The chain, originally known as Fashion 21, was founded in Los Angeles, California in 1984 by Korean-American Do-Won Chang and his wife, Jin Sook. The first store , located at 5637 N. Figueroa St. in the Highland Park district of Los Angeles was only 900 square feet (84 m2); it is still in operation and bears the chain's original name. By the end of the first year, sales had risen from $35,000 to $700,000. Fashion 21 eventually expanded at the rate of a new store every six months and changed the Fashion 21 brand name to Forever 21.
In 1989, Forever 21 opened its 11th store and first store located in a mall, at the Panorama Mall which is in Panorama City, CA. Forever 21 increased its presence by expanding the average size to 5,000 square feet (460 m2) per store. Since then, Forever 21 has been running specialty stores in major mall locations nationwide. In 1995, the company expanded their store in Miami's Mall of the Americas, this location was the first store outside of California. Adding new stores every six months, Forever 21 had reached a total of 40 stores by 1997.
Creating its own prototype store in Northridge Fashion Center, Forever 21 has employed its proprietary design concepts to all its stores since. By this time Forever 21 also increased its average size to 9,000 square feet (840 m2) per store in prime spots of top tier malls.
The Forever 21 Retail Inc. owns and operates numerous stores in different formats. The stores are:
- Forever 21: main and original store carrying women's clothing, accessories, swimwear, lingerie, and shoes.
- XXI Forever: flagship mega store carrying merchandise from all store formats.
- Heritage1981: vintage clothing, accessories, and shoes for men and women.
- Gadzooks21: women merchandise at discounted prices.
- Reference: women merchandise at discounted prices.
- For Love21: Accessories for women.
- Twelve by Twelve: Upscale Los Angeles inspired clothing.
- Faith21: clothing for plus-size women
- Love21: contemporary line for women
In November 2001, factory workers producing clothing for the company called for a store boycott until working conditions and payroll improved. The lawsuit was dropped when Forever 21 paid the workers' back wages. The matter was settled out of court and the company, which admitted no wrongdoing, agreed to take steps to ensure that its garments were not made in sweatshops. In 2004, under pressure from PETA, Forever 21 agreed to stop selling clothing made with animal fur. Forever 21 has also been accused of stealing designs from high-end fashion brands. Recently, designer Diane von Fürstenberg has filed a lawsuit against Forever 21 for duplicating her dress designs. Since that time Furstenberg has settled with the company for undisclosed terms. Singer and designer Gwen Stefani has filed a federal lawsuit against the fashion megachain, claiming the retailer illegally ripped off her Harajuku Lovers designs. Designer Anna Sui has also filed a lawsuit against Forever 21 alleging that Forever 21 sold and offered for sale numerous women's fast fashion clothing items bearing a striking similarity to her products featured at the most recent New York Fashion Week shows.
Forever 21 has also come under fire from the South Central Farmers and other California-based activist groups in a campaign known collectively as Never Forever 21. The criticism is based on Forever 21's involvement in a proposed deal with developer Ralph Horowitz to build a warehouse and distribution center on the land that was formerly the site of the South Central Farm.
Forever 21 prints the biblical reference to John 3:16 at the bottom of their shopping bags due to the fervent biblical belief of the founder, Do-Won Chang.