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Outing Forever 21's Sins on Fashion's Night Out

September 6 is Fashion's Night Out, the industry's global initiative to "restore consumer confidence" and "bring the fun back to shopping."

Fashion is a tricky thing: We all want it, but we can't all afford it. When I hear people talk about how expensive clothes are or how they get all of their wardrobe at Ross, I think of two films:

First, I am reminded of The Devil Wears Prada. When Andy ignorantly scoffs as the magazine staff debates which of two similar turquoise belts to use in a shoot, Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly delivers a great speech to explain the way innovation and craftsmanship from talented designers and tradesmen paves the way for the cheap discount-store knockoffs many of us buy. Secondly, HBO has a great documentary called Schmatta: Rags to Riches, which profiles NYC's formerly bustling garment industry that has been all but replaced by low-quality overseas mass production.

Any artist can understand the injustices of being unpaid or underpaid or of having their work copied by imitators. (The detriments are both monetary and theoretical: Unlicensed derivatives don't financially benefit the true innovator, and credit for stolen ideas often goes to the thieves.) Since my husband has worked in fashion for the past few years, I've gotten the impression that such injustices are greatest within the fashion industry. Week after week, year after year, in one of the primary fashion centers of the US, Craigslist and other sites are bulging with fashion industry positions. Unpaid internships, underpaid freelance design jobs, audition-for-a-chance-at-work interviews, and spec work requests are the norm.

Today, I am singling out a company that is alleged to have committed some of these sins and has been rewarded with popularity and devoted consumers, Forever 21. I want to be clear that these are allegations only from an anonymous ex-employee and are not based on first-hand experience o knowledge.

Forever 21's large mall stores are overloaded with flimsy apparel that can be purchased cheaply to keep up with trends. Most of their merchandise is casual, and a lot of it is screen-printed with topical and/or tongue-in-cheek designs. Do you shop there? Would you if you were opposed to their business practices? Following are some of the allegations against the company.

1. Design theft. The company is continually being accused of design theft, the hypothesis being that many ideas are simply spotted online and copied by Forever 21's in-house staff. Historically, Forever 21 has been accused of theft (and required to settle) by large brands -- Diane Von Furstenberg, Anna Sui, and Harajuku Lovers -- but since is alleged to lift from independent designers who cannot afford to take legal action. The similarities between original designs and Forever 21's allegedly stolen designs are sometimes astonishing. (For example, check out Jon Contino's allegation about his anchor-and-text tee.) In fact, there is a whole site -- WTForever21.com -- entirely devoted to documenting allegations of design theft by Forever 21.

2. Audition-for-a-chance-at-work interviews. As part of their interview process, Forever 21 is alleged to have required candidates to submit designs to show that they possess the required skills. Legitimate, professional companies in this industry know that reviewing an interviewee's previous work and portfolio is enough information to determine whether they are skilled, so this is sketchy.

3. Requiring a release of "audition" work. As if requiring spec work to interview isn't bad enough, Forever 21 is alleged to have required candidates to sign artist releases when the spec designs are presented. Do you see what happens there? Under the pretense of reviewing their skills, Forever 21 allegedly gets designers to come up with fresh designs... then has them release their rights to the designs with no promise of employment, freelance work, or any compensation. (If you think this is pessimistic thinking, my source alleged that, after having been employed by the company for some time, he/she ran across her "audition" designs being used in a season's line.) Hypothetically, the business could thrive without actually hiring enough designers by simply having a perpetual interview process in practice.

4. Discrimination for legal protection. Forever 21 has been alleged to immediately stop considering a candidate if he is found to have worked for or to particularly like a fashion brand that happens to have a legal claim against Forever 21. I don't know that this is illegal, but it seems pretty crappy. 

5. Wage and labor disputes. Allegations of payroll disputes and sweatshop labor are well-documented.

6. Workplace oppression and religious intimidation.
Now I am about to blow your mind. If a company runs the way Forever 21 is alleged to, what is one of the least likely adjectives you would use to describe it? How about Christian? Allegedly, Forever 21 is run by "devout" Christians. (The quotes are necessary because none of this sounds like Christian behavior.) Upper management is alleged to encourage employees to wear crosses and discourage them from leaving campus for lunch (except for trips to church). Employees are subject to random property searches, and in some cases, employees are allegedly subjected to workplace evangelism.

I can't remember who said it, but there is truth in the sentiment that "whenever we make a purchase, we are buying a vote." When you purchase from a retailer that appears not to value its employees or others' intellectual property, you are saying that you would rather have a five-dollar shirt than support what is right.

I am happy to say that I have never made a purchase at Forever 21, and now that I'm aware of these allegations, I'll be more conscious about the fashion choices I make. If I can decide to buy mostly local produce and pay a little more to ensure that my beef is grass-fed, then I can commit to supporting local fashion craftsmen who will directly financially benefit from clothing me.