When Forever 21 Met Project Stopshop

Clare Press investigates how an anti-fast fashion campaign got appropriated by a fast fashion company, and what it means. 

“It’s easy to get swept up in fast fashion culture,” says Elizabeth Illing. “So often it’s brushed aside as being ‘just the way things are’.” She created Project Stopshop in response while at university in 2017. Studying Fashion Promotion and Imaging, she sometimes felt disillusioned. “I didn’t want to become a part of the problem. I wanted to create imagery to sell my campaign rather than a product.” 

“I decided that an effective way to grab people’s attention was to use quotes from my peers who were regularly shopping at fast fashion brands,” she explains. Quotes like: “If something costs less than £10 I want to buy it, even if I don’t like it that much.” 

Or, “I probably won’t wear this dress again because it’s on my Instagram.” She applied them to photo-shopped garment labels, swing tickets and receipts – and the images went viral. “When you read it as an isolated statement, it’s shocking,” she says. 

These images resonate as political commentary on influencer culture and the pressure to be seen constantly in new clothes. Illing’s sharp execution spoke to people already worried about fashion waste, over-consumption and the insane pressure our social media culture puts on young women in particular to strive for the sort of glossified, celeb-worthy perfection that’s completely unattainable. Newsflash: celebrities employ professional stylists and brands lend them clothes. THEY ARE NOT ACTUALLY BUYING ALL THAT STUFF TO WEAR ONCE. More fool you, if you are! It’s bananas to try to keep up with these imaginary Jones. 

And yet that’s precisely what we’re doing, and it’s not just teenagers. According to this story in The Independent, it is “men and women aged 35 to 44… who are guilty of shopping only for the #OOTD appeal.” No wonder Illing was “confused” to see one of her pictures nicked by Forever 21 India and used as a lame joke on Instagram to celebrate wear-once culture. 

The post received more than 5,000 Likes and hundreds of negative comments. “Clearly whoever runs their account hasn’t bothered to look at the origins of the image,” says Illing.

Note that we’re not talking about the main Forever 21 America account (which has 1.6 million followers). The brand, which does a brisk business in $12 crop tops and $20 frocks, began in LA in the 1980s and entered the Indian market in 2011. I asked an Indian designer friend of mine if perhaps these clothes aren’t quite pricey there, relatively speaking, and the fast fashion charge is less relevant, and she told me: “It’s not that so much that as the fact that it’s an international name – people get excited, they want to buy into the buzz. When fast fashion was new in London it was cool, you can’t deny it.” 

She’s right; I can’t. I worked in magazines in the Noughties when all the editors were excited about the high-low mix and working $15 Primark back with Prada. “Remember when H&M came to Australia?” said my friend. “And Uniqlo? People queued around the block in excitement. That’s where India’s at with Forever 21. It takes time to change the conversation.”

We have no idea who posted Illing’s pic on Forever 21 India’s feed. It has since been removed. My guess is that an intern thought it was cute, was unaware of the debate, and cried herself to sleep when the scandal blew up. Or perhaps it was a disgruntled former employee gone rogue, as @sophieglpls wondered when I posted about it

What I do know is that the a mighty fast fashion backlash is brewing. The True Cost has been watched by millions of people, including this vlogger. Woke millennials want fashion to do better by people and planet.

As for Illing, she’s looking on the bright side. “Moments like this show that there’s a huge number of people who are sick of these companies continuing to operate in this way, and they will be called out for it,” she says. 

There was indeed a lot of outrage in the comments on the posts and reposts, but I like this gentler reaction the best: “Trends pass but style & good quality never go out of fashion & last a lot longer,” wrote @indigo_polke on Livia Firth’s post. “Invest in key pieces that define you / become part of your identity & you won’t want to part with them!” Now that’s a campaign I’d get behind.


All artwork credit Elizabeth Illing/Project Shopshop

Read Clare Press’ take on the fake debate – why it’s not cool to copy

See Clare’s Open Letter to Fashion

Listen to the Wardrobe Crisis podcast.