Posted by & filed under Championing Religious Liberty, Kingdom PURPOSE.

Low-cost, chic Forever 21 is the largest specialty retailer in the U.S. Its first store, Fashion 21, opened in 1984. Today, Forever 21 has 600 stores and 35,000 employees worldwide.

Not bad for its married founders, Do Won “Don” and Jin Sook Chang. Immigrants from South Korea in 1981. Arriving here penniless, with broken English and without college degrees. Pursuing The American Dream. Becoming a “rags to riches” sensation.

First came rags.

Don worked as a janitor, pumping gas and serving coffee. Then made an observation that revolutionized their lives:  “I noticed the people who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business.” They opened a 900-square-foot clothing store in LA in 1984, selling $700,000 in year one.

Riches followed.

Forbes puts Chang’s 2018 net worth at $3.2 billion ($5.9 billion in 2015).  And Don is proud of this immigrant success story through perseverance and hard work. “Forever 21 gives hope and inspiration to people who come here with almost nothing… and know that all of this was started by a simple Korean immigrant with a dream.”

What drives the Changs at their core? They are devout Christians.

Through Chang 21 Foundation, they donate money to churches and other faith groups… and travel as missionaries. Don said the clothing they sell is a tool to help him “travel to places in Third World countries that desperately need aid.”

The Changs’ faith also adorns the bottom of every Forever 21 shopping bag: John 3:16. Conflicting responses to this fact reveal how challenging it can be for Christian founders to instill their faith throughout a large corporation.

A manager at the NYC Union Square store said, “Oh that’s just advertising.” A spokeswoman at Forever 21’s headquarters later corrected the manager, explaining it’s a “demonstration of the owners’ faith.”

A New School of Design representative thinks it’s savvy: “Religion is hot — it’s in the air. Madonna has a crucifixion in her current show and it’s cool to be interested in God these days.”

Forever 21’s success has not come without controversy — including 50 copyright violation lawsuits for clothing designs.

The US Labor Department (USLD) investigated Southern California garment companies supplying the biggest U.S. clothing stores, finding labor violations in 85%. Forever 21 was one retailer supplied by companies with the most offenses.

Workers made as little as $4/hour, averaging $7 — $3 below California’s minimum wage. USLD only penalizes the factories that directly employ garment workers. Retailers like Forever 21 contract with those factories, which shields them from legal responsibility. According to USLD, they also set prices to manufacturers and haven’t increased them in years.

USLD asked Forever 21 and others to step up monitoring and pay contractors more. A spokeswoman confirmed, “Forever 21 takes these issues very seriously, and requires all of its vendors to comply with these laws.”

How do you think Forever 21 could strengthen its marketplace witness for Christ?

At what potential cost — if it does or doesn’t?

Please post your comments below.

Diana Furr, a.k.a. Abba’s Girl

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