers and not crowded.

And the allure of Forever 21 is the accessibility: you can walk in a know that you can afford anything you see. When I walk into Anthropologie, I want everything I see, but I can certainly not afford much more than a tube of lip gloss. And whenever I go, I can always find something rather unique or trendy that spices up my day.

But is anything there really unique? Most signs point to no – and even I, not in the industry, always see similar patterns and designs in their merchandise. It reminds me of when I used to sell women’s shoes at Macy’s and there was a Payless right outside the door. I would often see the exact same designs at Payless that we were selling next door for 4 times the price. The catch of course with shoes is that there is no comparison for quality. But for a trendy t-shirt, quality isn’t such an issue; by all accounts you don’t need to wear it for years, and the shirts that cost $100 versus $12 don’t seem all that better; you’re buying the label.

image Call it the trickle-down effect…

Therein lies the rub: the label, and the reason that designers are making a big fuss. Now I’m not talking about the allegations about cheap labor and production – that’s another issue, one which is more serious in my mind and not addressed here (This is a great article for that issue). Let’s take the case of Virginia Johnson, who sued and settled with 21:

In 2005, her intern spotted a skirt in a Manhattan Forever 21 with a print much like one that Johnson had sold the previous season at Barneys. Johnson’s skirt went for about $175; Forever 21’s version was less than $18.

I’m sorry, but for most of 21’s clientele, $175 is out of reach, so it’s not as if they were stealing Johnson’s potential customers. It must be frustrating for these designers, but I’m sorry, their clothing is just too expensive for many consumers, especially when the clothing is so on-trend that they won’t be able to wear it next season.

This is a result of our economic system: demand producing supply. This is a different type of intellectual property than say, literature or creative writing, because  if two authors wrote the same book, the consumer could choose either one. But there is no choice for me between the Johnson skirt and the “copy” sold at 21.

So the real issue here is not really economic ,which is ironic since all the designer will ever get is a financial settlement, but artistic. And 21 is trying to use more in-house designs that will be original, though there is bound to be some overlap, as artists have always created in ways that speak to the work of other artists.

And we are already Forever 21-ing art. We sell prints, postcards, bookmarks, and puzzles of A Starry Night, because 99% of us can neither afford or even see the original. And does the artist get a cut of every image out there of their painting? Would the designers be content to see a sign over their designs indicating the origin of the design? I highly doubt it.

So it comes down to money. And if I have to hear one more designer bitch about Forever 21 ripping off their $1000 dress…

Is imitation still the sincerest form of flattery?

I’m not saying that there is nothing wrong with the way Forever 21 practices business – they can be sketchy – but in the matter of copying expensive designer’s clothing for the general public, there is less sympathy to be had, and at the end of the day there’s no fake Fendi label on the knock-off purse, only one from Forever 21.