How two penniless Korean immigrants launched an apparel empire now worth billions

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Next Shark:

This is a story of success. This is the unbelievable rags-to-riches story of how Do Won “Don” Chang and his wife, Jin Sook, immigrated from Korea to California with nearly nothing, how Chang had to hold down three demeaning jobs at the same time to support his family, and how they opened up their first fashion-forward store, which, three decades later, has become a coveted international brand with 600 stores in the U.S. and overseas bringing in around $4.4 billion in sales each year.

That company is Forever 21, the No. 1 brand favored by millennial “it girls,” beating out heavy hitters such as Sephora and H&M in a recent Teen Vogue-Goldman Sachs poll.

From Rags to Riches

Chang, 57, and Sook, 53, moved to the states from Korea in 1981. Chang worked as a gas station attendant, janitor and coffee shop waiter to make ends meet. According to a Business Insider profile on the dynamic duo, they were broke, had no college degrees and spoke broken English. They had planned to go into the coffee business until Chang noticed something that would change their lives. Chang, in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, said:

“I noticed the people who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business.”

They had only been settled in the Los Angeles area for three years before that observation became a reality. In 1984, the Changs decided to open their first clothing store, which they called “Fashion 21,” in a 900-square-foot space in Highland Park, which is about five minutes north of downtown Los Angeles. They took in a measly $35,000 upon opening, but sales jumped to $700,000 by the end of their first year. That success led Chang to go out on a strategic limb by opening up new stores every six months in different locations across the U.S. and renaming their chain “Forever 21.”

Somehow the husband-and-wife team found more success with each opening. Today, there are over 600 stores worldwide that employ more than 34,000 workers. The Chang’s personal net worth is estimated to be around $6.1 billion. That high net worth is perhaps due to the fact that the Changs own 100% of Forever 21.

The chain remains a family business, with Chang holding the CEO position while Jin Sook approves the company’s merchandise designs as chief merchandising officer. Daughter Esther manages the company’s visuals while daughter Linda is in charge of marketing.

Forever 21’s Recipe for Success

koreanWhy is Forever 21 so successful? The company keeps prices low. It lives up to its motto, “Shop Chic Styles for Less,” by continually updating its merchandise to remain fashion forward. As Chang put it:

“We keep changing. We are always thinking about [the] customer, not just for the company. That’s why we are successful.”

It’s hard to pull off, but Forever 21 has remained relevant and popular in a fickle environment where trends quickly go out of fashion, often just after they’ve taken off. Chang adds:

“Women’s fashion is very difficult because it is changing everyday. Fashion changes so fast, so time is the most important thing. If you are too late, you are too late. If you are too early, you are too early. So timing is very important.”

So is being grateful. Chang might be a billionaire now, but he’s always been grounded and aware of how he got here, as well as where he came from. He told the LA Times:

“Forever 21 gives hope to people who come here with almost nothing. And that is a reward that humbles me: the fact that immigrants coming to America, much like I did, can come into a Forever 21 and know that all of this was started by a simple Korean immigrant with a dream.”

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