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Splurge and Purge

Forever 21 stands on the south side of Union Square in New York, just around the corner from my office. I see teenagers, working women, families, and dudes shopping for clothing there at all hours of the day, buying up floral maxi dresses, faux leather and shearling jackets, and skinny jeans for as little as eight dollars a pair. Inside, clerks romp about in colorful makeup, big earrings, and decal-wrapped nails. Crowds of young women and men line up to apply for work on the store’s frenetic retail floor—to stock shelves, fold clothes, mind the cash registers—for a whole nine dollars an hour. In the background, a jamboree of pop music runs on endless loop.

I never see shoppers walk out of a Forever 21 without a giant yellow plastic bag stuffed full of clothes. If you go on YouTube, you can gawk at so-called “haul” videos, in which shoppers excitedly narrate their purchases, showing you not only how to wear that floral-print romper, but also how much of a “deal” it is. But don’t let the videos fool you; plenty are the marketing schemes of today’s clothing industry—gimmicks from the immediately gratifying, visually oriented world of fast fashion.

Make no mistake: fast-fashion companies like H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, and Forever 21 (the largest fast-fashion retailer in the United States) have dramatically changed our wardrobes over the last decade. These companies oversee how much clothing we buy, how long we wear it, and how much of it we discard. Thanks to them, most fashion today is made of low-quality synthetic materials that are produced quickly and in large volumes. In style, this clothing—our everyday clothing—follows quick on the heels of runway trends; in durability, it’s equally disposable.

A decade ago, most shoppers were preoccupied with big brand names and logos like Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap. Today, the young consumers I see lining up around the corner want design trends fresh off the runway, and say so on their fashion blogs, Pinterests, and Instagrams. Fast-fashion retailers have collapsed the traditional three-month design, manufacturing, and distribution cycle to two weeks; new styles arrive on store floors daily.

The U.S. hub of fast fashion is not New York, but Los Angeles. More specifically, it’s a single L.A. neighborhood known as the “Jobber Market.” Walking through the alleyways and small streets of this thirty-square-block neighborhood over the past three summers, I was variously reminded of a suburban strip mall, an underground stall market, and an L.A. swap meet. At the neighborhood’s food court, as I considered Brazilian churrasco, a Korean shaved ice dessert called patbingsu, and tacos, I heard talk in Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese. More than six thousand fast-fashion businesses are located here, in five-hundred-square-foot showrooms stacked against the streets. Company names like Skinny Bunny, Sugarlips, and Sweet Habit constantly change—they are placeholder labels that will soon be swapped out for the brand-name labels of retailers.

Most of these Jobber Market companies are owned and run by Korean (or Korean Brazilian) families and staffed by Mexican employees. They are mom-and-pop-shops that are also conglomerates; they collapse multiple steps of the apparel cycle—design, production, logistics, wholesaling, and marketing—into one. Customers include Forever 21, T.J. Maxx, Charlotte Russe, Urban Outfitters, Macy’s, Kohl’s, and Dillard’s—the majority of American fast-fashion retailers. That’s right: the fashions that are thought to trend directly off the New York runways in fact begin at little-known companies run by immigrant entrepreneurs, in the showrooms and design studios of this one Los Angeles neighborhood.

A worker frays a pair of jeans at Koos Manufacturing in Los Angeles.
A worker frays a pair of jeans at Koos Manufacturing in Los Angeles. / © Lauren Lancaster

In the fast-fashion business, margins are thin. Consumer tastes are finicky, trends unpredictable. One wholesaler told me she was stuck with a whole shipping container of pleather jackets that had come off the docks and was still waiting for her at the warehouse. She had already paid her sewing factory in China to manufacture the jackets. Now she had to figure out how to sell them. The fast-fashion retailers demand “floor-ready” goods and charge millions of dollars in penalties and “chargebacks” to wholesalers if hang tags are improperly attached, incorrectly labeled, or hung on the wrong kind of hangers. They charge for the stuff if it shows up one day too soon or one day too late at the Port of Los Angeles. If the clothes don’t sell on store floors, retailers will return the merchandise without paying. “Closeout” bargain hunters make their rounds in the market, sniffing out desperation to make deals on the millions of dollars in losses that happen daily in the neighborhood.

It’s the summer of 2013, and I’m sitting in a pew of a church in L.A.’s Glendale neighborhood, attending morning bible service among Korean congregation members who work downtown in the Jobber Market. This church is the spiritual home base of the Chang family, the owners of Forever 21. The Changs are born-again Christians who go on annual missions abroad. I watch a young girl in her twenties up on the podium, eyes closed, lift her hands to Christ and sing, “He calls out my name.”

As we bow our heads, I think about the shame of fast fashion—how young and beautiful the new clothing can make me feel, and how easy it is for me to throw it away. These garments are made of rayons and nylons, petroleum-based synthetic materials and artificial dyes that will stick around here on earth, forever. On the bottom of every plastic yellow Forever 21 shopping bag, I remember now, is the bible verse John 3:16. So I think too about salvation—the deliverance from sin and evil—and how hard it will be to make a sustainable life here on earth when we believe we will never perish, but have eternal life.