Do Won Chang of Forever 21: How he turned his chain into the fastest name in fast fashion.

The most innovative and practical thinkers of our time.
July 18 2011 11:58 AM

Do Won Chang, CEO of Forever 21

How Do Won Chang has turned Forever 21, his cheap, chic chain of massive mall stores, into the fastest name in fast fashion.

Do Won Chang, CEO of Forever 21

Do Won Chang has changed the nature, and speed, of popular fashion.

Chang and his wife, Jin Sook Chang, opened their first clothingstore in Los Angeles, Fashion 21, in the early '80s and haven't stopped for breath since. Mr. and Mrs. Chang, as they are known to their employees, have opened roughly 500 stores worldwide, hired thousands of staff members, and become billionaires. And they gave their company a new name: Forever 21.

While Mrs. Chang approves the designs of the company's merchandise,Mr. Chang has turned Forever 21 into the fastest fast-fashion chain in the business, and in the process he's made the company widely envied, frequently hated, and universally copied. In an age where innovation is more than ever about being fastest to market, the Changs are faster than anyone.

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The head office works with contractors who design and churn out the company's teen-friendly gear—designer knockoffs, inexpensive staples, and lots of them. The process from sketch to store often takes days, not weeks or months. Few items cost more than $30.Clothing is available only at particular locations and always in limited quantities. Many of June's new arrivals advertised on the company Twitter feed are already gone. This scarceness means that visiting Forever 21 is like stopping at the last water fountain on a road trip into the desert. If you don't buy that sequin anchor racerback top now, it'll be gone forever. (Plus, it's only $17.80. You'd better get two.)

Under Chang's watch, the company has also diversified and tinkered with its business model. It now offers higher-end designer imitations to appeal to fashion-conscious but thin-walleted twenty- and thirtysomethings.(Companies can patent only labels and logos, not designs, by the way.Its plus-size range, Faith 21, has gone gangbusters. The company has received criticism for its suppliers' working conditions and for its items' remarkable similarity to boutique goods. But, for better and worse, that is what keeps Forever 21's clothes so cheap and so chic.

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