By Michael Ashcraft —
Nothing is forever except Heaven, as the owners of Forever 21 are discovering.
After trail-blazing fast fashion for three decades, Do Won and Jin Chang’s clothing stores made them billionaires but are now in the throes of bankruptcy.
The couple is strong in faith and their brand proudly prints “John 3:16” on the bottom of every bag as a witness for Christ. But now the chain is struggling for its economic existence.
Do Won, or simply “Don,” immigrated to America in 1981 because opportunities in South Korea were limited. Ambitious and willing to work hard, Chang immediately got three jobs in Los Angeles: dish washer at a coffee shop, janitor at office buildings and attendant at a gas station.
While pumping gas, BMWs and Mercedes Benzes caught his eye. “I noticed the people who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business,” Don told the Los Angeles Times.
He and his wife, Jin Sook, opened their first store in 1984 in a Highland Park neighborhood of LA with the strategy of piling high and selling cheap.
Making it in the fashion industry is about as tough as succeeding as an artist or a movie star, but the Changs perfected the technique of making the latest red carpet outfits show up instantly on their shelves, and their business exploded to 800 stores in 50 countries with $4 billion in annual sales.
“I came here with almost nothing and I’ll always have a grateful heart toward America for the opportunities that it’s provided me,” he said in Forbes.
While they succeeded wildly and moved into Beverly Hills, the couple — with their two daughters — remained steadfast in their Christian convictions. They prayed everyday at 5:00 a.m. at their church and went on mission trips to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
The garb and baubles are only a means for Don to “travel to places in Third World countries that desperately need aid,” he noted.
“Every decision that they made has been with thoughtful prayer,” said Linda Chang in Tithe Hacker. “I think they get a lot of business ideas and insight during early morning prayer time.”
The Changs printed John 3:16 on the bottom of their bags “I hoped others would learn of God’s love,” Don said through a translator to CNN. They have also sold shirts emblazoned with “Jesus loves you” and run the Chang 21 Foundation to donate to churches and faith groups.
The flourishing fashion business has, like most brick-and-mortar retail, suffered greatly at the hands of e-commerce. At the same time, peoples’ tastes have migrated from instant trends and flash to more enduring quality.
In bankruptcy proceedings started in September, the company agreed to close 111 stores and abandon their presence in 40 countries, according to Bloomberg news. The Changs hope to retain ownership of scaled-down operations and are restructuring the company while chapter 11 protections hold creditors at bay.
For years, Don’s story was one of rags to riches, an inspiration for immigrants that if you work hard and pursue your dreams, you can attain the American Dream.
That story is not entirely diminished. The current restructuring of the company may see it downsize to achieve profitability once again. That would be a great outcome because everywhere they go, the Changs shine the light of Jesus.
Just ask Rowena Rodriguez, a fashion consultant for Forever 21, who got saved through their influence, according to BeliefNet.
“In the short time I worked with Mrs. Chang, my life was transformed, and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Mrs. Chang prayed me into the Kingdom!” Rowena said. “If you really want to know, I’ll tell you. But you won’t believe me. The Changs love Jesus!”
Michael Ashcraft teaches journalism at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica.